Roman Mars [00:00:02] This episode is brought to you by Starfield. Embark on an epic journey through the stars in Bethesda Game Studios first new universe in over 25 years. In this next generation role playing game, you decide who you are and what you will become. The most important story is the one that you tell. Captain your own ship as you venture through the settled systems, exploring over 1,000 planets while unraveling humanity’s greatest mystery. For all, into the Starfield. Visit www.starfieldgame.com to learn more and preorder. Rated M for mature. Every kid learns differently. So, it’s really important that your children have the educational support that they need to help them keep up and excel. If your child needs homework help, check out IXL, the online learning platform for kids. IXL covers math, language arts, science, and social studies through interactive practice problems from pre-K to 12th grade. As kids practice, they get positive feedback and even awards. With the school year ramping up, now is the best time to get IXL. Our listeners can get an exclusive 20% off IXL membership when they sign up today and ixl.com/invisible. That’s the letters ixl.com/invisible. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Last spring, the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, held a press conference at a construction site in Lower Manhattan.
Eric Adams [00:01:26] Thank you. Thank you so much.
Roman Mars [00:01:28] He was there to promote a major pillar in his housing plan.
Eric Adams [00:01:31] We must be a city of yes. We have to think differently, and we have to lean into how do we have a different approach to housing.
Chris Berube [00:01:41] Adams was wearing a hardhat and a windbreaker that said “Mayor Eric Adams” on it. And he wasn’t speaking at any regular old construction site.
Roman Mars [00:01:49] That’s producer Chris Berube.
Chris Berube [00:01:52] Mayor Adams was giving his speech in a former office tower. A few years ago, this building was filled with cubicles and polymer desks and copy machines–and most importantly, thousands of white-collar workers. But during the pandemic, the workers stopped coming in, and this 24-story building sat largely empty.
Roman Mars [00:02:11] So today, the building is being renovated. And by next summer, it’s going to be filled with over 500 new apartments.
Chris Berube [00:02:18] Right now in Manhattan, 18% of office space is vacant. At the same time, the city of New York has a major housing problem with more than 100,000 people using the municipal shelter system. So, Eric Adams and city officials are talking a lot about taking those empty offices and filling them up with people.
Eric Adams [00:02:38] The bottom line is we must make it easier to convert office buildings like the one we just bought into housing for New Yorkers. It makes it clear what we can do with more of our vacant office buildings. You know, we’re talking about millions of square feet of office space.
Chris Berube [00:02:57] The Adams administration actually launched a task force to look into this idea on a big scale. Leading the task force is Dan Garodnick. He’s the director of New York’s Department of City Planning, and he’s excited about the concept.
Dan Garodnick [00:03:10] Everybody knows… Either it’s themselves or their friends or family who are working differently than they did before the pandemic. Everybody knows somebody who’s paying way too much for rent–can’t find a suitable apartment for them or their family. Using those office buildings as a way to take a dent out of that problem–it makes a whole lot of sense.
Roman Mars [00:03:36] New York is not the only big city where this is happening. There’s talk of office to housing conversions in Chicago and LA and Philadelphia and Atlanta and Toronto and actually pretty much every big city in North America. Office to housing conversions are a hot idea right now. They’ve always been a favorite hobbyhorse for urbanists. But after the pandemic, the idea hit the mainstream.
Chris Berube [00:04:00] And hearing about it, I have to admit I got pretty excited because things–they are not good right now. In most big cities, there’s a housing crisis. And empty office buildings are creating a different crisis, known to urbanists as a “doom loop.” That’s when empty office towers have this domino effect that leads to lower property taxes, which hurts city services. And they kill life downtown, which affects other businesses. It sounds bad. Doom loop! Converting an office into housing–well, it solves all these problems using one piece of property. I mean, this solution just seems so obvious–so elegant. But for all the hype around this idea, I discovered there are surprisingly few projects actually underway. And many developers just don’t want to get involved. I had to find out why not.
Roman Mars [00:04:51] Architects, urban planners, and superfans of office conversions talk a lot about adaptive reuse. That’s when you take a building and use it for something different from its original purpose. Proponents of adaptive reuse love to cite Stewart Brand and his book and BBC miniseries, How Buildings Learn.
