Remote Work Might Fix Downtown Baltimore
A December 29, 2022, New York Intelligencer article by Eric Levitz caught our attention “Remote Work Is Poised to Devastate America’s Cities. In order to survive, cities must let developers convert office buildings into housing.”
Is Baltimore ready to convert vacant and underutilized office spaces into new buildings for residential and retail use? As recently reported by the Baltimore Business Journal, two outdated hotel towers in the central business district are scheduled to be renovated into apartments. A $45 million loan for the project will convert “the vacant and outdated hotel rooms of the Radisson Hotel Baltimore Downtown-Inner Harbor and Holiday Inn Baltimore-Inner Harbor” into 708 new apartment units beginning next year. Source: bizjournals.com/baltimore
In Baltimore County, The Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors supports policies and programs that encourage the rejuvenation of the innermost ring of older suburban development. In Towson there is chatter about limiting some streets to pedestrian traffic only.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, mobile phone data is showing that, in virtually all major U.S. cities, foot traffic in central business districts is down substantially from 2019. Curiously, Baltimore seems to be an exception.
As noted by the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley, “How have downtowns recovered since the pandemic?” Data compares mobile phone locations from May 2019 with May 2022, the city of Baltimore was at 91% nearly the best measured. Compare to nearby Philadelphia at 51% or Washington DC at 65%.
How did Baltimore’s recovery manage to do so well? It’s likely because our central business district was empty before the pandemic ever began.
Levitz notes plummeting demand for commercial real-estate, translates into plummeting property values, which translates into plummeting tax receipts
thereby slashing a critical source of municipal revenues.
“The great danger for cities is that these trends could become self-reinforcing. Falling revenues could translate into lower-quality public services (e.g., less reliable subways, less well-maintained infrastructure, lower performing public schools, stingier safety nets), which render cities less attractive to high earners, who then decamp for the suburbs in greater numbers, thereby depressing revenues further. Meanwhile, underpopulated downtowns are less conducive to successful small businesses and more conducive to crime. As central business districts become home to fewer restaurants and more criminal activity, more firms will flee them, leading to even more underpopulated office towers.”
What may be a “great danger” for one city has been Baltimore’s reality for the past 30+ years. Some would say longer, but some credit is due to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor development which had a positive ripple effect on surrounding office buildings.
Levitz concludes “Major U.S. cities facing a crisis should capitalize on the one benefit of commercial real-estate’s collapse: The newfound potential to create a ton of new housing in already constructed, centrally located buildings.”
Remote work as a catalyst for repurposing office buildings into housing is also on the mind of Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. A third of the office buildings in Washington DC are used by the Federal Government.
“According to ABC News, Mayor Bowser urges Biden to end “work-from-home telework policies” for federal government workers or release vacant government buildings over to a new initiative to “move 100,000 new residents into the city.” Source: blackenterprise.com
Renovating vacant and underutilized office spaces into new buildings for residential and retail use must be contextual. It’s not enough to simply carve office towers into apartments. Placemaking is needed to make communities more livable. By activating an underused site, such as vacant plazas in office complexes, more people will want to live, work, and play in former office districts.
For the past year in Towson, Guerilla Construction has been renovating an 18,000 square foot commercial building into our company headquarters. The transformation has required bold solutions to take an aging building and turn it into a destination for diverse audiences. As repurposing commercial buildings continues to trend, we are a local firm with the in-house ability to redesign and construct creative solutions to activate forgotten spaces. Repurposing old buildings for future use can benefit us all. Is remote work poised to devastate America’s cities? Not if it creates more housing surrounded by walkable amenities.