Sunday, April 17, 2022

Redefining city centers in the wake of COVID.

The New York Times ran a column by Ginia Bellafante this week called, "Wait, What if People Did Just Stay Home in Their Pajamas?" 

Bellafante writes that big-city mayors who are pushing the return of workers to their offices in central business districts -- in this case, New York City's Midtown and Lower Manhattan -- to "get back to normal" may be missing a different, and more sustainable, renaissance. 

Downtown office districts have been virtual ghost towns for the past two plus years, and city officials are pushing people to return to work in their high-rise office buildings, or else small businesses -- coffee shops, lunch places, food trucks, and so on -- won't survive. In essence, people are being guilt-tripped into returning to the office.

But people have become comfortable (for the most part) with working from home. Not only do their commutes no longer suck, but with the savings they've realized from sitting home in their jammies, they've been able to support businesses in their own neighborhoods. Bellafante cites as proof the hundreds of restaurant openings in Brooklyn and Queens over the past couple of years.

Hybrid work isn't going away, she says, and in fact the trend has been shifting in that direction for several years; the pandemic shutdown simply hurried it along. But city planning and governmental policies haven't yet shifted to support it.

I maintain that a big reason for it money. As alert hearth/myth readers know, I used to work in an office building in downtown Washington, DC, and I have some idea of how much corporate money has been sunk into the pricey real estate in city cores. It's a lot. A lot. If businesses largely abandon those buildings, city real estate tax revenues will crash, and we may end up with a lot of cityscapes that resemble the picture up top. (It's the background I used for the original cover of Scorched Earth, by the way.)  All those post-apocalyptic stories in which the characters poke around in abandoned cities? That scenario could be closer than we imagined. Already our suburbs are dotted with derelict shopping malls and big-box stores. Why not skyscrapers, too?

But it doesn't have to be that way. Some commenters observed that empty office buildings could be repurposed -- as housing, for one thing. Maybe the whole idea of a downtown business district needs to be rethought, to cater to people who live there, instead of office drones who only spend eight hours a day there, buying coffee and eating lunch out.

I recognize, too, that this whole discussion centers around only the lucky folks who can work from home, and not the people whose jobs have required them to show up to a physical workplace all along -- those "essential workers" who we loved when they were risking their lives to bring us groceries and teach our kids and save our family members when they were hospitalized, and who we maybe haven't thought much about since then. Even if downtown office buildings were renovated into apartments, what are the odds that essential workers could afford to live in them? I mean, does anybody build any apartments that aren't luxury units anymore?

I don't have a solution. I don't think anyone does -- not a practical one, anyway. But we're going to have to grapple with this at some point. We might as well start thinking about it now.


These moments of post-apocalyptic blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Get vaxxed! Get boosted!

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