NYC can get creative with uses for empty office space

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What would we do with a half-billion square feet of Manhattan office space if most of it remains empty? It’s the loaded question about the city’s future that not even our brightest, most optimistic minds want to touch.

We’ve been told that office buildings won’t be vacant forever. Once Omicron recedes, a trickling return to workplaces will swell into a mighty wave. Buildings might not be as full as they were pre-COVID but they’ll be full enough to sustain the city’s great commercial tax base and keep landlords from going broke.

So say real estate executives and business leaders, and so have I written many times in these pages.

But what if we’re all wrong? What happens if scary prognostications by the brilliant Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan come to pass? 

Noonan wrote last February that the pandemic brought about “the collapse of the commuter model … in the past year the owners of great businesses found how much can be done remotely. They hadn’t known that!”

She added that “they don’t have to pay that killer rent for office space anymore. People think it will all snap back when the pandemic is fully over but no, a human habit broke; a new way of operating has begun.”

What if our office towers, the pride of our skyline, turn into towering white elephants?

It's possible that some office space will need to be converted to residential buildings.
It’s possible that some office space will need to be converted to residential buildings.
Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I posed the issue to urban analysts normally eager to comment on anything from bike lanes to endangered manatees. But not even the oft-quoted Regional Plan Association would touch it. Others whom I reached out to responded to questions I hadn’t asked or changed the subject altogether.

Only the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry trade organization, tackled the more limited issue of how to accelerate conversion of second-class, older office buildings — which REBNY estimated at 220 million square feet, or about 40 percent of the total office stock — to residential use.

The group noted that the phenomenon was long underway in lower Manhattan, where tens of millions of obsolescent office spaces found new life as apartments from the late 1990s to the present day.

The whirlwind rescued magnificent but unused landmarks such as 70 Pine St. and One Wall Street as well as scores of lesser properties. It made downtown a more cohesive and viable family neighborhood, which helped the area survive the effects of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

Noting the city’s profound housing shortage, REBNY produced a batch of proposals to facilitate large-scale office-to-residential conversions. But they’d require wholesale zoning changes, state-city cooperation to provide tax subsidies, and cultural changes at city agencies such as the departments of Housing Preservation and Development, Buildings, City Planning and Finance.

REBNY wants the City Council to set up a task force to study the options. But until then, we’ll humbly suggest a few possible new future uses for some over-the-hill office properties. Landlords should roll up their sleeves now for a changed future — even if it means replacing office workers with fantasy.

The city can consider options like creating new museums or even film studios in vacant Manhattan buildings.
NYC can consider options like creating new museums or even film studios in vacant Manhattan buildings.
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Take the Garment District, which once manufactured most of America’s clothing and is now mainly home to tech, media and smaller financial firms that can’t afford fancier digs. Some buildings were upgraded to contemporary use — but a surprisingly many grimy, prewar structures remain stuck in the 1950s.

Let’s turn a few of them into something the city has long deserved: a spectacular museum where the once heavily unionized district’s role in New York history and national politics are brought back to life. Show how seamstresses lent the sewing power to clothe America’s women — and why union backing was so important to generations of Democratic candidates.

Another option is bringing Hollywood here. Why should Queens monopolize Big Apple film production? The Steiner, Kaufman Astoria and Silvercup studios are wonderful. But a full-scale Manhattan movie and TV complex would be the crown jewel in “Hollywood on the Hudson.”

Such a facility could be retrofitted inside one of Manhattan’s numerous “horizontal skyscrapers” once used as warehouses and shipping terminals. Sure, some of them are now home to companies like Google and Facebook. But with their CEOs repeatedly delaying return-to-office plans, who knows what they’ll be good for in five years?

While we’re at, let’s improve our architectural gems. More than a few 1950s and 1960s office buildings have been only modestly spiffed up (e.g., new lobbies) and some not at all. Certain properties on Third, Sixth and even Park avenues can’t compete with properties which landlords spent hundreds of millions of dollars on to bring them into the 21st century.

But their International Style curtain walls powerfully evoke the corporate mystique of the Eisenhower and “Mad Men” years, when American power and prestige were unchallenged around the globe. They’d be ideal repositories for the lore and culture of their era in New York City — when CBS, NBC and ABC ruled the airwaves, the Brooklyn Dodgers struggled against the Yankees and the Beatles took the nation by storm on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The city can also attempt to improve office buildings built decades ago.
The city can also attempt to improve office buildings built many decades ago.
C. Taylor Crothers/Getty Images

Finally, we can all use some fun. Wow, how we need fun! How about a vast, indoor amusement park, like the enclosed portion of Coney Island’s legendary Steeplechase Park.

Of course the kids’ carousels and other gentle indoor rides would need to give way to the heart-stopping, pulse-pounding thrills of today’s Scream Zone and Phoenix roller coaster. And imagine a Cyclone that can stay open year-round!

The technology’s there and the demand will never abate. All it takes is the vision to make it happen inside one of our 100-year-old, hulking brick-and-mortar goliaths where office tenants aren’t making landlords rich with $35-a-square-foot leases.

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