Stewart Brand [00:05:09] What I’m really interested in is not architecture–it’s buildings. The problem with architecture is that it’s allergic to time because architects keep being asked to create lasting monuments frozen in time. But buildings have no such presumption. Buildings live in time the same way we do.
Chris Berube [00:05:28] One of Brand’s big ideas is that all buildings are predictions for what the future will be like. And those predictions are usually wrong. The basic functions and uses of most buildings change in pretty radical ways over their lifespans.
Stewart Brand [00:05:42] A learning building is one that keeps being improved and refined until it reaches an adapted state. But an adapted state is not an end state. Even the best of buildings has to be refreshed and challenged from time to time, or it becomes a beautiful corpse.
Roman Mars [00:05:58] Big cities have a lot of these beautiful corpses at the moment. And fans of adaptive reuse want these buildings to become housing. And that’s because the greenest building is one that’s already built.
Chris Berube [00:06:10] And for this kind of office reuse, you have the potential to create new housing without riling up the people who already live close by.
Emily Badger [00:06:18] It’s appealing, too, because, you know, if we were to convert a lot of downtown offices in particular into housing, that doesn’t raise a lot of the concerns around gentrification and neighborhood opposition that you would get from building new housing.
Chris Berube [00:06:34] Emily Badger is a reporter for The Upshot at The New York Times.
Emily Badger [00:06:38] And fundamentally, at the end of the day, you know, we’re really not sort of changing the fundamental nature of how a property or a block or a neighborhood looks to people who are walking by. You’re just sort of changing the activity that’s happening inside of the building.
Chris Berube [00:06:54] New development without riling up neighborhood opposition? I mean, that sounds great. So, is it really possible the future of housing has been right there this whole time, towering between a parking lot and a Sweetgreen? I wanted to find out and to see an office to residential conversion up close.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:07:15] Hey. You, Joey? Hi. I’m Chris.
Joey Chilelli [00:07:16] Good to meet you. How are you?
Chris Berube [00:07:19] I actually got to visit the same building in New York’s financial district where Eric Adams did his press conference. It’s a construction site on Water Street in Lower Manhattan. And from the street, you can see the facade changing. The old curtain glass on the outside is being replaced by these big windows separated by light gray sills. Getting there, I realized pretty quickly, an active construction site is maybe not the best place for a podcast interview. I also discovered I’m afraid of open walled elevators. Oh, and I had no idea how to fasten the hard hat.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:07:53] It’s embarrassing, but what do I have to do with the hat to get it to sort of stick? Am I doing okay?
Joey Chilelli [00:07:59] Is it too tight or too loose?
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:08:00] It’s a little loose, it feels like. Yeah.
Chris Berube [00:08:02] After establishing my obvious experience on construction sites and my total comfort with the situation, I sat down with two of the people leading the water street conversion effort. They’re actually part of the same team who owned the building back when it was an office tower.
Malek Hajar [00:08:16] The two anchor tenants were insurance and health and medical companies. So it was, you know, 2,000 to 3,000 people coming in daily.
Chris Berube [00:08:26] This is Malek Hajar. Malek is the project manager for this building. And before that, he was the property manager when it was still an office.
Malek Hajar [00:08:35] It was these older, you know, 1980s, ’90s cubicles and with the corner offices and the carpet and the fluorescent lighting. And it is just hard to even picture that this was even here before.
Chris Berube [00:08:47] Malek says he misses the old office tenants, but he’s excited for the new apartments to open up. He’s actually planning to live here after the construction is finished.
Malek Hajar [00:08:56] I will live here.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:08:57] You’re going to live here?
Malek Hajar [00:08:58] I’ve been here for six years, and I gotta see it through when it’s done. Yeah.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:09:02] Wow. Okay.
Malek Hajar [00:09:02] You got to stand by your product.
Chris Berube [00:09:05] Malek and his colleague, Joey Chilelli, work for a development company called the VanBarton Group. They also developed the property next door, which used to be offices and now it’s residential. And they’re hoping to do lots of conversions like this in the future. They work on all kinds of construction projects, but they don’t talk about this building like a regular construction project. They talk about it like a mission.
Joey Chilelli [00:09:28] What we’re doing here is impactful. It’s huge.
Chris Berube [00:09:31] That’s Joey.
