Home from work – should offices be converted to housing?

There has been some speculation about large scale conversion of office space into housing since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic.

Cities large and small have witnessed a sharp decline in demand for office and retail space over the past year. Some analysts expect this trend will continue even after the health crisis ends for a few reasons:

  • Commercial office tenants are finding that some employees are just as productive working from home as they are working in an office. Therefore, these tenants will continue to reduce their office footprint.
  • Online shopping has grown steadily over the past two decades. Continuing demand for e-commerce will reduce demand for retail space.

So, the thinking goes, why not turn these derelict spaces into additional housing. A recent New York Times article explores what a large scale office-to-housing conversion might look like in the big apple.

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One year later: a home energy upgrade

A lifetime ago I did home energy audits. Last January I had my home in Ithaca, New York insulated and sealed up.

Eleven years ago I worked on the Weatherization Assistance Program of Washtenaw County, Michigan as an energy auditor. Through that program I learned how to use a blower door, inspect a home for insulation gaps and air leaks, and make recommendations for energy saving improvements. It was a satisfying way to help the community and the environment.

From a heating and energy perspective, my current house is far from perfect. The “three season room” in the front is not clearly indoor or outdoor space. Several additions to the original structure caused the house to have a variety of insulation conditions. There is little southern exposure to provide passive solar. The roof is poorly suited for solar panels.

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Snowy road

Snow on the sidewalk

One of the perennial chores of city dwellers in northern climates is the shoveling of snow from the sidewalk. The common practice for most cities is to require residents to remove snow and ice from the sidewalk adjacent to their property within a few hours of snowfall. Residents who fail to remove the snow face fines and citations for causing a hazardous condition on the sidewalk.

House on a snowy street
House on a snowy street with a shoveled sidewalk

In contrast, city and county highway crews are responsible for clearing snow from roadways. This makes sense considering the scale and efficiency gained by using heavy duty plow trucks. The costs of plowing roads are generally borne by all taxpayers within the municipality.

Ordinances requiring residents to remove snow from sidewalks have come under scrutiny of late by pedestrian advocates. These rules place a serious burden on elderly people and people with disabilities who may not be able to easily shovel their sidewalks. Residents incapable of taking care of their own sidewalk are forced to choose between relying on the goodwill of an able-bodied neighbor, paying for someone’s labor, or risking a citation.

Unevenly plowed sidewalks also make it substantially more difficult get anywhere on foot during the winter. Many trips in urban areas are short and could be completed by walking as long as sidewalks are safe to use. A requirement on residents to clear their sidewalks is a recipe for inconsistency as there will always be some people who are unable or unwilling to comply with the ordinance.

Thankfully, some snowy cities have taken steps to help pedestrians get through the winter safely and efficiently.

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Office meeting room

Does the office park have a future?

Back in the spring, it was hard for me to imagine that Covid would have real lasting consequences on our cities. After all, humanity has dealt with epidemics of disease for countless centuries. However, lately, I have wondered about the future of one specific type of development: the suburban office park.

In my experience, these single purpose landscapes may be the most vulnerable piece of suburban landscape even well after a vaccine is widely available.

Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)
Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)

The pandemic has caused basically every white collar worker to simultaneously take a crash course in working remotely and holding virtual meetings. I suspect that more employees and employers will be willing to allow these habits to continue following the end of this health crisis, especially if they can show that productivity has not suffered beyond an acceptable level.

Part of the reason managers and business owners might allow more remote work into future decades is so they can make substantial cuts to costs associated with owning or leasing office space.

Single purpose office parks are poorly suited to adapt to non-office uses following a global shift toward remote work. While a few light industrial uses may be able to occupy vacant office buildings, I am not optimistic about the future of the suburban office park in the long run.

Indeed, I believe office parks are ripe to be re-imagined as whole neighborhoods that integrate with their surrounding cities.

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Ride at Dawn

This summer I found myself obsessively planning bicycle tour routes. Ironically, this habit started shortly after Strava announced that its online route planning tool would be available only for paid subscribers and, coincidentally, after my smartphone GPS began misbehaving.

I decided to try out Komoot. And once I conquered the learning curve I was hooked on building bike tour routes.

Komoot allows route planning for trips on bike or foot. Planned trips can be loaded onto a GPS to see turn by turn directions. Trips can also be viewed from the smartphone app. Komoot also allows users to upload completed trips from GPS devices.

Here is an example of one of the first routes I planned this summer. I was familiar with parts of this ride such as the Black Diamond Trail and the scenic climb to the North of Robert H Treman State Park on NY-327, but I was unfamiliar with the roads in western Tompkins County that connected these two segments.

