Since the start of the pandemic, Manhattan’s business districts have become something of a ghost town. With almost no one going to work at the office — or going out to eat or drink after work — entire blocks that were once busy and bustling have become empty. With so many New Yorkers currently struggling to pay the city’s famously high rent prices, this begs the question of whether or not Midtown should be rezoned – should some of the city’s (now obsolete) high-end office buildings be converted into affordable housing?
As someone who has always wanted to move to New York (but also values having affordable rent!), this potential rezoning plan sounds utopic. Imagine: A live-work-play neighborhood with fantastic transit, top-notch restaurants that cater to locals, and all the amenities you’d imagine for a residential area in NYC. I’m packing my bags as you read this.
And yes, it may seem far-fetched to reimage Midtown as a place to raise your family if you aren’t multi-millionaires, but, at this point, the city is trying to be creative.
Since September, only 10% of New York’s workforce has returned to their Manhattan offices. Essentially, office and hotel buildings (the former being notoriously easier to convert into affordable housing than the latter) have been collecting dust – and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, as work from home has proved itself to be a viable, economically sustainable option.
Historically, there have been major tax breaks for commercial-to-resident conversions, as was seen in the mid-1990s 421-g program, which revitalized Lower Manhattan. This is part of the incentive for developers, who would ultimately be rewarded for taking a risk during the economic uncertainty COVID-19; building permits in NYC during the first half of 2020 have hit historic lows.
And that’s not the only incentive. Did you know that many of the city’s older buildings still run on steam heat, which is extremely inefficient? Converting these buildings into residential units would result in a massive environmental win for the city, as they would need to abide by the city’s strict new building code. Cheap rent for me and lower emissions for the city? Sign me up!
It will be interesting to see how the city ultimately decides to react to the COVID-induced ghost-townification of Midtown. I do believe, however, that the vain in which they decide to rebuild will be defining of the next decade of NYC. The city will never die, that’s for sure. How it continues to live is the question.