The battle to avoid wasting America’s downtowns: ‘This appears to be like like a gradual demise’ | USA

Benson Jewelers had been in the “middle” jewelry business in Washington since 1939. A few weeks ago, the business that Ken Stein inherited from his father was forced to close the store it had occupied on F Street since 2007. a stone’s throw from the White House. There were various reasons, Stein said on his last day in the now-empty store: Times have changed — “women prefer to spend money on travel, not rings” — but the last straw was “the pandemic, teleworking and the fact That officials haven’t returned to office yet.” Last Christmas, a time that accounts for half of the store’s revenue, it made just $60,000. The rent alone was $11,000 a month for 100 square meters. Stein admits that Washington has never had anything like a vibrant downtown. “But this is different: this looks like a slow death.”

In this block alone, a bank, a restaurant, two clothing stores and a discounter have disappeared in recent months. Jae, whose supermarket is struggling, says the rate at which tenants are leaving has been steady. The crisis is so acute that the city’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser began her third term in January with a plan to add 650,000 square feet of housing and attract 15,000 new residents to downtown by 2028. But Bowser’s plan faces post-pandemic reality: Many government employees, who make up a third of inner-city workers, aren’t enthusiastic about the prospect of a full return to an office-hour schedule. The Joe Biden administration appears unwilling to risk its lack of political capital in a showdown with the unions, and the Republican Party is beginning to lose patience: In February, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation to returning federal employees to office and “addressing the unproductive problems that arise from remote working.” They called it the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems Act, or SHOW UP.

The debate about the future of America’s inner cities is neither unique nor new to the capital: the issue has been present for more than six decades and has spanned a range of crises, from rising crime to bankruptcy, homelessness and opiates to rampant inequality and gentrification, Racial segregation, urban zoning, and the rise of mall culture. The pandemic has exacerbated many of these problems, but most importantly, it has given remote work an exponential boost.

US cities that based their model on an abundance of office workers are now suffering the consequences of this decision. “They were ruthlessly organized around efficiency, and that made them less resilient,” says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City (2011), a retrospective on the history of “one of mankind’s greatest creations.” argues, has contributed to human well-being, intellectual advancement, and economic growth.

A homeless man in downtown San Francisco last November.Carlo Rosillo

Glaeser released a sequel of sorts, Survival of the City, 10 years later. Co-authored with colleague David Cutler, it is subtitled “Living and Prospering in the Age of Isolation”. They wrote it based on the idea that the great story of the cities that have overcome their trials and tribulations is also the story of their victories over the pandemics of the past. In the book, they ask how to recover from the last one. And the answer they give is optimism.

“The coronavirus pandemic was a painful process,” says Glaeser during a video conference interview with EL PAÍS from his office at the university, which he has been visiting regularly since summer 2021. “But it cannot be compared to others: for example, Justinian’s plague, which drove the final nail into the coffin of the Roman Empire. Recovery in some parts of Europe took a millennium. It won’t be like that this time. Cities fight back. And they always fight back.” Alongside Glaeser and Cutler, an army of urban planners, economists, geographers and other experts are busy debating whether this is a full-blown 1970s-style crisis or the end of the whiplash caused by the financial crisis of 2008.

A group of such experts created the Downtown Recovery Project, a study of 52 US and 10 Canadian cities with populations of more than 350,000. In addition to the usual metrics (percentage of vacant offices, public transport usage and retail spending), they added human activity analysis based on cell phone tracking. From this they extracted a percentage that compares life before the pandemic – the standard for which is 100% – and after. Mid-sized cities have fared better thanks to telecommuting, favorable taxation and a greater supply of large houses with space for a home office, although real estate pressures still displace many of their residents.

Of the inner cities examined, only four, all of them medium-sized, exceed the 100 percent threshold. Leading the rankings is Salt Lake City, Utah, with a 135% recovery rate in 2019. Washington is at 73%, while San Francisco scored 31%. “Salt Lake City has become a technology and innovation cluster,” says Tracy Loh, a researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “These industries invite you to cluster, often in just a few buildings. The key is to build domiciles near these buildings. The biggest driver of telecommuting is living far away. Analyzes show that shortening the distance to work increases the desire to go to the office. If it’s near you, you might prefer to get some fresh air.”

