With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many people to work from home, the number of vacant office spaces in midtown Manhattan has reached a level not seen since the economic recession of 2008-2009. A nearly 14% vacancy rate and a crippled real estate sector have lead government officials to consider converting many of these now-unused spaces into residential buildings in anticipation of a future that would include a significant shift towards remote work.(New York Times, December 2020)
The process involved in converting these offices into residential spaces has historical roots in the City’s Zoning Resolution, which laid out certain cases where commercial- or manufacturing-use buildings could be repurposed for residential use. According to Article I, Chapter V of the resolution, such conversions provide many benefits, including: increased return on investments for owners, reduced negative effects on commercial and manufacturing uses caused by reduction of land and floor area permissions, relocation incentives, and new housing opportunities. (zr.planning.gov, 2011)
Such conversions, however, only apply to buildings constructed prior to 1961, and in order to make the current midtown proposal a realistic and beneficial project, the current Zoning Resolution may need to be amended, or certain areas may require rezoning. (nyrej.com, January 2021)
Furthermore, it is still uncertain whether these currently vacant office spaces will remain so in the future. Demand for residential space in Manhattan is trending downward, with nearly 60% of new, expensive condos in the borough left unsold to-date. (brickunderground.com, September, 2020)
It will remain to be seen, then, whether the proposal will be carried through. Though with New York City’s penchant for converting commercial and manufacturing-use buildings into residential spaces, it is certainly a possibility.