By N. David Milder
Non Resident Downtown Employees. Three plus years after Covid19 was declared a national emergency, it seems that most of our downtowns are now pretty far into recovering from its impacts, though their recoveries are not yet complete. Even so, fears of a Doom Loop emerged grounded mainly on the negative impacts of remote work on office demand, that in turn is based on some distortedly presented data from Kastle Systems on office building worker occupancy rates. Kastle reports on metro regions, not cities though they speak of cities, and the vast majority of their buildings are in the suburbs, not downtowns. Also, when they do have some presence in a downtown, they tend to be in the second tier buildings most likely to have been made outmoded by remote work, not the most attractive and successful ones. In Manhattan for example, Kastle is not in the higher quality buildings owned by the city’s 10 largest landlords that attract the most prestigious tenants and have the highest rents. Flaming the Doom Loop fears was an academic study that showed how such a reduction in office occupancy in NYC and nationally would severely reduce property values by about 44%, with commensurate resulting reductions in municipal property tax revenues. To date, such drastic reductions have not appeared to gain much traction in NYC or nationally.
The most reliable data on remote work is from WFH Research. It shows that about 41% of the workers it sampled work totally remote (12%) or in a hybrid mode (29%). Moreover, about 33% of the paid full days were worked from home in our largest cities. So yes, remote work has reduced the number of hours office workers are in our downtowns, but most are still working there. And the 33% is far less than the 60%+ hours worked at home early in the crisis. So office workers have slowly been contributing to the recoveries of their downtowns by working more often in their downtown offices, if not at precrisis levels.
That said, the data strongly support the hypothesis that a significant amount of remote work is here to stay, and corporate execs and downtown leaders committed to achieving a 100% Return To Office (RTO) rate may be digging a ditch for themselves by fiercely fighting remote work. What they also probably overlook is that precrisis the office buildings in these large downtowns never had a 100% worker occupancy rate. An 100% rate would mean that workers were not sick, on vacation, doing their jobs by meeting externally with clients and suppliers, or working from home.
Consequently, it is really hard to understand those who continue to want a 100% RTO rate and the extinction of remote work, since evidence strongly indicates that quest is impossible to achieve, and it probably never even existed before Covid19. Certainly, one can question whether a recovery strategy primarily aimed at achieving precrisis office occupancy rates would be productive.
Furthermore, we don’t know clearly yet how that 33% reduction in paid days worked will translate into office demand. One might reasonably suspect that it makes a lot more buildings outmoded. Yet, there is a real possibility that the effects of remote work might be mitigated to a significant degree by higher SF/worker in offices reconfigured to be more attractive to workers and heighten a firm’s RTO rate.
A current primary strategic challenge for our large downtowns is how to make up for the spending and pedestrian trips of the 41% of office workers who are now working at home to a significant degree. That is what downtown leaders should now be focusing. on, not raising RTO rates.
Downtown Housing. More housing is certainly one way of doing that, but it will take a lot of time, gobs of money, new regulations, and a lot of tough politicking to achieve. It will certainly not be easy. That said, it definitely still should be done, but we now need another strategic thrust capable of producing meaningful shorter term benefits.
Downtown Visitors. To achieve more immediate results, another, and more practical, strategic thrust should be to increase downtown visitation by those who neither live nor work there. Data released by Philadelphia’s Center City District –see Figure 1 above –show that such visitors account for most downtown visitation and by a large margin. Based on the data in Table 1 that shows domestic tourism was returning very strongly at the municipal level in 19 of our largest cities and in several of their downtowns—e.g., Austin, Boston, Charlotte, San Jose, and Philadelphia – as early as October 2021, my very strong suspicion is that researchers will soon report that this pattern characterizes many other large downtowns.
Foreign and business tourism are also recovering, but at lower rates that may take some time to regain precrisis levels, if they ever do. Business travel budgets, for example, are rebounding, though reflecting in part higher travel prices. Moreover, about 17% “of corporate travel will be replaced with virtual meetings, …suggesting a degree of permanence in the shift with companies recognizing the benefits of virtual meetings ranging from cost savings to lower carbon footprints.” Still, foreign and business tourists had almost completely disappeared from our large downtowns early in the crisis, so their returns, even if at a level lower than might be desired, have been meaningfully contributing to downtown recoveries.
Strong Destinations Are Needed to Win More Visitors. My research and field visits over the past few years has led me to believe that many of our largest downtowns need to up their game when it comes to downtown visiors:
- They have been living off of their laurels and too many of the attractions downtown leaders have seen as strong and unique have in fact lost their luster and a significant amount of their magnetism.
- These old attractions/destinations now need a hard-headed assessment, and then where required they should be improved or replaced. People come downtown based on the strength and convenience of its attractions.
- Improving the programming of public spaces may be one element of such a thrust. Improving the tenants of the small shops on side streets might be another. Right now many rely primarily on retail windows to make sidewalks interesting. Can other uses capable of doing that be brought in?
- In many of these large downtowns these attractions’ ability to bring in visits by people living and working within between .25 mi and 1 mile of the core has significantly atrophied over the past 10 years or so. THESE RESIDENTS ARE NOW BEING UNDERSERVED, YET ARE WITHIN REASONABLE WALKING AND BIKING DISTANCES. They should be given priority attention.
 Steve Cuozzo. “Is NYC really doomed? Flawed rent and tax forecasts fester wild ‘apocalypse’ predictions. New York Post. July 3, 2023. https://nypost.com/2023/07/03/is-nyc-really-doomed-flawed-rent-and-tax-forecasts-fester-wild-apocalypse-predictions/?utm_campaign=iphone_nyp&utm_source=mail_app
 Gupta, Arpit and Mittal, Vrinda and Van Nieuwerburgh, Stijn, Work From Home and the Office Real Estate Apocalypse (May 15, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4124698 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4124698
 Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, Shelby Buckman, and Steven J. Davis. SWAA July 2023 Updates. WFH Research 5 July 2023 https://wfhresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/WFHResearch_updates_July2023.pdf
 N. David Milder. “How Many Residents Does it Take to Create New Functionally Diverse Downtowns – How to Think About Allocating Scarce Resources to Get There?” The American Downtown Revitalization Review. Vol 4, February 14, 2023. https://theadrr.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/MW-Edits-NDM-housing-and-office-multifucntionality.pdf
 In Placer’s calculations: “Visitor” = shopper, tourist, convention attendee, concert attendees, someone visiting a doctor, etc. Resident = Their phone sleeps in the geography most nights per week. Non-Resident Worker = Their phone sleeps in a different geography at night, but routinely comes to the same location in the defined area 3-5 days per week. I want to thank Paul Levy for generously sharing these data with me.
 Morgan Stanley. “2023 Outlook: Business Travel Bounces Back.” Dec 21, 2022. https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/business-travel-trends-2023-outlook