The New Normal
DC like most cities is a complicated ecosystem whose sum of parts are intricately linked. Everything is connected to demand. For many downtowns and central business districts, the loss of workers, customers, and visitors will have a widespread impact on our cities for many years to come.
Only public policy — working in partnership with local property owners and the commercial real estate community — will prove critical.
DC faces the specter of widespread unemployment but only among certain segments of the population; service workers (cooks, busboys, hotel valet’s, valet services, etc.) which are all impacted more greatly by the pandemic than the average DC worker employed by local and federal governments.
For cities that are reliant on visitors, the impacts of the pandemic have been particularly acute. With a near elimination of the 50 million annual visitors and the closure of major destination drivers like Museums, the future of retail and entertainment spaces driven by visitor spending is at risk. Many restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment venues have closed for good.
Long-Term Outdoor Dining Policies for Mixed-Use Neighborhoods
In response to the challenges of the pandemic, many cities across the nation have embraced outdoor dining, streamlining previously overly bureaucratic approvals processes as a lifeline to the restaurant industry. In order to have a real impact cities must commit to outdoor dining for the foreseeable future. Cities will need to manage the inevitable conflicts between outdoor dining and residential communities particularly in mixed-use urban environments where noise can impact the quality of life of residents who live above a bar or restaurant.
Support for Non-Profit Destination Drivers
Beyond outdoor dining, we must get to the heart of the matter – getting customers to return. Destination drivers like entertainment venues, theatres, cultural institutions, and clubs must be supported. Actions like the ”Save Our Stages” legislation must be supported and funded by the federal government. The loss of visitors to the neighborhoods that these venues reside in will have a tremendous impact on local businesses. Efforts to ensure these destination drivers survive will be critical to getting visitors to return and spend money in local businesses.
The New Office Model
Another major component of downtown spending is the office worker. While current work from home policies have been devastating for many downtown businesses, all is not lost in the long-term. Developers are creating new “socially distanced” office set-ups, installing new ventilation systems, and building more outdoor/indoor spaces into offices.
Also, long-term working from home seems to be less popular among younger segments of the workforce, so businesses that are heavily reliant on a young workforce may be less willing to go entirely remote. Older workers (many of whom are balancing childcare and families) seem to favor WFH, while younger workers are interested in a collegial atmosphere, which delivers human connections that are so critical to mentoring and professional development. Regardless of how this plays out, we can likely expect a contraction of retail in our downtown environments. So, the next question for cities should be what do we do with all of this now vacant retail space?
Ground Floor Retail Requirements
Ground floor retail requirements will have to change. Many cities often required new buildings to include retail space whether or not there was a demand for it, resulting in vacancies. City zoning boards will have to review their procedures and policies to meet the needs of the new post-pandemic market place. If zoning codes and regulations prevent the flexible use of space for non-retail uses, these spaces will remain empty for much longer than necessary.
Possible solutions include creating concentrations of retail stores, i.e. a retail district, similar to an outdoor mall. From a city standpoint, this would include policies like paying attention to sidewalk widths and public open space, programming, activation, and tenant mix regulations determined by city planners.
Moving forward, we recognize that public sector leadership will be critical to ensure that public policy is used to help set the stage, rather than hinder, our nation’s recovery from this pandemic.