Are Downtowns Dead? And What Might that Mean for Our Neighborhoods?

Our current world situation led me to think about the song Downtown’s Dead, by the esteemed urbanist and bro-country performer Sam Hunt. Although I doubt that a global pandemic was on his mind when he penned this tune in 2018, it does raise a question that increasingly is being pondered. Is downtown dead?

Most employers in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul haven’t made public announcements yet, but with the COVID surge it seems increasingly likely that most return-to-office plans will be for 2021, not 2020. The Metropolitan Council already is citing this trend in its survey of people’s transportation and work trends over the past few months. And if my own downtown employer is any indication, even next year offices will be half-full at most, with an expectation of social distancing until further notice.

For some people, this will be the tipping point to transition to working from home entirely. Others may want nothing more than to be back in the office among their friends and co-workers. But if no more than half of any workplace’s staff are in the office at any time, is that appealing any longer? Which could then lead to the corporate real-estate version of the transit death spiral: As more people choose to work from home, the appeal of being in the office diminishes, which leads more people to choose to work from home.

Streets Empty Skyway

A skyway sits empty in downtown Minneapolis last March, when lockdown began. (Photo courtesy of Chris Juhn for MPR News)

Given that downtowns are a mix of employment and entertainment, the setback of one will surely affect the other. The corporate real-estate market will reset, with employers seeking to downsize their leased space as larger segments of their workforce work from home some or all of the time. Some of that could be offset when employers choose or are required to expand their space to allow for less density and greater social distancing. Employers that previously couldn’t afford to locate downtown may have an opportunity to establish a presence because of cheaper, more available office space. Still, the outcome almost certainly will be a net loss of people coming downtown for work most days — and then staying downtown afterward to socialize.

The New Normal

How will cities begin to adapt to this new normal? Brent Toderian has some ideas about city livability during a lockdown in this Vox piece, and there are similar sentiments in Bloomberg and (pre-Bloomberg) Citylab. Downtowns may need to lean on what isn’t going anywhere in this new normal:

  • Their ongoing central role for sporting events, the arts and nightlife.
  • And their continuing (re)evolution to support their growing base of residents.

The former offers the best opportunity to retain some of what of what downtown is and has been. What previously served the “lunch crowd” primarily now doubles as happy hour or dinner spots for those in the city outside of work hours. Although it may be a while before we can enjoy them, our sports stadiums already are paid for, so they’re here to stay. What do these changes mean for our new “offices” and the neighborhoods in which a growing number of us will work?

I was inspired to write this post by reporter Nick Halter’s tweet, which made me think about potential winners in this new dynamic, if our central cities become less of a central hub. Some of what creates a sense of “place” in a neighborhood or community — from restaurants and shops to vibrant streets and sidewalks — will become focal points and potentially more economically diverse than they are today.

Transit: The need and demand for the commuter transit service that makes up a lot of today’s system surely will diminish as transit needs and demands change. Today, we are heavily dependent on the hub-and-spoke model in which downtown is the center of the network, with many transfers being routed through downtown. If we envision a world in which our neighborhoods and even suburban downtowns or centers become more popular destinations, how will transit need to evolve?

Frequency, reliability and proximity to service will be just as important, pandemic or not. That said, the emphasis on transit going (directly) to places people want to go will take on greater importance as people stay closer to home. We will need better connecting routes and, in particular, east-west routes as we shift from a hub-and-spoke model. Today’s priority of north-south routes predominantly feeding downtowns with a sparser and more separated east-west network creates large gaps in people’s ability to go from neighborhood to neighborhood. A more decentralized model will make transfers through downtown less necessary, and shorter waits would help make transit more viable and appealing.

Streets A Line

Bus Rapid Transit, like the A Line in St. Paul, will become key in a more decentralized model of mass transit.

Transit systems will need to do more things better, rather than focusing on a particular type of trip or mode of transit. The growing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network defines the type of investment that can provide better service in today’s local bus model while building the foundation for service that can be applied to this new normal as well. Most surveys from Metro Transit ask about these trade-offs: local vs. express and frequency vs. span of network. Reimagining the network as a connector among a larger number of “places” can have the complementary benefit of providing frequency and quality improvements to local service while creating greater ridership opportunities than exist today.

It will take marketing, promotion and community advocacy to make this a reality. These neighborhood types of trips are the most car-centric today, making it hard to change people’s habits and behaviors, especially for those who consider transit only as a home-to-work commuter service (if they consider transit at all). Thinking of buses and trains as an all-day alternative to driving anywhere from a few blocks to a few miles won’t come naturally, and the safety warnings about riding transit during the COVID outbreak will not help.

Cycling: Many of the transit improvements required to adapt to this new normal can apply to cycling infrastructure as well. Smaller neighborhood or regional centers provide the greatest opportunity for people to replace vehicle trips with bike trips. In the central cities and some first-ring suburbs, the areas that formed mostly around the Twin Cities streetcar system are nearly all within a mile or two of one another. These trips are ripe for converting from driving to biking. Most of these neighborhood nodes are already built out and established, making them parking-constrained by default. That gives businesses the opportunity not only to create parking for bikes but to welcome cyclists and actively promote bike parking.

