The quandary of ‘saving’ the ‘city center’

The quandary of ‘saving’ the ‘city center’

Take note, Pittsburgh:

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer story headlined that “COVID’s legacy could empty out the office towers of Philly’s Center City.”

“Some dream of Philadelphia’s business district as a new neighborhood in the sky, with bedrooms where cubicles used to be. The reality could be darker,” continued the story’s subheadline (https://tactix.com/news/1612/).

The story goes on to note that Philadelphia’s Center City – akin to Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle – “is not back to its pre-pandemic self, and it may never be.”

“With vacancy rates likely to rise as remote work trends last beyond the pandemic, what are we going to do with all these hulking office towers?”

It’s a critical question. For Philadelphia. And for Pittsburgh.

An estimated 17.4 percent of Philly’s available downtown office space was vacant and available for lease in the first quarter of this year. In Pittsburgh, the overall vacancy rate approached 21 percent in the same period. And as we’ve noted about Pittsburgh many times, high vacancy rates pre-date the pandemic. (Do note that the vacancy rate is a gauge of unleased space and is not necessarily a good measure of space not in use. And unused space is likely to be considerably higher now, portending a rising vacancy rate.) 

But while there’s been much talk in both cities about converting unused office buildings into housing – both cities have been doing so for years to varying degrees – older stock buildings that are said to be easier to convert and offer more natural sunlight are in diminishing supply.

In fact, in Philadelphia, most of that building stock has been exhausted.  “(A) lot of the remaining towers are not ideally suited for housing, with vast amounts of space that have no access to natural light,” The Inquirer notes.

Both city centers still can, at peak business-hour times, be described as “ghost towns.” And as The Inquirer reminds, that trickles down to everything from businesses that support office-district businesses to mass transit.

Yet, in Pittsburgh, where the ridership numbers of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, continue to gasp for air, there’s plenty of happy talk about expanding service with quite expensive options such as extending light-rail service to points west and north.

To service whom, remains the question. And at what ultimate cost? But in typical fashion, the authority says it is seeking to diversify its funding sources to pay for service since ridership remains – and might remain – a ghost of its former self.

Images of ghost trains on the tracks come to mind.

In Philly, there’s talk of perhaps converting some sunlight-deficient modern office space into laboratories for local hospitals and other concerns. There’s apparently a dearth of labs in the region.

That might not be a solution in Pittsburgh, where there has been, or soon will be, a plethora of new hospital-centric construction.

And as is Philadelphia, downtown Pittsburgh also is suffering from a growing reputation of not being a safe or clean place to work or live. Those are hardly selling points for breathing refreshed life into the business district. It’s difficult to pitch a business district on life support, in more ways than one.

And, lest we forget, in Pittsburgh, and in a tone-deaf move, taxpayers are subsidizing new office tower construction on the old Civic Arena site. That space will only exacerbate the glut of available space, space that the real estate experts say clients will be requiring less and less of.

Now, politicians and those who survive in their orbit will be quick to argue that we must do anything and everything to “save” our downtowns. After all, goes the argument, they are the lifeblood and the engine that fuels any region.

Never mind that, in many ways, the pandemic and the marvels of modern technology call that premise into serious question.

Still, “We must protect our downtowns, the beating heart of society, at all costs,” they might say. Whether that’s prudent and/or viable — and with large dollops of taxpayer money, you can bet — has been debated for decades and is a public policy quandary even more debatable in 2022.

And why don’t we just ask, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?!”

But it also does remind us in more than a few ways of the vociferous debate in the early 1900s over whether horses were the future of farming or if the era of the tractor truly had arrived.

We all know how that turned out.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).