Joey Chilelli [00:09:32] And doing our part for the overall greater good and the sustainability goals and environmental goals for the city.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:09:41] So in terms of what you have–where we’re going–we are now we’re going to a finished unit.
Joey Chilelli [00:09:45] Yeah, we’ll go down to the third floor and we’ll go to our finished mockup.
Chris Berube [00:09:50] In theory, these conversions make a lot of sense. But walking around the Water Street construction site, it became obvious to me these projects are more complicated than swapping out one kind of tenant for another. And for all those folks who just want to take empty office towers and fill them with condos, they really have their work cut out for them.
Roman Mars [00:10:12] In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand talks about how for a building to be long lasting, it needs to be flexible. A great example of this are old Victorian townhouses in San Francisco. Stewart Brand talks about how these townhouses often find second lives as apartments.
Stewart Brand [00:10:29] On each floor, there are three to six rooms, so the houses are easy to divide into two or three flats, one per floor. The rooms are modest in size and unspecified in function. These houses offer boundless flexibility.
Chris Berube [00:10:45] An office building, by contrast, does not have the same boundless flexibility. At the Water Street site, there were all these bare wires and steel beams everywhere. It looked like they were gutting the building.
Emily Badger [00:10:58] It’s definitely a massive, massive undertaking.
Chris Berube [00:11:01] New York Times reporter Emily Badger.
Emily Badger [00:11:03] You know, if people who are advocating for this are envisioning, you know, we just need to throw up a few more walls and install some new toilets, that is not at all what we’re talking about.
Roman Mars [00:11:13] Office conversions are a ton of work because most office buildings aren’t designed in the same way you design an apartment building. And that means you have to do a lot of renovation.
Chris Berube [00:11:23] For example…
Emily Badger [00:11:24] You need to have, like, 50 bathrooms–50 small bathrooms–on a floor where you used to have, like, two very large bathrooms. So, you only have bathrooms and plumbing in one location, and now you need to, like, distribute it throughout the rest of the building.
Roman Mars [00:11:39] To fix this, developers have to redo the plumbing. And of course, they also have to reckon with parking.
Emily Badger [00:11:45] Maybe now the municipality says you have to have a certain parking requirement because it’s an apartment building and, like, do you have the capacity to put a parking garage space in the basement?
Chris Berube [00:12:00] So no. Sadly, you cannot just throw up walls and call it a day. The Water Street development was a clear reflection of how much labor was required for these conversions.
Joey Chilelli [00:12:11] The inside is a new building. Everything is brand new. We’ve replaced everything, and we took it down to the structure. Brand new building on the inside, and it’ll look brand new on the outside as well.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:12:26] I mean, in that case… I know it’s a conversion–I know it’s an adaptive reuse–but, like, is it? It sounds like it’s a new building.
Joey Chilelli [00:12:33] True.
Chris Berube [00:12:34] Joey confirmed to me they could reuse the foundation and the concrete floors and… I mean, that’s pretty big. But most everything else is new. He did add this project was still cheaper than a totally new building.
Joey Chilelli [00:12:46] The amount of material that would be required and time to reconstruct the structure itself–all of the concrete and the steel–it’s really utilizing those same bones that are good bones. Reusing those and just changing everything else.
Chris Berube [00:13:04] The developers took me down to a model apartment, and I have to say it was really nice. Beautiful views–just all new amenities. The only indications it was an old office building were the high ceilings and the very big doors.
Joey Chilelli [00:13:19] We went with eight-foot doors. Really makes it more grand. A lot of typical residential buildings go with 7′ or even 7’6″.
Chris Berube [00:13:29] Maybe the biggest complication when you’re doing an office to apartment conversion is the floor plate. Architects use the term “floor plate” to describe the size of the area inside the walls of each story of the building. So, you know, the size of the floor. And there was a time when a residential floor plate and one for an office building were basically identical.
Emily Badger [00:13:50] It used to be the case, you know, a hundred years ago that we built office buildings in America that were shaped very similar to apartment buildings. You know, they were very narrow. You know, many of them were rectangular in shape.
Roman Mars [00:14:06] At the time, most of these buildings were relatively narrow because all light and ventilation came from windows. And every office worker needed to be close to one.