This increases the need to fill in the gaps in the existing bike networks and road maps — and finally to take action in moving from paint to barrier. A neighborhood-to-neighborhood network will not require more regional trails, bike-friendly shoulders or sharrows. For any sizable segment of the population to consider moving among neighborhood centers on their bikes, cycling will have to feel as safe and as comfortable as driving one’s own vehicle.

Streets Protected Bike Lanes

Well-painted, protected bike lanes demonstrate the type of infrastructure that help cyclists feel safe.

Given that fewer people are driving to work or the park & ride commuter lot, will this new normal spark a willingness to go car-lite or car-less? For people to even entertain the notion, communities and neighborhoods will have to demonstrate that it’s possible to live with fewer vehicles than people have today. Planners and city officials have a limited window to plan for post-pandemic mobility and transportation. If they build to meet a perceived demand for more single-occupancy vehicles, that perception will soon become reality. But if we take this opportunity to, at minimum, extend pandemic-related temporary bike infrastructure, it could dramatically change how people consider their transportation options in this new normal. We know that municipal budgets at the state, county and city level will be constrained. Is now the time to build more roads, or use taxpayer dollars more wisely for the long term?

Land use: As local neighborhoods and potentially suburban commercial centers become more important than our major downtown areas, the need to be more intentional and open minded about how we plan for them will be more pronounced. Some of these places may have opportunities to expand, grow or reinvent themselves in the future. Much has been written about the comprehensive plan and process in Minneapolis. However, other communities in the seven-county metro area are also obligated to continue revising and iterating their own comprehensive plans. In a rebalancing of downtowns relative to neighborhoods and suburbs, these plans warrant more scrutiny and attention than they may have gotten in the past.

If no post has yet been written about the death of the skyways, one will certainly be forthcoming — pointing out how the businesses frequented by the daytime downtown population will suffer or shutter with dramatically less traffic. Some of those business will, by default, shift to the communities in which people are living and now also working. Here in Edina, where I live, the city council and planning commission have created a set of detailed, thorough small area plans for each of the city’s commercial districts. Some of these are obvious, like Southdale or 50th & France. But the attention paid to smaller areas with relatively few businesses will prove to be underappreciated work that pays off.

Streets Neighborhood

Amand’s Exotic Food Market and a record store are two reasons to visit this south Minneapolis neighborhood, ideally by bike.

The “typical” mix of businesses in the suburbs or even city neighborhoods may have had a bent toward morning and evening visits but not midday commerce. That will have to change. Instead of places that people hurry past on their way to work, these businesses may instead replace the downtown spots that were the staple of the skyways and the sadly nascent streetscape. Instead of going for a “skyway run” over lunch hour to the pharmacy, the grocery store or the order-at-the-counter deli, those trips and transactions may now happen in one’s neighborhood instead. Planning for these commercial districts to accommodate a greater variety of services and businesses will be important from the beginning of this new normal. Leaving this change in development to take place without changing the underlying conditions could result in a segmented development pattern in which housing is in one place and commerce is in another — connected only by short but unavoidable car trips in the absence of better planning.

The world has changed dramatically in the past six months. Some of these changes are going to become permanent; others may be temporary until the pandemic recedes. Yet others may be squarely in between — giving us the choice either to embrace some of the changes we’ve been forced to make or revert to how we were operating pre-pandemic, ignoring how the world has changed around us. If we are clear-eyed about the trends we have seen over the past six months — more working from home, less daily driving, less reliance on downtown — then our cities, neighborhoods and communities can begin to plan and adapt to what their residents increasingly need from them. Downtown may not, in fact, be dead;  it may have just moved closer to home.

Andy Lewis

About Andy Lewis

Aspiring urbanist, living in Edina via Minneapolis via Chicago. Advocate of walkability, transit, and biking of all sorts for all people. Teaching our two girls that driving is "annoying" and to ask "why can't we just walk there?".

15 thoughts on “Are Downtowns Dead? And What Might that Mean for Our Neighborhoods?

  1. Elizabeth Larey

    They aren’t dead now but they are well on their way. The violence is causing many people to rethink if they a) want to continue to live there or b) want to stay. My friends in Liinden Hills ( 5) have all put their houses up for sale. People ar bailing out on Mpls and St. Paul. Now that many can work from home, they would rather live in the outlying areas and have a large piece of land. So save your billions for mass transit.Noboey will be going to downtown to work

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I am not sure this is true. Linden Hills is going to remain an area in high demand. I’m much more worried about commercial uses in downtowns than residential.

  2. Kevin Gallatin

    I’ve been thinking the same thing, Andy. I always loved working downtown, but without the energy and the critical mass to keep downtown interesting, I just don’t see the appeal of commuting to work anymore. Personally I am really surprised at how much I’m enjoying working from home, and how much more productive I am. I’m also a better father and husband.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      We are fortunate to have (pandemic-safe) childcare, but if we did not, I’d be itching to get back to the office. We can’t both work and take care of the kid.

