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Gensler: Don’t give up on our nation’s CBDs quite yet

Tired of hearing about the death of downtown? The implications of such a prediction would certainly have dire consequences for the stability of our nation’s multifamily, retail and office property managers.

Take heart. While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on commuting, community and commerce, architecture firm Gensler sees a much brighter way forward, although the path is long and complex. In a blog entitled, “The Future of the Central Business District: Resetting Our Downtown Cores,” bloggers Sofia Song and Mark Erdly walk us down that path and provide a laundry list of the necessities we’ll need along the way. (For the record, Song is global leader of cities research at Gensler’s Research Institute, and Erdly is studio director and Regional Cities & Urban Design leader for Gensler’s Southeast region.)

“Instead of portending the end of the central business district, we believe that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a reset of the CBD and their relationship to the city at large,” the writers state. “We can use this moment to imagine a new model for growth, one that is more inclusive, resilient, sustainable and healthy. Underpinning this rebalancing are the foundational issues of affordability, jobs, talent and the economics of real estate.”

But first we have to understand, they say, that the pandemic only hastened many trends that were already at work. These include more focus on experience and destination, changing work patterns and the migration of families (as well as companies) into suburbs and second-tier cities.

However, working in the cities’ favor is a longing to return to some form of life and interaction, somewhat free of social distancing and the necessity of meeting only through Zoom or some other choice of videoconference. People want experiences that, say Song and Erdly, you can’t replicate virtually. And after nine months of being cooped up, that longing is stronger than ever. 

But to achieve those experiences in the CBD will take a major re-examination of how it functions, many easier said than done. “Lower rents and property values can make cities more accessible and affordable to locals, with the opportunity to create more walkable … neighborhoods. More residential and pedestrian-oriented uses with more green space can be infused into CBDs. Lower rents can also attract local startups, mom-and-pops, not-for-profits, small businesses, innovative food and beverage, community partnerships, makerspaces (collaborative workspaces) and local manufacturing. 

Linked to the makerspaces, the bloggers also call for environments where R&D and tech can flourish. “Creatively reimagining abandoned storefronts can attract culture, arts, diversity and quirkiness, seeding a new and authentic DNA.” This, they say, will necessitate a rethinking of ground-floor retail. 

If you think none of this sounds easy or immediately accessible, you’re right. Included in the changes that would have to take place to engender this different way of thinking would be a greater emphasis on public/private partnerships, changes in zoning, as well as regulatory policies and greater investments in technology.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t start the journey. “In an age of profound uncertainty and change, everything has to be on the table,” says Song and Erdly. “This will take a mindset of courage and optimism. While we think big, we must also prioritize smaller, less ambitious ideas that have incremental but meaningful impact.”

No, this isn’t an overnight transformation, and it will literally take a village . . . or more accurately, the leaders of entire gateway cities . . . to make it happen. But the bloggers’ vision is not just high pie in the sky, and the seeds of that vision are already sprouting, such as in the Brooklyn, NY renaissance or, on the other coast, the redevelopment of the Los Angeles Arts District. 

We’re at a stage in the COVID-19 pandemic where it has become part of our daily routine, what everyone refers to as the new normal. Gensler is putting forth a vision for how urban dwellers and workers can thrive in that new normal. 

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