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South edge of the Streatery

Aurora Streatery

In late June the City of Ithaca decided to make a single block of Aurora Street into a temporary pedestrian plaza so adjacent restaurants could expand their outdoor seating. With Covid health regulations continuing to limit indoor restaurant capacity, the Aurora Streatery provides a way for some downtown establishments to stay open.

It’s been nearly three months and the orange traffic barrels and concrete barricades are still standing. Everything that was built for the Streatery was temporary, including the wooden ramps that connect the sidewalk (now mostly cafe seating) to the roadway (now a pedestrian thoroughfare).

I applaud the City of Ithaca for making this decision as New York began to ease Covid restrictions and allow more restaurants to open this summer. And, I think that the City should consider ways to allow the Streatery to operate for the foreseable year or more.

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Strolling on the sculpture trail in Seneca Falls

Few villages in Upstate New York have the cache of Seneca Falls. As home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and the likely inspiration for “Bedford Falls” in It’s A Wonderful Life, this place has a unique appeal that’s not found in most towns five times its size.

Bridge scene from It's a Wonderful Life
Still from It’s a Wonderful Life

I could easily have spent a full day exploring the historic places in Seneca Falls. The eastern face of the Women’s Rights NHP visitor center features an engraved version of the Declaration of Sentiments along with the names of the women who signed it. The village contains the homes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer among other sites important to the suffrage movement. But between Covid restrictions and a rambunctious toddler, we decided that this wasn’t the right time for a day long history lesson.

Engraving of the Declaration of Sentiments at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park

I found the Ludovico Sculpture Trail while searching for outdoor activities within an hour’s drive of Ithaca. The name and lack of official website intrigued me and led me to add it to a long list of potential stay-cation ideas.

As a place that was free, open, and outdoors, we decided to check it out. We parked at the eastern end of the trail near Bridge Street and set out to see what we could see.

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South Hill Elementary School playground

Playground hopping

This summer we had to get creative and figure out ways to keep Rowan entertained while doing our best to prevent the spread of Covid. That meant we spent a lot more time outdoors than we had ever imagined possible.

While playgrounds were off limits in the early days of the pandemic we did our best to avoid even saying the word aloud. Explaining that “playgrounds are closed” to a two-year-old is basically like telling him that his birthday is cancelled and all his toys have been melted down for scrap. No bueno.

South Hill Elementary playground was closed due to Covid as of April 2020

Thankfully most playgrounds did re-open and research showed that Covid was not easily spread by touching objects. Armed with hand sanitizer, we felt prepared to accept the risk of playing outdoors starting in July.

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect, and consider: what makes a great playground? In my view, there are at least four factors to consider:

  • Fun – the playground needs to be engaging and offer a variety of activities for kids of various ages and abilities.
  • Parent spaces – there should be space for adults to watch their kids comfortably.
  • Picnic areas – tables or grass for a snack break allow families to spend more time outdoors.
  • Restrooms – when you gotta go, you gotta go.

The ratings below are loosely based on these criteria.

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Cayuga Waterfront Trail near NYSDOT facility

If I had three million dollars…

(Set to the tune of the Barenaked Ladies 1992 hit)

A few weeks ago a NYSDOT maintenance facility in Ithaca went up for auction with a starting bid of $2.85 million. You know it’s going to be special when there’s a fancy video!

The eight acre site is situated between the Ithaca Farmer’s Market and the Cornell Boathouse. It is surrounded on two sides by the Cayuga Waterfront Trail.

Efforts to relocate the NYSDOT facility off this prime real estate have been happening for at least twenty years. Whoever buys this is clearly not going to use it as a yard for road salt, dump trucks, and highway signs. (In case you’re curious, the maintenance facility is moving to a site near the airport.) A 2016 study [large PDF] looked into redevelopment options for the site.

By next week the winning bid should be announced, but it may take longer for details about redevelopment to emerge.

The site is a bit disconnected from Ithaca’s primary street grid – the only route for vehicular traffic is via 3rd Street. Crossing Route 13 on foot or bike at 3rd Street is a bit nerve-racking even when traffic is light. While there are crosswalks, due to the geometry of the intersection it takes a long time to cross the highway on foot.

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Lunch in Hanover Square

Last week I visited Syracuse and ate lunch in Hanover Square. This was the first time I explored downtown Syracuse on foot.

Hanover Square is a triangular pedestrian plaza lined by historic buildings to the south, Water street to the north and Warren street to the east. The plaza is slightly sunken below street level and mostly concrete.

I found Hanover Square an engaging and humane. It was a delightful spot to observe the city and eat a burrito from Otro Cinco. (If it weren’t for the Covid-19 pandemic, I would have eaten in the restaurant and never found this place.)

At the time of my visit there were no cars parked in the square, and it did not appear as though vehicular traffic was permitted. However Google Street View reveals that parking is apparently allowed along the south edge.

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