The death of downtown is greatly exaggerated (probably)…

I read an article this morning that more or less decried the death of the downtown business district due to the continuing popularity of remote work. The percentages cited are hard to get around. 

The city I’m most familiar with, having spent three years commuting into DC five days a week for three years back in the early stretches of my career, it looks like the in-person workforce is about 65% of its pre-pandemic high. Back when I worked in DC, my regular commute involved a 30-minute drive, a 40-minute Metro ride on the Green Line, and a 10-minute walk. So that was an 80-minute one way trip under perfect conditions and assuming I left the apartment no later than 5 AM. That time could easily double if there was even the hint of trouble on 95, 495, or the BW Parkway. The trip home in the afternoon? I never made that in less than 90 minutes and the worst day was 3.5 hours from door to door. 

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I’m not surprised that the average employee isn’t knocking down the doors to get back into their downtown cubicle, burn up fuel, buy expensive downtown lunch, or generally feed the beast when they don’t need to do those things as part of getting their respective jobs done. It’s not captured in any of the articles or studies I’ve read, but if the downtown businesses that supported armies of office workers are losing out, it feels intuitively like there should be a corresponding uptick in the money being spent by these workers at the shops and stores closer to home. Those are more diffuse, of course, and necessarily harder to track. They’re not the story that the big players want to tell.

The death of the great urban downtown is, I suspect, being greatly exaggerated… but maybe there really is a crack in the idea that downtown must be synonymous with gleaming office towers only occupied from 7 AM to 7 PM five days a week. There really is a better way… of course that would involve real estate investors and management companies spending some money to bridge the gap between what was and what will be. Whether they’ll want to do that instead of just paying for bitchy articles about how much better it was when office buildings were full remains to be seen.

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