As Workers Stay Remote, Can LA Turn Empty Offices Into Housing?
Many Californians have been working from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and some companies plan to let their workers stay fully remote.
So what happens to all those empty offices?
With Los Angeles in the midst of a severe housing crisis, some see promise in turning dormant office buildings into apartments through “adaptive reuse.”
“I definitely think that more and more office space will be turned into housing — and it should be,” said Karin Liljegren, founder and principal of L.A.-based architecture firm Omgivning, which specializes in adaptive reuse.
However, converting commercial spaces into housing is often easier said than done. And some researchers say the potential gains may not be enough to significantly address the region’s housing needs.
Still, L.A.’s track record shows the city already has a leg up on other parts of California when it comes to transforming commercial properties into homes. And with many office buildings facing an uncertain future, those conversions could become even more common.
How Downtown LA Turned Empty Offices Into Apartments
In Downtown L.A., 5th St. between Broadway and Hill St. buzzes with the sound of passing cars and commuters leaving the Pershing Square Metro stop.
But walk through the doors of the Metropolitan Building and take the elevator up to Karin Tracy’s 10th-floor apartment, and suddenly everything sounds subdued.
“It's much quieter,” Tracy said. “We do have more of a bird's eye view of what's going on.”
The thick walls of this concrete edifice didn’t always house apartments.
Built in 1913, the Metropolitan originally contained medical offices and shops — even an early branch of the L.A. Public Library.
“I'm a big book nerd,” said Tracy. “So the idea of living in an old library is pretty cool.”
The Rise And Fall — And Rise Again — Of Old Downtown Buildings
Like much of downtown, the Metropolitan entered a period of decline in the late 20th century. Freeways led to suburban sprawl, and residents fled the neighborhood.
Discount store Fallas Paredes stayed in business on the Metropolitan’s ground floor, but the upper stories were largely vacant.
In 1999, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance to streamline adaptive reuse projects in distressed downtown buildings.
By the 2000s, residents lured by new housing options, walkable neighborhoods and proximity to transit started pouring back into L.A.’s urban core.
In 2011, developers finished converting the Metropolitan into loft-style apartments.
Tracy’s unit isn't original to the building. It was added onto the roof during renovations. Still, she said living in a historic building offers a unique feel.
“I like the idea of living somewhere where the original intent perhaps wasn't to house people,” she said. “You can imagine the commerce that used to take place in this building.”
LA Leads The State In Commercial-To-Residential Conversions
Downtown’s resurgence helped turn L.A. into a hotspot for adaptive reuse.
A recent paper from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found that from 2014 to 2019, Los Angeles created about 28,000 housing units on commercially zoned land, far more than any other large metro area in California.
“The first five-mile ring around Downtown L.A. is the place where we see the highest conversion rates,” said economist Issi Romem, a Terner Center fellow who co-authored the study.
Romem said with the pandemic changing how people work, many developers and investors are interested in ramping up these conversions.
“Everybody is holding their breath to see to what extent people return to the office,” Romem said. “That said, going from a lot of excitement to changes on the ground is not trivial.”
These conversions have been limited, Romem said. Even if L.A.’s conversion rate were to triple in coming years, it wouldn’t make a huge dent in the overall need for new housing. Under state law, Southern California must plan for 1.3 million new homes by 2029.
“If we are really aiming to get California's housing price appreciation more in line with the rest of the nation, we're going to need to touch single-family areas and get them to start densifying,” Romem said.
The Environmental Case For Repurposing Old Buildings
Adaptive reuse proponents say there’s still a lot of untapped potential.
Earlier this year, the Central City Association (a downtown business advocacy group) released a paper estimating that by converting 10% of L.A.’s existing office space into housing, the city could create about 16,000 new homes.
The report said even more homes could result if conversions expand to include underused retail spaces, industrial properties, hotels and parking lots.
In March, the city council voted to begin exploring a plan that would expand L.A.'s 1999 adaptive reuse ordinance citywide, while requiring new projects to create housing units that are affordable for moderate-income families.
Architect Karin Liljegren has been working on adaptive reuse projects in L.A. for more than 20 years. Her firm is currently involved in plans to turn the shuttered Boyle Heights Sears building into a mixed-use development with more than 1,000 live-work apartments.
Liljegren sees many upsides to adaptive reuse. Keeping old buildings in place preserves neighborhood character, she said. And unlike ground-up construction, this approach is less likely to face pushback from nearby residents.
Liljegren said perhaps the biggest benefit is environmental.
“We all need to start thinking about reuse,” she said. “Just to think about demolishing a building — the energy that takes, where that goes, and bringing in all new stuff and starting from scratch — it just doesn't make any sense.”
Demolition creates more than 90% of the waste generated by new building construction, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Former American Institute of Architects president Carl Elefante is credited with coining an oft-repeated phrase: “The greenest building is one that is already built.”
Some Buildings Are Harder To Transform Than Others
In another recent paper for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center, graduate student researcher Elliot Kwon highlighted a number of projects across California that successfully turned old commercial buildings into housing, including a former bank in Santa Ana that now offers 58 units of affordable housing for artists.
Kwon said there is promise in this approach, but it isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.
“Commercial buildings, especially those built in America during the 20th century, don't really vibe well with how the building needs to perform for residential uses,” Kwon said.
For example, those old office buildings in Downtown L.A. were great candidates for reuse, because they were built relatively narrow.
They went up before air conditioning existed, so each room needed plenty of windows to bring in fresh air and natural light.
But after the rise of air conditioning, L.A.’s office buildings got fatter, with lots of windowless, climate-controlled interior space. Kwon said renters won’t want to live in those areas.
“Those types of mismatches tend to lead to pretty costly rehabilitation measures from the architectural and construction side,” he said.
Will Converted Apartments Be Affordable?
The costs of those fixes can add up.
For instance, Omgivning’s vision for the Boyle Heights Sears building involves carving nine huge light courts into the building to bring in more fresh air and sunshine.
Kwon said extensive rehab jobs mean that adaptive reuse doesn’t always create housing that’s affordable.
“There needs to be a lot of other financial mechanisms that support it for it to become affordable,” he said. “So it's not impossible, but I would say difficult.”
Liljegren said with some creativity, many office buildings, strip malls and even churches can be turned into housing — especially as demand for those spaces dries up.
“We can deal with building footprints that don't at first glance look like they would be good for residential,” she said.
Companies Are Already Abandoning Their Offices
Adaptive reuse projects often result in living spaces that look significantly different from other apartments. Ceilings are higher. Walls are thicker. Layouts are more open.
Scott Denton works for a company that owns The Broadway Lofts, a Downtown L.A. apartment building that once housed the ritzy department store Le Bon Marché. He also lives in one of the units.
“This genuinely feels like a bunker,” Denton said of his apartment. “It's very quiet. And I like the peace. It's just like a little oasis of privacy in the city.”
Adaptive reuse proponents hope those features will appeal to renters turned off by other cookie-cutter apartment buildings. The question is whether desirable homes can be fashioned out of today’s deserted office blocks.
Back at the Metropolitan Building, Karin Tracy said even if she wanted to return to the office for her marketing job, her Washington, D.C.-based employer won’t have an office to return to.
“My company decided to become fully remote,” she said. “We are giving up our office space.”
The future of such office space is now anyone’s guess.