Emily Badger [00:14:14] So these really old office buildings that were sort of built with these same constraints that residential buildings are built with today–they make for great conversion prospects because fundamentally the shape of them is similar.
Chris Berube [00:14:25] But post-World War II, offices got some upgrades, like air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. And suddenly office workers didn’t need to be sitting next to a window all the time. So, office floor plates got a lot bigger.
Roman Mars [00:14:41] Today, office buildings tend to have much wider, deeper floor plates than apartments, which means there’s a lot of interior space that’s pretty far from a window. And that makes conversions really complicated, unless you want a bunch of apartment units with zero access to natural light.
Emily Badger [00:14:57] Many cities–including New York–have a legal requirement that bedrooms have access to operable windows. Like, you literally have to be able to open it and get fresh air inside.
Roman Mars [00:15:10] This means developers working on office to apartment conversions are left with a bunch of empty space in the middle of these buildings. Some developers just put amenities in there, like gyms or media rooms.
Emily Badger [00:15:21] So, like, the game room will be located somewhere like that. But you don’t need, like, 20 floors of game rooms in a modern apartment building. But that’s sort of fundamentally at the center of this conversion problem. It’s like, “What do you do with interior space that’s just not a nice place to live?”
Chris Berube [00:15:42] At the Water Street site, VanBarton had a different idea. They would take all that interior space and just wall it off.
Joey Chilelli [00:15:50] So what you’ll see inside is we cut out a series of three voids–so they’re basically blind shafts–into the floor plate.
Chris Berube [00:15:58] A blind shaft is this void in the center of the building that’s inaccessible to tenants. The voids are actually useful for Joey and his company because zoning limits the square footage for an apartment building. But the voids don’t count, so they can take that unused square footage and just build new floors on top.
Joey Chilelli [00:16:16] If we deducted here, we could then reallocate it elsewhere. So, we took this kind of unusable, very much less valuable space at the back end of the unit from there and took it and put it up at the top of the building where it’s much more valuable.
Chris Berube [00:16:33] Okay. Some builders are willing to put in the effort and do something with this unusable middle space and adapt the building for reuse. I mean, come on. What’s a few voids between friends? Even if a builder makes it this far, they’re going to find a whole new set of problems. And that’s a big old pile of red tape.
Emily Badger [00:16:52] Converting a building from an office to an apartment–because it’s a use change–sort of triggers your need to now comply with, like, a totally different regulatory regime than the one under which the building was built.
Chris Berube [00:17:03] It kind of goes without saying, but office buildings follow a different set of rules than housing.
Emily Badger [00:17:09] You know, we just have all of these rules that govern the built environment in cities. And, you know, those rules often don’t envision converting offices into housing. And so, it turns out to be incredibly difficult to convert from one use to another and do it in a legal manner.
Roman Mars [00:17:29] There are many bylaws and rules that keep people alive, like fire codes. We like those. But New York has a very particular hurdle that’s preventing conversions. In big parts of the city, commercial buildings constructed after a certain year are not eligible to be fully converted into housing. Here’s Dan Garodnick.
Dan Garodnick [00:17:48] In New York City, for most buildings, that date is 1961. If you were built before 1961 and you’re in a zone which allows for residential, you can convert. And if you’re not, you’re out of luck.
Roman Mars [00:18:05] This rule is known as the cutoff year. And the cutoff year is in place because… I mean, you know, somebody must have had some good reason at some point.
Chris Berube [00:18:15] When I first read about this, I did not really understand why New York has this rule. And to be honest, I still don’t.
Emily Badger [00:18:23] This is an argument that was given to me by someone, which I don’t find very convincing, so it’s not going to be very convincing to you either. But we don’t want developers sort of building things where they’re telling us it’s an office building, but they’re really planning for it to be a residential building in five years. And I actually am not sure what the problem with that is.
Chris Berube [00:18:42] There are neighborhoods in New York that have exceptions–like the financial district, where the conversion deadline is 1977 instead of 1961. But in most of the city, conversions are just really hard. Joey Chilelli told me that these rules make it very, very difficult to even find candidates for these conversions.
Joey Chilelli [00:19:02] There’s a lot of product that was built after ’77 and definitely after ’61 that is now in this kind of gray space. A lot of 1980s builds. We own the building right across the street, 175 Water.
