Dealing with deserted downtowns now high on Baker menu
Governor tells business breakfast things will ‘be different’
THERE WAS MORE than just the scent of bacon and eggs in the air at yesterday’s Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. There was a whiff of irony present, too.
It seemed like Old Home Day as the business group’s regular morning speaker series returned to an in-person gathering for the first time since the pandemic outbreak. Chamber president Jim Rooney joked that he was glad his suit still fit, an apparent reference to the casual attire and packing on of “pandemic pounds” that have characterized the last two years for many.
While the Westin Copley Place ballroom may have been buzzing with business types, the morning speaker focused on the fact that the same is hardly true for downtowns writ large.
“The future of downtowns is going to be different, whether we like it or not,” Gov. Charlie Baker told the breakfast gathering. “We need to start the process of reimagining the placemaking of downtowns so they can thrive and be successful in what will be a slightly different world in many cases and a significantly different world in some cases.”
As MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela recently pointed out, a Pew Center survey showed that more than half of those who say their job can be done from home are continuing to do so most of the time. As a consequence, he says, downtowns are empty. MBTA ridership stands at roughly half its pre-pandemic level.
And even those companies mandating a return to in-person work are often doing so with a modified schedule. The Boston Globe recently told staffers that, starting in early May, they would be expected in-person at the paper’s downtown offices three days a week, while they can continue to work remotely two days.
As Koczela points out, each day that a firm goes remote represents a 20 percent reduction in their workers’ presence downtown – where they would buy sandwiches for lunch, get a haircut, or share an after-work drink with co-workers.
“Downtown economies are built around massive daily inflows of workers,” he writes, adding that Boston “will need to find another way to fill vast empty spaces in the hulking monuments to an economy that no longer exists.”
While Baker – and Massachusetts mayors – have to worry about what the new-normal means for downtowns here, they can at least be thankful they’re not in Eric Adams’s shoes.The Wall Street Journal reports that New York City’s new mayor faces a challenge unlike that of any big-city leader, with Manhattan home to nearly 11 percent of all office inventory in the country.
Manhattan office availability hit a record-high 17.4 percent in February. There’s lots of talk about converting office space to housing – the market for which remains red-hot in New York. But midtown Manhattan buildings are not well-suited to such conversions, the Journal says, leaving big questions about how the “reimagining” Baker spoke of will play out there.