Office Development — We now have all the office space we need

For several years now, I have been arguing that a New Normal has emerged for our downtowns and that the business operators, landlords, developers and district leaders who do not recognize that they must adapt to that fact are likely to face severe economic losses. My recently reported research on multichannel retailing (see my last blog posting below) combined with some some recent news items about movie attendance, housing and office development have strongly confirmed my argument.  This posting will focus on office development.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s office development was seen as the economic engine that would drive downtown revitalization in such major cities as Richmond VA, Charlotte NC, Cleveland OH, Philadelphia PA, Seattle WA. Los Angeles CA, etc. Office development primed revitalization efforts were also mounted in smaller cities such as  New Brunswick NJ,  (population 55,181) and White Plains NY  (population 56,853) and in suburban communities such as Morristown NJ (population 18,457), and Garden City NY (population 22,371). 

Many of these office driven revitalization efforts failed to achieve their goals and the downtowns had to add residential, retail and entertainment components to their revitalization strategies. Nevertheless, office development has remained a critical revitalization asset for many downtowns.

A recent article in  CoStar’s e-newsletter reported on the major findings of a symposium of office development experts convened by BOMA. A summary of their findings should put downtown leaders on notice:

“We already have all the office space we likely will need…. But to remain competitive, the existing stock of commercial real estate must be reconfigured to keep pace with an increasingly mobile, Internet-connected workforce; ongoing changes in technology, and to support the way companies are structuring their staffs to foster more collaboration and efficiency, while also addressing the values and attitudes of new generations of workers.”

Increased telecommuting, flexible work schedules, the untethering of workers from desks to enhance collaboration and increase face-a-face client contacts have combined to increase employee density in major office buildings and reduce the demand for office space. For today’s office worker, according to one of these experts, the ideal situation may be:

(W)here you go into the office two or three days per week and work remotely the other days, which reduces our carbon footprint by 20% – 40% and has a huge impact on improved quality of life.”

The potential negative impacts of the New Normal’s static demand for office space are:

    • Fewer new downtown office buildings will be built


  • Existing downtown office buildings that are not configured to meet the new work habits of office workers will have languishing leasing efforts. A lot of existing downtown office buildings may have to be renovated if they are to be competitive
  • Downtown retailers and eateries will have a significantly reduced office worker market because the telecommuters and flex-timers will spend much less time in the district.



Of course, downtowns also too often suffer from the fact that major office tenants provide incentives (cafeterias, subsidized meals and concierge services) and work pressures to keep their employees from leaving the building at lunchtime. Furthermore, the retailing many downtowns is often too weak to motivate substantial office worker patronage.

But, there is a potential upside for downtowns that can provide a dynamic, experience-rich environment. As the CoStar article notes:

“The lesson for companies (and the investors and building owners who want to have them as tenants) is that younger workers prefer to work in a more dynamic, experience-rich environment, such as an urban- type setting offering different entertainment, cultural and transportation options.”

Dynamic downtowns will consequently continue to have a distinct advantage in a highly competitive office market, while listless downtowns will probably be weaker competitors than ever.

The CoStar article can be found at:

N. David Milder 011312

The Arc of a Niche: The Bowery’s Home Lighting Niche

The key intersection for The Bowery’s home lighting niche, which is about 50 years old.

The Bowery Mission, a remnant of a famed, if unsavory, past

Some home lighting shops on The Bowery 1 

Some home lighting shops on The Bowery 2

Some home lighting shops on The Bowery 3 

My initial thinking about retail niches was greatly influenced by my experiences shopping for antiques in Waynesville, OH and for lamps in shops along The Bowery in Lower Manhattan. It has been almost 50 years since I made my initial visits to these places. Their antiques and home lighting niches still exist, though they have changed over the years. 

Waynesville is about 600 miles away, so I have not been there in many years. But, a few years ago, I did some telephone interviews. Though the antiques niche there reportedly remains strong, it has changed because the industry as a whole has changed. Two significant changes are: 1) a lot of merchandise is sold on consignment in large antique malls, where the dealers do not have to be personally on site and 2) internet sales.
The Bowery is much closer to home, about an hour away via public transportation.  When I first visited the area, back in the 1950s, it was best known for its run down bars with cheap drinks, poor alcoholics down on their luck and a collection of flop houses. When I next returned to the area in the 1960s it was to look for lamps in a cluster of home lighting stores. By the late1980s,  this home lighting niche had grown enormously, with most shops between Houston Street and Canal St seeming to sell home lighting merchandise. On a visit in the 1990s I estimated there were between 75 and 100 ships in this niche. My wife and I felt that too many them appeared to be indistinguishable from each other in size and merchandise and that consequently the whole niche seemed less attractive.
Since then the neighborhood has changed significantly. Property values have increased and so have the commercial rents. The Bowery is showing signs of gentrification. The cheap bars and SROs are long gone. Chinatown has expanded enormously. 
The merchants have also changed. The number of home lighting shops is now back down to about 20 and they are clustered on a two block stretch going south from Delancey Street. A restaurant kitchen equipment niche has emerged.
The largest and best known home lighting shops are among those that remain. Though much reduced in numbers, the niche is still relatively strong. A 50 year run is not bad for a retail niche and it certainly is not yet over. The niche remains a regional draw for shoppers looking for home lighting.
I hypothesize that the contraction of this niche was due to a collection of factors:
  • Rents became unaffordable for most of the small, marginal shops. Given the huge increases in Manhattan’s retail rents it is doubtful that the borough will ever again see a retail niche of the size this home lighting niche reached.
  • Some shops just aged out — the owners retired and their businesses ended with their departures
  • Too many of the shops could not differentiate themselves except on price — and many could not afford to compete in this manner
  • A new niche was competing for the available retail spaces.

It is also fair to say that this niche has helped revitalize a badly decayed, disreputable area.


An Expanded Notion of Commercial Nodes

Over the years, I have often been analytically frustrated by geographically fragmented downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, not knowing what to call and how to define the fragmented parts. In recent assignments in Morristown, NJ and and Long Island City, NY, I have used an expanded notion of a commercial node to address this problem and found it is a heuristically useful solution.

To my ken, the term commercial node is usually applied to a commercial agglomeration around an important intersection. While often useful for smaller districts, its application is usually more problematical in larger districts where the fragmented pieces of a district can occupy a cluster of several blocks or a substantial part of linear street corridor.

Also, since a commercial node functions as a socio-economic entity with supply and demand aspects, it often is not only useful to look at the business operations in a particular cluster, but also at their potential customers who are located within a reasonable walking distance.

The map above shows three of what we are calling extended commercial nodes in Long Island City. Each is composed of a commercial corridor, but also has a 0.25 mile band around the corridor. The corridor is where most commercial activities are located; the band is a 5 minute walk shed for residential shoppers, office workers, etc.

The three corridor segments are geographically quite detached, but the walk shed bands overlap. This shows both the overall district’s dispersion and the connections between the nodes.