To understand the future of American downtowns after the pandemic, do a little experiment. If you live in an apartment, is there a place in it that is more than 30 feet from a window? Odds are there isn’t. That simple rule—that no space in an apartment, whether by code or by custom, be more than 30 feet from a window—is the key to figuring out what happens to America’s office buildings if no one wants to come back to work.
That’s far from a given. Expectations about the staying power of remote work may change dramatically once pandemic public health restrictions are lifted. But for now, lots of companies say they will require less office space going forward and be flexible about their employees’ presence there. Many business districts face the highest vacancy rates in decades, and a hundred million square feet of new supply from the pre-pandemic cycle is still coming online each quarter. As a result, commercial rents are falling.
Unlike during the early days of the pandemic, however, few people still feel that urban life itself is going out of style. This gap between flagging office demand and the out-of-control housing market suggests an obvious solution: turn offices into homes. We already turned our homes into offices—how hard could it be the other way around?