Chris Berube [00:19:18] That other building was built after 1977, which is the cutoff here in this neighborhood. So, the conversion didn’t happen. The cutoff year is this confusing piece of bureaucracy. But in August, the city announced a plan to change this rule–to move up the cutoff year–in the hopes it would spur more conversions, especially in midtown Manhattan.
Roman Mars [00:19:39] While New York developers are waiting for changes to the cutoff year’s rule. There are other rules about apartments that no one wants to do away with. In fact, most of the red tape around apartments comes from the era of dangerous tenement buildings in the 19th century. In big cities like New York, new immigrants would move into unsanitary apartments without access to sunlight and fresh air and toilets. New laws were adopted in the early 20th century to protect poor renters. Again, we like these regulations.
Chris Berube [00:20:10] In many ways, New York is a special case. Like, other cities just do not have this weird cutoff year thing. But every city has its own set of issues and its own set of onerous rules when it comes to converting offices into apartments.
Emily Badger [00:20:25] In many communities in California, the seismic requirements that you are expected to meet for an apartment building are different and more stringent than they are for an office. And so, if you want to successfully convert a building, you literally have to, you know, reinforce the entire structure of the building to make it more structurally sound in the event of an earthquake. Or, you know, in places in the south where there’s a lot of concerns about hurricanes, now you need to comply with the wind load ratings that we expect of buildings in 2023, not in 1960 when that building was built. And now you have to, you know, completely redo the glazing and everything on the building, like that’s adding an enormous amount of expense.
Chris Berube [00:21:16] I noticed something else about office conversions walking around the Water Street construction site. It was while Joey was excitedly telling me about all of the amenities he was planning for this building.
Joey Chilelli [00:21:26] We’re going to have a two-lane bowling alley, a sportsbook room with a giant 12 foot by eight-foot TV… And then we’ll have a very expensive gym with Technogym equipment. We’ll have a spa and hot tub with a cold plunge and treatment rooms.
Chris Berube [00:21:45] The amenities sounded great, but the more I heard about them, the more it sounded like this apartment building might be a little out of my price range.
Chris Berube (field tape) [00:21:55] I wonder, like, when this is open, what’s it going to rent for? Like, what are the units going to be?
Joey Chilelli [00:22:01] It really ranges. I’d say anywhere from maybe 3,500 to 4,000 on a studio to 4,500 to 5,500 or up to 6,000 on a one bed. And then a two bed–anywhere from 6,500 or 7,000 on up.
Chris Berube [00:22:24] With all of the expense of making a conversion like this, the units are going to be available at the market rate, which in New York is quite expensive. In Manhattan right now, the average apartment is over $4,500. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of competition to live here. But right now, New York is dealing with many people who can’t afford it. Here’s Dan Garodnick.
Dan Garodnick [00:22:46] Certainly at the lower end of the spectrum, you know, our vacancy rate for the lowest rent units of under $1,500 a month is less than 1%. We have a real supply problem overall, where 50% of New Yorkers are rent burdened, which means they pay more than a third of their income on rent.
Chris Berube [00:23:09] I guess, like a lot of people, I was hoping all this talk of office conversions helping to fight the housing crisis meant fighting the affordable housing crisis. Actually, Eric Adams talked about affordable housing during his press conference.
Eric Adams [00:23:24] We’re going to remain the greatest city in the world by building housing and affordable housing. And we must remain a place where everyday people can find housing.
Roman Mars [00:23:33] One journalist in the room challenged Mayor Adams about his use of the word.
Journalist [00:23:37] You know, we’re talking about an affordable housing crisis. How does a $3,000 unit help with an affordable housing crisis? Some people can’t even afford to pay $1,000.
Eric Adams [00:23:46] You know, what we have in the city is a housing crisis. A housing crisis. And the goal is to build low income, middle income, and market, so it’s not a one size fits all.
Chris Berube [00:24:01] There’s an argument that every new unit of housing is important. And adding any new supply to the housing market is in and of itself a good thing. Joey told me developers would include affordable units if there were incentives or tax breaks from the government. Some politicians have pushed for mandates that all office conversions need affordable units. But so far, that idea hasn’t gained much traction. Coming into this story. I used to pass empty office towers and think, “What a waste. This is just sitting here empty.” But when I talk to advocates for conversion projects, they had to admit this whole thing is probably going to be a fairly niche industry, including Garodnick from the City of New York.
