The Platform

BOXPARK Shoreditch, London, shipping container pop-up mall. Similar concept to the Downtown Container Park.

Cities need to embrace innovation and creativity for a brighter future.

Major cities are grappling with a tsunami of vacancies in their commercial office buildings, highlighting the pressing need for mayors, government leaders, and building owners to adopt innovative and creative approaches. The key lies in transforming cities into smart cities, ensuring their viability, and offering modern amenities that cater to 21st-century needs. Repurposing existing buildings and facilities is a crucial economic tool that cities must embrace in the coming decade.

Repurposing should no longer be viewed as an occasional novelty in a few cities but rather as a routine function for every city. Neglected buildings do not contribute to the economic vitality of a region; in fact, they diminish the value of neighborhoods and business districts. To address this, a structured framework is necessary to determine the appropriate course of action for each underutilized building, facility, or venue.

There are several options available. The first is to leave the building vacant, hoping for a market rebound. However, this approach leads to accumulating losses, and eventually, the property may end up in the hands of a bank, facing the same limited options. Unfortunately, the original owner remains unaware that they are permanently underwater after being hit by the metaphorical tsunami.

The second option involves demolishing the building and constructing new facilities in its place. This was exemplified by the demolition of a 64-acre outlet mall in Illinois. Instead of repurposing it for a college campus, which would have been a viable solution given its location near a major highway and existing amenities, everything was razed, leaving behind an unimproved dirt lot.

The third option is converting the building into a large storage facility. While this may initially seem like an appealing solution to maximize rent per square foot, it is ultimately a one-time fix. The success of the first storage facility may tempt others, but saturating a local area with such facilities is not a sustainable approach.

The fourth option involves renovating the building, adding new construction and capabilities while retaining its original purpose. Given that a significant portion of buildings are technologically obsolete, it is crucial to explore ways to enhance their viability in a post-pandemic environment. Smart cities cannot afford to have outdated buildings.

Building owners need to conduct assessments of their properties to determine the necessary capital expenditures for renovation, making the buildings smarter and profitable revenue generators once again.

The fifth option calls for taking a completely new and innovative direction with the building or facility. This approach necessitates the development and practical implementation of fresh ideas to revive cities, aligning them with profitability and success. Those who believe their cities will return to normal are mistaken. The COVID-inspired tsunami permanently altered the landscape, and there is no going back to the way things were.

The first three repurposing options are commonly pursued by property owners, while the last two require more time, effort, creativity, and coordination with the city. However, in today’s economy, considering the last two options is crucial to minimizing losses.

Building owners and property firms must prioritize their portfolios, investing and divesting accordingly. Selling empty office buildings may be a solution, but if they are technologically obsolete, they will not fetch substantial prices in the current market. Buyers of distressed properties must assess existing technology and intelligent amenities within the buildings or office parks.

Looking at successful examples of area or building repurposing, such as the Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, we can see how creativity can contribute to regional viability. It transformed an underdeveloped piece of land into a bustling shopping destination and incubator for start-up businesses. Such creative repurposing should be incorporated into major cities and metropolitan areas to ensure their sustained vitality.

Local and regional economic development approaches must evolve, emphasizing creativity and innovation. 20th-century solutions are inadequate for the challenges of the 21st century.

Having experienced the tidal waves of increased vacancy rates due to permanent remote work and declining values of commercial buildings and office parks, property owners and management firms must analyze their portfolios with a future-oriented focus. These changes require a fresh perspective to navigate the evolving landscape successfully.

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.