Monday, July 27, 2020

Hollowing Out Midtown Manhattan

Some of us Manhattanites do not work in midtown office towers. We do not work in downtown office towers either. We are holed up in more modest circumstances, and thus are detached from the everyday desolation that has come to define life in New York City.

Michael Wilson has now offered a glum but beautifully drawn picture of life in Midtown West. He begins with the life of the great office towers and moves on to the people involved. 

He opens:

Editors and account managers at the Time & Life Building in Midtown Manhattan could once walk out through the modernist lobby and into a thriving ecosystem that existed in support of the offices above. They could shop for designer shirts or shoes, slide into a steakhouse corner booth for lunch and then return to their desks without ever crossing the street.

It is frankly catastrophic:

Midtown Manhattan, the muscular power center of New York City for a century, faces an economic catastrophe, a cascade of loss upon loss that threatens to alter the very identity of the city’s corporate base. The coronavirus’s toll of lost professions, lost professionals and untold billions of lost income and tax revenue may take years to understand and resolve.

Other neighborhoods are rushing to reopen, while Midtown remains stuck in a purgatorial Phase Zero, its very purpose — to bring as many human beings together as possible — strangling most hope of a convincing comeback in the foreseeable future and offering a sign of what may lie in store for business districts across the country.

Upstairs, floors are mostly empty, as companies reassess their need for office space, raising serious questions about the future of the city’s commercial real estate market. 

Downstairs, streets were lined with the creature comforts that made working in Midtown not only bearable, but even fun. They are vanishing, and with them, the men and women who fed, clothed, poured drinks for and drove the people in those tall buildings.

The Men’s Wearhouse below the former Time & Life Building, now named 1271 Avenue of the Americas (its address), remained boarded up for months. The store reopened early this month, its role in offering and tailoring custom business and formal attire perhaps never less relevant.

The staffs of the steakhouses were furloughed months ago. Mr. Ahmed, the hot dog vendor, looking over what should be prime real estate outside Radio City Music Hall at West 50th Street, said he was thinking of cutting back to every other day.

Empty offices, shut down boutiques, closed restaurants. Some people will be able to work from home, but most of the lower end employees will not.

The subway system data is not encouraging:

Subway data tells a story as stark as Mr. Ahmed’s cart. Take the Rockefeller Center subway station, a major stop for four train lines and the point of entry and exit to the neighborhood for workers from all over.

Last year on June 24, a Monday, there were 62,312 MetroCard turnstile swipes as riders entered the station. On the comparable Monday this year, June 22, the number of swipes was 8,032, a staggering 87 percent decrease.

In jeopardy of extinction, at least in its known state, is the corporate office culture at large — its corner suites and cubicles, water-cooler movie reviews, coffee breaks, office crushes, shoeshines, black cars. Happy hour, “Mad Men.”

And then there is the impact on real estate:

The emptying out of Midtown has had a profound impact on the Executive Plaza, which opened in 1986 at Seventh Avenue and West 51st Street in what had previously been the Taft Hotel. Its more than 400 apartments, rented out to companies based in the area, including The New York Times, have been temporary homes to countless employees, executives, trainees, foreign correspondents visiting their home bases and Broadway performers — including the Rockettes and Santa Claus — needing a short-term place to stay.

But since the city shut down in March, many of those corporations, with no one traveling, have not renewed their leases. So the building has pivoted, persuading the owners of the apartments to cut rents for a new kind of tenant.

It would be interesting to do the same study of Wall Street and downtown office buildings.

As I said, Wilson offers an excellent picture of a city in decline. His was more descriptive than analytic, but the next piece should be about how much of the destitution comes from failed politicians. A city that elects Bill de Blasio and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is not long for greatness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The commuter parking lots in my Nassau County town are still almost completely empty. Only the spots right next to the LIRR tracks are mostly filled.