Dan Garodnick [00:24:46] It’s not going to radically remake our communities. These will be one-off opportunities here and there throughout the city.
Chris Berube [00:24:54] But ultimately, he’s still optimistic.
Dan Garodnick [00:24:57] Fundamentally, it is a good policy change, which meets the moment. And that’s why we’re so excited about it.
Chris Berube [00:25:06] Office to apartment conversions are an imperfect solution to this unwieldy problem. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad or that we shouldn’t do them.
Emily Badger [00:25:16] I spent a lot of time reporting on this topic. And people would often ask me, “Oh, so where do you come down at the end of the day? Do you come down on, like, you know, debunking this as an idea? Or do you come down on sort of saying this is, like, the panacea–this is the solution to everything?” And I just really feel like it’s neither of those things. It’s something that we should pursue because it makes sense for a lot of reasons. It’s not going to happen at the scale people would like it to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.
Chris Berube [00:25:48] Cities can encourage more conversions with things like tax breaks and new zoning rules and governments just spending public money to make these conversions happen. But they’re not going to happen on their own. Buildings change. That’s inevitable. But how buildings change–that’s up to us.
Roman Mars [00:26:13] The story of New York’s last great conversion boom after this. Squarespace is the all-in-one platform for building your brand and growing your business online. Stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything–your products, content you create, and even your time. With Member Areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to get it content like videos, online courses, or newsletters. This summer, why not share your adventures with your followers in a newsletter? Or maybe make some fun video compilations of all your summer escapades? Now you can create Pro-level videos effortlessly in the Squarespace Video Studio app. You can easily display posts from your social profiles on your website or share your new blogs or videos on social media. Automatically push website content to your favorite channels so your followers can share it, too. Plus, use Squarespace’s Insights to grow your business. Learn where your site visits and sales are coming from, and analyze which channels are most effective. Go to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. So, we are back with Chris Berube. Hey, Chris.
Chris Berube [00:27:33] Hey, Roman. So, there’s one thing we didn’t get to in the story that I want to talk about now. So, I know we just talked about all the reasons why conversions aren’t happening all that often right now. But only 20 years ago, there was actually this kind of mini boomlet in office to apartment conversions in cities across America.
Roman Mars [00:27:51] Okay. Well, tell us about that.
Chris Berube [00:27:52] So back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, a few American cities had these booms in office to residential conversions. We’ve actually talked about one of them on the show. Do you remember the parking episode with Henry Grabar? During that episode, we talked about how in Los Angeles they loosened the parking requirements if you wanted to do a conversion of an old office building into apartments. And all these developers took advantage, they put up these lofts, and it helped kind of revitalize LA’s downtown a little bit. And actually, something similar happened in New York in the 1980s.
Roman Mars [00:28:22] Oh, I did not know that. I mean, we knew the LA story, but tell me about New York.
Chris Berube [00:28:26] So in the ’90s, Lower Manhattan was very commercial–lots of white-collar workers–and they started leaving for other parts of the city. And the city was like, “Okay, well, we have to do something with these empty offices.”
Carol Willis [00:28:36] So they began to think of ways that they could incentivize the market to transform or adaptively reuse the older office buildings.
Chris Berube [00:28:46] That’s Carol Willis. She’s the director of the New York Skyscraper Museum. And she was nice enough to walk me through an exhibit they had back in the spring about lower Manhattan in the ’90s. And Carol says a lot of these conversions were happening back then because there was this big shift happening in the financial sector. So, there were consolidations, and all these banks were moving uptown to these newer office buildings. And it created this crisis in lower Manhattan.
Carol Willis [00:29:11] So downtown really was affected by a real estate recession that caused the value of buildings to go down, the vacancy to be very high, 30% or more, and of empty office spaces.
Roman Mars [00:29:26] Whoa. Okay. I mean, that 30% is, like, bigger than the, you know, office-pocalypse that people are talking about today.
Chris Berube [00:29:33] Yeah, we’re talking about the office-pocalypse, and it’s 20%, right? So back then, it was 50% worse. So, in response, the city brought in these tax breaks and these incentives. And it led to quite a few older office towers being converted into housing, including some actually kind of iconic New York buildings.
