September 30, 1995 - From the September, 1995 issue

The City After the Info Age: Questions for Planning and Design

The Info Age presents a new reality for downtown Los Angeles. Michael Pittas, the president of Design/Development, supports the thesis with four work-related trends: current real estate trends, corporate downsizing, radical redesign of office pace, and telecommuting. Telecommuting is of special interest to Mr. Pittas.

The electronic information superhighway threatens downtown business districts in much the same way as the railroad made ghost towns of frontier settlements and the interstate highway system isolated traditional town centers. Fundamental shifts in the way we work, abetted by portable technologies, are altering the form of America's urban places and their architecture and still result in the emptying of downtown office space. 

Projecting trends can often overstate the case. The invention of the telephone and computer were both supposed to have dramatic effects on the urban landscape. They did, but not as much as was projected at the time of their invention. Telework may be the exception, however, because it promotes the spatial displacement of large populations. 

Nearly 53 percent of American workers are classified as "information" workers. A large majority of these workers perform their duties in traditional work settings—the ubiquitous office building in central business districts. Within less than two decades, these office towers—this century's legacy to the history of architecture—may be seen as dinosaurs. The principal points in support of this thesis are:

  • Current real estate trends
  • Corporate downsizing
  • Radical redesign of office space
  • Telecommuting

A protracted decline in demand for office space is a major problem confronting commercial real estate in almost every city in the nation. Dallas fluctuates between a 30 and 40 percent vacancy rate, and the rate in downtown Los Angeles is 18 percent and rising. Real estate analysts tell us this is nothing more than the normal business cycle—excess space is easily filled as the economy heals itself from a prolonged recession. Mortgage holders and developers are depending on this cyclical behavior to restore their strained finances. But these are not normal times. 

Corporate downsizing, the revenge of the '80s, is one of the factors to be considered. Over 600,000 jobs, mostly white collar, have been eliminated from corporate payrolls every year since the late '80s. By doing "more with less," the credo of the new corporate culture, it is unlikely that a new hiring cycle will emerge in the short term. And in the long term, the work force is further compressed by the abandonment of whole classes of jobs: secretaries, clerks, middle managers, typists, data entry workers, and phone operators. 

After the costs of labor, the next biggest cost on corporate books is real estate. A comprehensive review of the office workplace is under way. "Hoteling" is one of the new space saving approaches. Applying this concept to their Chicago location, the accounting firm of Ernst & Young provides 100 offices for 500 auditors who are out of the office on a predictable basis. An employee makes a reservation for an office by calling the "concierge," who then assigns the space, reroutes the telephone number, and wheels in the employee's files. Other firms are aggressively downsizing offices from 220 square feet per employee to 150 square feet, providing one-size-fits-all for everyone from senior partner to secretary. The office is viewed as a tool, not as a status symbol.

None of this necessarily portends a fundamental shift in work and workplace. However, telecommuting—defined as organizational work performed outside the normal organizational confines of space and time—may be the prelude to the extinction of the modern office building as we know it. 

For the first time, both large and small employers are notifying their white collar workers that they will no longer have an office at all. Xerox, for example, expects that nearly 5,000 of its employees will be telecommuting in the next two years. AT&T expects that one half of its 123,000 managers will be telecommuting within five years. It is estimated that by the turn of the century, involuntary telecommuting could encompass over 30 million information workers. 

In the face of these rapidly moving trends, the traditional office building must change. Downtown headquarters will be designed for marketing, training and other group-think spaces. Floors of dedicated offices will be rare, with even senior management telecommuting. 

Some will argue that the need for workers to be seen by their bosses mitigates these radical changes. But profit and productivity are much stronger corporate motivators. Output typically increases by 5 to 20 percent, and almost no instances of lowered productivity have been discovered when telework is instituted. Teleworkers are over-workers. If a company can do more with less and therefore be more competitive and more profitable, the company will pursue this path.

If work displacement trends become the pervasive mode, downtown office building values may plummet to a level where conversion to housing or other uses may not only be feasible, but may also become an economic necessity. For the moment, politics, zoning, building codes, the vested real estate industry, and long-term leases present a barrier to radical change, but the alternative— abandoning the multi-billion dollar investment in public infrastructure and private building—is almost impossible to imagine. 

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The once almost laughable idea of converting high-rise office structures to housing or mixed-use is now worth serious reconsideration, and there are signs that the marketplace is beginning to examine these options. Donald Trump has proposed such a conversion for New York's landmark 44-story Paramount (Gulf & Western) building. Toronto has revised its zoning and codes to accommodate housing conversions. There, over 15 office buildings built in the '50s and '60s are under reconstruction and another 70 are in the pipeline for consideration. Dallas and Denver have also studied such conversions.

This resource of convertible, vacant downtown office space—adjacent to mass transit, shopping, education, health and social services, and cultural attractions—may solve some of our affordable housing needs. Development of this kind could provide for traditional large families, the working poor, and SRO populations. But the market is large and not necessarily impoverished. 

Others will also be attracted to this environment: young adults (who are less and less interested in home ownership), newly formed families, single-parent families, urban retirees, and in most cities, a well-heeled elite who like city dwelling.

Conversely, telework may have an negative effect on the supply of affordable suburban housing. White collar suburban American families who moved every few years to pursue job opportunities can stay put when the place of employment is a home office networked to places separated by many thousands of miles. A new rootedness may result, with families living for whole generations in one town. More importantly, bedroom suburbs could be replaced by full-service suburban villages. 

Other issues include the architectura1 problem of how to convert the modern 20,000 square-foot office floor plate to usable apartments. Depths of 35-45 feet from the core to the perimeter glazing are not ideal for the thinner apartment floor profile. Mixed-use buildings with vertically layered commercial and residential use are well known; perhaps mixed-use on the same floor will become common, with apartments next to interior home offices, classrooms, studios, or shops. 

Modern office buildings—with their more stringent structural standards, higher floor-to-ceiling dimensions, and column-free perimeter zones—present an intriguing canvas on which to paint the emerging architecture of a new building type. The look of downtown may be transformed when the hermetically sealed towers are stripped of their curtain walls and retrofitted with operable windows, flower pots and balconies. 

Housing is not the only option. With their proximity to major entertainment, convention centers and cultural activity, some office buildings might become hotels. Others might become “vertical Silicon Valleys." A host of architectural challenges and opportunities will result. 

The future of many downtowns may look strikingly like the present, with the same old skylines and same old buildings (although some will wear a new suit of clothes). With little need for the new, this view of the future city might seem dull. But the redistributed settlement patterns of a telecommuting society may make the need for a "central place" even more important, as an agora for civic intercourse and social interaction. 

A residential population displacing a worker population can give the city 24-hour vitality and renewed purpose.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.