An office building in Washington last FebruaryAndrew Harrer Bloomberg

San Francisco’s bad planning

But what about Washington and San Francisco? Both rank low in terms of office occupancy at just over 40%, according to New York security firm Kastle’s weekly updated Getting America Back to Work report. Indicators used by Kastle include consumption of the large blue bottles used in water dispensers. “San Francisco is paying the consequences of poor policy decisions. Before the pandemic, it had many more jobs, around 100,000, than housing, which was around zero. It’s a very good example of the mistake of not building apartments next to offices,” says Loh. “The problem in Washington is that downtown is the region’s most important job center [which includes parts of the states of Maryland and Virginia]. It’s full of government employees and other workers who live in another jurisdiction. Teleworking is widespread; the streets are empty.”

Mayor Bowser plans to change that by building apartments, but also converting some of the now vacant, impersonal office buildings into apartments. It will not be an easy task. “It’s easier to repurpose the older, smaller, European-style ones for residential use. The larger ones built since the 1980s are much more expensive. They don’t have enough windows or the necessary plumbing for each apartment to have its own bathroom,” says Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, once known as the “prophet of telecommuting” until one day, in March 2020, a plague hit and all fulfilled his prophecies at once. “It will take time to clear excess inventory as 30% of offices in the United States are currently vacant. The solution is that a lot of space is left empty, no new space is built and the excess is eventually absorbed.”

Bloom also predicts that restaurants and shops that served workers who now only show up “two or three days a week” are facing strained times. “Spending is down 50% and has moved to the suburbs so you have to expect 30% of those businesses to close. Over the next five to 10 years, telecommuting will continue to grow because the technology that drives it will improve: I’m thinking holograms, augmented and virtual reality… We’re in a process of adaptation.” In the short term, Bloom says, it will be for all related jobs, like Benson Jewelers, can be painful. “But in the long run, it’s a positive, natural process of creative destruction.” What to do in the meantime? Loh is in the process of publishing a scholarly paper outlining possible remedies: “Build homes; invest in security given that crime has increased since 2019; create quality public spaces and pedestrian zones; reinventing public transport so badly affected by Covid; invest in growth industries that can fill offices and create hotspots for visitors.”

Paradoxically, the picture that emerges from connecting all these points resembles a European city. Is this recipe compatible with the ideal of suburban living that is inseparable from the American Dream? “That has to be. Surveys show that Millennials and Gen Z prefer to live in walkable communities with access to services,” says Glaeser. “The city of the future must be more life- and enjoyment-oriented than productivity-oriented. What will save inner cities is that people want to enjoy them, go out and socialize. European cities were better prepared for this in the past.”

A station on the Washington subway. Al Drago (Bloomberg)

The entertainment equation

Lynne Sagalyn, a real estate expert at Columbia University, agrees that downtime will be an important part of the recovery plan. “It’s already happening. When you drive downtown in a city like New York, it is very difficult to find a table in a restaurant. You see a lot of young people. They hang out there to have a social life that Zoom doesn’t offer them. This shows that inner cities represent more than just the health of their office markets.”

Sagalyn wrote a landmark study in the early 1990s entitled Downtown Inc. How America Rebuilds Cities, in which she detailed how private entrepreneurship pulled American cities out of the hole. She’s also optimistic: if it was doable then, it’s doable now, she says, pointing out that cities “have been dying for about 10,000 years.”

A century after the golden age of downtown America, from Tulsa to Detroit and from Los Angeles to Columbus, it remains to be seen how long it will be before Petula Clark’s 1964 pop classic, The Light’s So Much Heller There / You, comes true again can forget all your worries, forget all your worries / so go downtown / things will be great when you’re downtown / there sure isn’t a nicer place downtown / everything’s waiting for you.

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