      1. Monte Castleman

        At my workplace teleworkers who volunteered were (in theory) required to have childcare during the day if there was not another adult at home to take care of the kids. This went out the window during the pandemic when virtually everyone else was forced involuntarily out of the office so now it’s not uncommon to hear a screaming kid in the background during meetings.

  3. Pete Barrett

    So, are we assuming that this or other pandemics will plague us in perpetuity? This might well be with us for two or three more years, I get that. Predicting the future is both seductive & nearly always humbling.

    To me, it seems common to overstate coming changes, and also to be blind sided by the big changes that do come to pass.

    My other thought is that what about the Southwest LRT? Will we go forward with that?

    1. Jeff

      I don’t think we’re assuming that – I think it’s fair to say we’re (or at least the author) is assuming that WFH policies that necessarily had to change due to COVID may stay the same and that even post-COVID (and who knows when post-COVID will be), people will prefer working from home for a good portion of the week. But I take your point about predicting the future.

      As for SWLRT, it’s already being built.

      1. Andy LewisAndy Lewis Post author

        No doubt that this is an effort to anticipate what might happen based on the last few months and what I know of and have heard about in terms of downtown employers’ future plans. But even moderate percentage changes in the number of people working part-time or full time from home will mean significant changes in the number of people downtown working most days. Whether right or wrong on any of these assumptions, the pandemic ending as soon as possible would be the best outcome of anything discussed here.

      2. Monte Castleman

        Or else even if employees want to come back management might not let them so they can ditch paying the office space. That’s the rumor going around the grapevine at my workplace now.

      3. Pete Barrett

        Oh man, more jargon. What in the world are “WFH policies”??? Would that be like WTH policies? Walking For Health? Some of these posts need a glossary.

        Dude, I know SWLRT is being built. Should we continue? Is it smart to continue? I’m pretty agnostic on it, but is it smart to SGMAB (Send Good Money After Bad)? Is that the best use of our resources? What percent of riders were supposed to commuters?

  4. Adam

    One thing to keep in mind is that many employers, especially large ones, have long term leases. Some might have to wait a couple years (or more) to downsize or relocate, and who knows what the environment will be like then. Landlords aren’t going to let them break leases. The other problem is that if you want leave downtown for a smaller, more affordable space, where do you go? I don’t think there is a glut of desirable space in the suburbs, especially if you need an entire floor or more. I think we will see a lot of change when it comes to small office users, but the big tenants will probably be stuck for a lot longer.

    1. Andy LewisAndy Lewis Post author

      Very true. There are ways to get some savings out of vacating early even if it’s still leased, though you’re still paying the rent. The question becomes – does that create opportunities for companies who have wanted in to downtown but couldn’t afford it to take sub-leases or other cheap real estate? To the earlier point, the pandemic won’t last forever, and for companies who still want an in-person presence, this could create more diversity in smaller companies doing corporate real estate “infill”.

      1. Pete Barrett

        An “in person presence”. Indeed.

        I’ve been wondering about this. For now, we’ve got a lot people newly working from home. The can zoom for meetings. I’ve participated in several non-work related zoom meetings. It’s OK, but it’s not the same as being there in person.

        It easier to read both people and the room when you’re in the room. It’s also easier to read people on zoom when you’ve know them and have a history of interacting with them in person.

        What happens when the “office” of 20 people who have the experience of having had actually worked in the same office becomes, due to normal turnover, becomes the “office” of 20 people who only know each other via zoom? How well will good managers get to know their employees when it’s a purely remote experience?

        Working remotely has been growing for some time before this most recent pandemic induced boost. But we’ve never done to this extent before, and we don’t know how it will pan out. It could be fine, or even more beneficial than in person offices. Time will tell whether the unforeseen benefits outweigh the unforeseen downsides.

  5. Andy E

    I think post-Covid there will be a partial reversion to the pre-Covid workplace. I would not be surprised to see, on any given day, 1/3rd to 1/2 of your professional worker working from home. This would be your architects, lawyers, programmers, investment bankers, and finance guys. Basically, people who spend most of their day working as an individual using their training and expertise. Meetings to go over projects, cases, or with clients would be scheduled on the same days. Basic status updates or quick questions are just as often answered on a quick phone call as a walk down the hall, so why can’t people just call from home?

    Now with all of that said, keep in mind that the support staff alone can equal or exceed the number of “professionals” (many, but not all, of support staff are as professional as the lawyers or architects, just without the degree and license). What I mean to say is, even if half of the lawyers leave downtown, that will only be 20-25% of total employees from a law firm. A firm that is using broom closets as offices on 2 floors won’t downsize their space, just give everyone more room. A firm that is currently occupying 3 or 4 entire floors, however (and there are those) may, on the other hand, be able to be creative with office assignments and downsize a floor.

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