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January 25, 2021

#Newnormal: The Great Repurposing

Don’t build new.

Remember soaring city rents and shortages of housing and office space. Forget about those. That was yesterday. Downtown rents are dropping like highspeed elevators. Some urbanites are fleeing for cheaper and safer and lower tax climes. Surviving businesses are looking for ways to break their leases. Business hotels are renting themselves out as homeless shelters. Downtown retail and restaurants have a precarious future and you should be glad if you don’t own a shopping mall. Small colleges were folding before the pandemic in rural and urban areas alike; the failures have accelerated leaving dorms, classrooms, offices, and event spaces on the market. IMO these trends will continue post pandemic.

We all used to take up too much space. We still need homes, of course. May even need an extra room or two because we’re working from those homes (#WfH). But we no longer need a space of our own in an office building somewhere else. Sure, there’ll be (some) in-person meeting in the future and some collaborative projects; but those’ll be in a much smaller office or in shared space Many of us used to leave both our office space and our home space empty while we took frequent business trips. We know now that we don’t need nearly so many trips and homes away from home to stay in. We’ll travel more than we’re doing now, especially to see family and see the world, but far fewer meetings and trade shows on the other side of the country or the ocean. Frugal businesses – the survivors – aren’t going to pay for them.

Hard to see why anyone would build a new office building when need for space is contracting as more and more employees work from home more of the time. If tremendous growth is forcing expansion, there are great bargains available in existing buildings. Even if space on the market doesn’t exactly meet the need, buying or renting something at ultra-cheap prices and refitting is the way to go. Even if there are penalties for canceling a project which is already far along, the economic justification needs rethinking in the new normal. Those who had the forethought to build flexibly with movable partitions are already benefitting. Any refits should be done with our new knowledge of how quickly things can change.

What about new residences? There is still a shortage of “affordable” housing in urban areas. However, existing urban rentals and condos are getting cheaper by the month. Rents will fall even faster when the various eviction moratoriums end. Landlords haven’t had any incentive to reduce rents which are being paid by government rather than the tenants or aren’t being paid at all. People who work from home can move away from the city. Those who choose to stay will have a better selection of housing. Should there still be demand for urban housing, let the conversions begin. The place to start is hotels and dorms. Office buildings are next.

We are only limited by our imagination. @RoxieMoxie tweeted this very smart reply to a tweet of mine: “I can see a software company turning an office building into a ‘company town’ where workers can live near office areas with high-speed scanners/copiers yet do most of their work in their own residential units. Fitness clubs, parklets, etc.”

We are only limited by our imagination… and by zoning laws. The best thing governments can do to speed the recovery is a great loosening of zoning laws so conversions can proceed without endless delay. In some cities changing offices to residences can be near impossible because of zoning. Restrictive zoning has been used far too long by the #NIMBY crowd - liberal and conservative - to keep “them” out of “our” neighborhood. We have a good opportunity to promote both social justice and economic recovery at the same time by removing these obstacles to repurposing.

There may be reason to build new factories to produce new goods or to produce goods further from less populous cities, but repurposing is an option to gain manufacturing space as well. Shopping malls and their huge parking lots are available throughout the country There is a market for new residences away from the cities. Dormitory, office, and hotel repurposing will supply much of the multifamily demand; but single-family houses are being built and selling for good prices here in Vermont. Many of our new residents still work for the same employers; they’re just not taking up office space anymore.

Those who don’t adapt to the #newnormal will perish economically. Sticking to a plan that made sense pre-pandemic may be the dumbest thing anyone can do now. Taking advantage of the way things are and the way things are gonna be is the formula for success for a family, a business, a government, or a non-profit. NOT building new is almost always the right answer. Repurposing is the “plastics” of today.

More posts on the new normal are at https://blog.tomevslin.com/newnormal/.

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