Carol Willis [00:29:52] One is the famous Woolworth Building that in 1913 was the world’s tallest building and is particularly interesting because today, the lower section of about 28 or 29 floors remains an office building. And the tower, which is more slender than the base, has been converted to apartments. And so, they’re condominium apartments.
Roman Mars [00:30:14] Yeah, that is a beautiful building. Cass Gilbert.
Chris Berube [00:30:16] Oh, yeah. Just a totally iconic New York building. Incredible. Now, of course, you know, there’s some darkness here. Like, we’re talking about the turn of the millennium, and 9/11 slowed down a lot of this progress. But the city recovered. And in the end, it’s remarkable how many people ended up settling in that neighborhood.
Carol Willis [00:30:34] There’s quite a range of housing that became available through this approach of adaptive reuse. And that housing stock–which added some 20,000 or so units, about average of two people per unit, and about 40,000 new residents to lower Manhattan–really began to change the sense of a residential neighborhood. Or in that downtown was a place that people lived, whether they were young singles or maybe starter families.
Chris Berube [00:31:07] So 40,000 new residents in this area of lower Manhattan, largely because of these offers to housing conversions–it made it feel like a completely different neighborhood as a result.
Roman Mars [00:31:20] And with all the different restrictions we talked about in the episode, that kind of boom is pretty unlikely today, right?
Chris Berube [00:31:27] Exactly. For all the reasons we talked about during the story. And also, a lot of those ’90s, Y2K conversions–they were kind of the, quote unquote, “low hanging fruit buildings.” They were the older office buildings with smaller floor plates that were more easily converted. And today it’s harder to come by buildings like that. So even if we had, like, incentives and tax breaks and all these other things, I’m not sure it would encourage a massive conversion of the newer office towers with the bigger air conditioner floor plates.
Roman Mars [00:31:54] Right. Right. That makes sense. Okay. So, I have another question that we didn’t get to in the story. If those abandoned office buildings aren’t going to become housing, are there any possible other uses for them so they just don’t sit empty?
Chris Berube [00:32:07] Yeah, that’s a really good question. And actually, while I was making the story, Andrew Rice wrote this article that came out of New York magazine about the New York real estate market and the office-pocalypse and all that. And one of the scenes in the article is this panel discussion where people are talking about, you know, alternate uses for these old office buildings. And they’re throwing out a few suggestions, and one of them is, you know, medical centers. That kind of feels like a different type of office moving into the old office towers. Vertical farms–you know, urban farms moving in. Schools. I think the wildest suggestion I saw was somebody was suggesting pet care should move into the old office buildings.
Roman Mars [00:32:45] Yeah. There’s a lot more pets I see at least. And so, they need care. That makes some sense. Although I still think that the problem still stands that you would need, you know, like, access to light and air the same way you would for apartments, right?
Chris Berube [00:32:59] Yeah. I think all of these involve some pretty significant expensive interventions. But I don’t know, we’re at this inflection point where there’s a lot of empty office space and there aren’t a lot of tenants who are coming back. So, I don’t know. We have to figure out something, and we have to figure out something pretty quickly.
Roman Mars [00:33:17] Yeah. And if my household is any indication, people are willing to spend a lot on their dogs. So maybe that’s the answer.
Chris Berube [00:33:24] Roman, do you want to buy an office tower for your dog? What are you thinking?
Roman Mars [00:33:28] I think Raelyn needs a whole office to roam around.
Chris Berube [00:33:32] Yeah, she’s a busy dog. She could totally use the space.
Roman Mars [00:33:34] She could totally use the space. All right. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate it.
Chris Berube [00:33:37] Thanks, Roman. And one note, the exhibition, Residential Rising–it has closed at the New York Skyscraper Museum, but they have lots of resources on their website. We will link to that at 99pi.org.
Roman Mars [00:33:49] I love a good building museum, so that’s fantastic. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Edited by Kelly Prime. Sound Mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivien Le, Jason DeLeon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. This is our last episode with intern Anna Castagnaro. It was so great to have you. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stephan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to David Garcia. 99% invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family. Now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful uptown… Oakland, California. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI and 99pi.org.