What Will Happen To Downtown DC?


One of the more interesting, and under-discussed, stories in DC right now is the slow but definite decline of central downtown.  Businesses are moving their offices east, to NoMa, or to the suburbs –  the FBI building, for example – leaving areas like M Street to ponder a future of extended vacancies and perhaps Northern Virginia-style abandonment.

What can be done with these office buildings?  Demolishing them and building new structures is costly, takes years, and is an uncertain.  Let’s consider the options.

Developers have been trying to make the office-to-apartments thing a trend for a couple years now, but it won’t quite take, probably because “office” has such a negative connotation in our culture.  Just on a karmic level, people would probably rather live in a former slaughterhouse than a former office.  That’s a shame, because a lot of office buildings – even the newer ones – have great “bones.”  Aside from the low-ish ceilings, they have totally open floor plans, concrete floors (concrete floors are the new hardwood), and great views.  In Arlington, the luxury condo building The Oronoco was formerly the office headquarters of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association;  the developer gutted it and rebuilt the units with ten foot ceilings, though, so it’s not so much re-purposed as rebuilt.  Still, it’s been a huge success, and considering a high-end rental can fetch as much as 20% more money, per square foot, than the same space rented as an office, this might become more common if the office market continues to soften.  You know how every office has that one annoying person who sleeps in their office every once in a while (and sends out work emails at 4am to subtly remind everyone that they spent the night there)?  We could all be that person pretty soon, every single night.  I bet they already do this in Japan, I don’t even have to Google it.


With area classrooms perpetually overcrowded, we definitely need more schools.  Why not just convert some of these office buildings?  You’d barely have to change the layouts;  imagine how much easier it would be to control kids if they had cubicles instead of desks.  And conference rooms and offices could easily be turned into classrooms.  If you think about it, an office functions very much like a school, with bosses as teachers, workers as students, and performance reviews as report cards.

There’s an example of this already in Falls Church (where the office vacancy rate is above 30%);  after a $10 million renovation, an office building on Leesburg Pike reopened last year as Bailey’s Upper Elementary School.  Once all these Millennials start having kids, don’t be surprised to see a daily line of moms in minivans outside that office building where the dreams of your twenties died.  (I honestly can’t decide if this would be ironic or just “The Circle of Life.”)


Yeah, old offices as greenspace may seem crazy, but so does an abandoned train station as greenspace, and that’s going to be a reality in Dupont sometime very soon.  As the city gets denser and more crowded, demand for public gathering space is going to grow.  Architects in Amsterdam have actually done this already (Europeans are always ahead of us), converting an abandoned warehouse into a public park by suspending huge cages of plants and decorating with natural materials.  It kind of looks like the postapocalypse as imagined by IKEA designers.  Even if developers didn’t turn offices into standalone parks, converting a floor or two into greenspace would be a powerful draw for a building of luxury or micro units competing for tenants.


A lot of cheap office space is being rented out by start-ups – in fact, I used to work at a DC startup that rented dirt-cheap office space in a ghost town of an office park allllllllll the way out by Dulles.  Having an office lends an air of legitimacy to what is really just three college roommates sitting in beanbag chairs brainstorming “apps.”  So why not take it a step further and just have everyone rent an office?  Artists have their homes and a studio space they rent;  why can’t regular people have an office?  Plenty of days you leave work but you don’t want to go home;  but there’s no “third place” anymore.  There are bars, but you have to rent out your stool by purchasing a steady stream of overpriced drinks.  Don’t tell me you don’t like the idea of having a tidy office where you could go, kick back, and hang out for a while.  You could even use it to lend an air of formality to things like awkward meetings with exes, or fantasy football drafts.  It would be just like your regular office, except you could openly look at online pornography!  I’m really into this idea.  I want my own office, and I want a coffee mug that says “I’m the Boss” on it.


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