The City of “Yes, And”
Saying “No” to the Urban Doom Loop
Imagine seven Empire State Buildings on the Austin skyline. At 1,454 feet,1 each would tower over Austin’s next tallest skyscraper, the 875-foot-tall 6th & Guadalupe building. It’s not impossible to envision a future Austin that reaches such great heights.
But today, they would all be empty.
Seven Empire State Buildings is roughly equivalent to the 20 million square feet of office space that is currently on the market in the Texas capital. In the coming years, another 6 million square feet will come online, dropping two more empty Empire State Buildings onto the skyline.
At 22% Austin’s office vacancy is higher than the national average of 18%. The city is faring better than Houston, about the same as Seattle, but worse than Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Consequently, in Austin and all across America, office sales have stagnated and property values have plummeted. Meanwhile, declining commercial tax revenues could blow big holes in municipal and school budgets. Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, my former business school professor, warns of an “urban doom loop” a la 1970s New York, a catastrophic cycle of population decline, building disuse, fiscal crisis, and urban decay that only further incentivizes people to leave. Urban noir classics like Death Wish and Taxi Driver captured the gritty, gloomy, and occasionally gonzo zeitgeist of that time.
Doom loops are no laughing matter for cities. So what can they do?
In my view, cities should take a page from improvisational comedy and embrace the concept of “Yes, And.” Chicago’s famous The Second City explains:
The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way…The “And” part comes in when you are in a scene and can add to what your partner started rather than detract from it.
How does this relate to cities?
I’ve written that cities, faced with falling populations and empty office buildings, must say “Yes” to people and remove restrictive barriers that have historically kept them from building sufficient housing. Saying “Yes” is a recognition of the new reality, an embrace of a work-from-home world that has transformed how and where we work (as WeWork has discovered, it’s a lot less frequently in office buildings!). To say “Yes” is to embrace a shift in mindset from one of scarcity and crisis to one of opportunity and growth.
“Yes” is necessary but not sufficient.
This is where the “And” comes in. “And” is what cities can add, build, and create—the new residents they can attract, the new businesses they can foster, the buildings they can transform, and the serendipity that emerges when all three come together. It’s inviting all your city-dwelling scene partners into a more expansive, more experimental, more improvisational future.
Building more housing is only part of the solution to avoiding the “urban doom loop.” To really restimulate the urban economic opportunity machine, cities have got to figure out what to do with all those empty office buildings.
Arlington, Virginia is showing the way. Earlier this year, the county2 said “Yes” to people by passing zoning changes that would allow for the construction of more affordable “missing middle” housing. Now the city is saying “Yes, And” through its Commercial Market Resiliency Initiative. The initiative is:
a strategy to modernize Arlington’s regulations, practices, and processes to ensure a more nimble response to economic shifts [that] seeks to enable market-based solutions to address the commercial building supply, specifically repositioning and converting obsolete inventory.
In other words, it's a plan to fix all those damn office buildings.
Arlington will streamline cumbersome processes, amend zoning ordinances to allow a greater variety of uses by right, permit greater flexibility on height, density, and parking requirements, and create financial incentives. The new rules will make it much easier (or allow for the first time) for office buildings to be transformed into universities, micro-fulfillment centers, pet boarding facilities, breweries and distilleries, maker spaces, urban farms, studios and galleries, indoor entertainment centers, light industrial laboratories, and food service establishments—you know, places that people might actually want to go to for work or fun.
The initiative is also a recognition that office-to-residential conversions are not a panacea. In a more recent report, Prof. Nieuwerburgh, et al (whoever they are), estimate only 11% of office buildings nationwide are suitable for such conversions. Strong Towns explains why that’s the case in non-academese here, but suffice it to say that the reasons why many 1970s-through-90s-era cubicle-farm-style buildings are undesirable places to work makes them even less desirable places to live. To wit, the White House is so worried about the office conversion problem that it issued a press release to let developers know that we have a federal government and it’s here to help.
Back in Austin, there is nearly 600,000 square feet of vacant office space at 6th & Guadalupe alone. Could Austin make it easier for Meta, its reluctant tenant, to sublease that space for completely different uses? 6th & Gaudalupe falls into the Central Business District zoning category that allows many commercial uses but puts restrictions on certain educational uses, community recreational spaces, and adult-oriented businesses (no judgment!). Meanwhile, uses like clubs or hospitals require prospective tenants to seek a conditional use permit that requires, among other things, an expensive and cumbersome site plan review process that could take years. Outside the Central Business District, it’s even more difficult. Other office-specific zoning categories exclude all manner of commercial uses entirely.
While Austin is still sounding out how to say “Yes” to people, it recently said “And” in one important way. City Council unanimously voted to revise the land development code to allow childcare centers by right in nearly every part of the city, including all office zones, an initiative that will make it cheaper and easier to build centers in so-called childcare deserts. As someone who used to build and manage Montessori preschools for a living, I could tell you horror stories about navigating Byzantine urban land use codes—but this is about improv comedy, so I won’t. Austin also has a number of so-called food deserts—what if the city expanded by-right uses for grocery stores across its office zones? Meanwhile, entrepreneurs in Austin showed the potential possibilities for underused office parking garages, converting one into a pickleball court.
A brighter, less-office-intensive future is limited only by our imagination—but also and more importantly by city code.
To solve the urban doom loop, cities must rethink the arbitrary, outdated, and exclusionary land-use practices that limit the world we might imagine. Austin, for instance, could give its obsolescent office buildings a new lease on life by expanding the types of commercial uses allowed by right in its various office zones. By-right childcare is a great start—but why not eliminate the category of office zoning altogether and allow for vibrant, mixed-use areas where a plethora of businesses and people can flourish?
Office vacancies are an opportunity for cities to reimagine what they can be and who they can be for. Austin, which is nurturing a notable comedy scene, should take a page from Arlington’s playbook. Across America, it’s high time for cities to adopt a more lighthearted and improvisational approach to restrictive zoning rules by saying “Hell, No!” to the urban doom loop and embracing “Yes, And.”
For my European readers, the equivalent of 443.2 meters, 4,362 hands, or 2.2 furlongs.
Arlington is legally a county, but it functions as a city.