Amidst the hand wringing over what the future holds for the office sector in a post-pandemic world, there is an overlooked issue. Yes, corporate footprints may shrink, and some buildings may hollow out—but this will only add to an existing stock of office buildings ready and waiting to be redeployed in some new fashion.
Chicago is rife with unused architectural gems—in the CBD but also in the outer ring neighborhoods and even the suburbs. As the development cycle has come to a standstill, now is the time to think about how best to instill new life in these extant structures.
“At this point in time—especially with the potential shyness, if you will, for financial investment in new builds that are speculative—we can take our existing building stock and activate it,” said Sheryl Schulze, NCIDQ, RID, repositioning and landlord services leader, studio director and principal at Gensler. “These buildings have rich stories that people want to tell and celebrate.”
A recent success is the revival of the Old Post Office. 601W Companies acquired the derelict property in 2016 and tapped Gensler to envision a repositioning of the Art Deco behemoth. The project has won numerous awards and attracted noteworthy tenants like Walgreens, PepsiCo and Uber, among others.
The Post Office not only straddles the transition of the Eisenhower Expressway into Ida B. Wells Drive, serving as a gateway to downtown, it also anchors a relatively inactive corner of the Loop. Nearby barriers such as the river and railroads are hardly insurmountable, as they haven’t stopped expansions into River North or Fulton Market. The hope is that the transformation of the Old Post Office will spread into the rest of the southwest Loop.
With the time that the pandemic has given us to reconsider how to activate our existing stock of office buildings, that’s exactly the mindset that developers should take in order to attract tenants. New paint and a little tuckpointing aren’t enough; these buildings need to truly be a part of their neighborhoods.
The renewed emphasis on health and wellness that the pandemic has induced brings with it a desire for fresh air and open spaces. Every building is different and not all have the luxury of fallow, sun-soaked land that can be turned into an urban park. Some developers are even taking the drastic step of relinquishing rentable square feet by carving back their floorplate space to create terraces for access to fresh air.
But for those properties in a position to create an open space element for their tenants, there should also be an attempt to open that space up to the surrounding community as well. A public courtyard or urban garden invites pedestrians. This of course increases foot traffic for ground-floor retail but also helps a building to appear more dynamic, with a constant buzz of activity.
In fact, the ground floor is the very nexus of this question. This is where a building meets its neighborhood, it’s the inflection point at which office tenants become community members. When repositioning an office asset—whether a downtown skyscraper or a two-story, mixed-use building in the outer neighborhoods—attention must be given to that ground floor interaction.
The current paradigm is to install some sort of incidental or “convenience” retail at the ground level of office buildings. When building tenants are away in the evening or on the weekends, these spaces go dark. Once employees stop working from home and return to the office in full force, they may do so with extended hours to accommodate more shift work—a mechanism of reducing office density. With that in mind, more thought should go into what can best serve the building and the neighborhood in these ground floor spaces.
Community-oriented programs like health centers, tool libraries, classrooms and co-working spaces can and should coexist with destination retail in the locations. A broader spectrum of uses can help maintain the property’s activity throughout all hours of the day and improve the cohesiveness of the neighborhood.
“Getting more active and being more aggressive in how you actually blend that streetscape and bring it into your building is really going to be critical,” said Andre Brumfield, AIA, cities and urban design leader, design director and principal at Gensler. “Whether it’s outdoor space or activity that’s happening at the ground plane, that vibrancy when you walk past a building is critical, not only for raising the value of the building itself, but also attracting potential tenants.”
Schulze highlights the success of pedestrian-forward neighborhoods in many European cities, urban centers that evolved before leeway had to be sacrificed to the almighty automobile. But this concept can go too far, and planners have to strike a balance, Brumfield points out, using Chicago’s failure in the ‘80s and ‘90s at turning State Street into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare that, in the end, drove retail to other parts of the city.
“This cycle that we’re currently in has spurred a lot of innovation and a lot of conversation,” Schulze said. “And it’s given everyone time to pause and reflect about what what’s next.”
The prior development cycle grew out of the depths of the Great Recession; in many ways, the record-long recovery hit heights that countered the depths of the 2008-2009 crisis. During that cycle, Schulze said, owners and developers were eager to leverage real estate for maximum value—often placing human-centric concerns lower on the priority list in the process.
“Building aren’t just containers for people,” said Schulze. “They are spaces for people to thrive in, be innovative, build relationships and contribute to society.”