The pandemic disrupted our life and work, but it also has provided an opportunity to reimagine cities. It also gives us a chance to reinvent some of the things that maybe we weren’t so crazy about in the first place. For example, many office districts are often known for little more than the companies that lease in them. But now the new place of the office in our work lives and a period of regeneration for struggling retailers gives us a way to start fresh and rethink our office towers.
Global design firm Gensler proposes an “inside, outside” approach to designing ground-floor office spaces that takes amenities to the street edge. A recent Gensler report authored by Architect Brian Stromquist, co-lead of Gensler’s Technology Workplace Practice, notes that with the current focus on equity and opportunity, this is an opportune time to reprogram pedestrian-facing spaces in a way that connects the workplace with the community and enhance the urban experience for everyone.
Architect Darrell Fulbright, principal and design director at Gensler San Diego, explains that the “inside, outside” approach blurs the lines between public and private, dismantles barriers between the workplace and community to connect people and enhance the human experience.
He says that this hybrid concept includes outdoor programming, like a farmer’s market or pop-up art installation, that creates activity on the street, which benefits landlords by making their buildings look alive.
“Investing in sidewalk-facing storefronts and adjacent street spaces provides a vibrant, amenity-driven environment for building tenants and attracts quality retail tenants, like restaurants with celebrity chefs, which is also good for the community,” Fulbright adds.
This approach also could bring back some of the small retail businesses dependent on office workers, such as cafés and sandwich shops, that were decimated by the pandemic and help them become more sustainable with the whole community as customers.
Historically office retail spaces have been designed as small, enclosed boxes. The Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle, and Grand Central Market in Los Angeles as examples of successful, iconic retail spaces that organically mix the indoors and outdoors to provide a sense of texture, discovery and exploration.
“These are qualities we can translate into the street if we’re willing to think both creatively and strategically to design for an interesting and engaging tenant mix,” says Jonathan Ward, design partner at global design firm NBBJ. He says that designing commercial retail environments in a way that seamlessly integrates indoors and outdoors connects tenants with an ongoing slate of physical and experiential programming and activations, from satellite art spaces connected to larger institutions to educational sessions, outdoor libraries, and play spaces for children.
Offering strategies for developing active, alluring, and authentic ground-floor spaces, Ward suggests employing varied, diverse programming that speaks to the community’s unique character, flexing between different uses throughout the day, from hosting an early morning Pilates class to an afternoon lecture series to a happy hour social event.
Brookfield Place, an 8-million-square-foot office complex on the Hudson River known as the World Financial Center, was redeveloped to reconfigure 300,000 square foot to retail amenities, programmed with ongoing events, from fitness classes to ping-pong competitions to live music and art exhibits, that attract the public and provide an experiential environment for office occupants.
The $250-million transformation, which was led by Brookfield Properties, includes an iconic glass Entry Pavilion that links the complex with downtown’s two new mass transit hubs and lobby and façade renovations as well as a retail courtyard which features over thirty shops and a variety of cafes, restaurants, and bars.
Landlords in Manhattan also are transforming the lobbies of fortress-style office towers into inviting green spaces. Brett Shannon, a first vice president in CBRE’s New York City Agency Group who represents office landlords, cites 60 Wall Street as an example of this trend.
Owned by Paramount Group Inc., this financial fortress, which formerly housed banking goliaths JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, is undergoing a renovation that is transforming a dark, underutilized space on the ground level to an airy, welcoming public garden with an array of biophilic elements to soften the environment. The renovation also includes a 100-foot Green Wall. This space
Ward notes that public-private partnerships with civic, cultural, educational, and community organizations also can enliven retail spaces. But many times attempts to create a cultural center can miss the mark, especially in areas that are sensitive to gentrification.
In his report, Gensler architect Stromquist cites strategies to engage the community and help mitigate market displacement of creative communities. He suggests that companies provide residencies to local visual artists and graphic designers to create art installations that evoke delight and enhance the workplace environment.
If done right, a multipurpose community center can support a variety of community and cultural activities, often for groups who have been most significantly impacted by the redevelopment of an area. Its design can be optimized for flexibility, allowing for the fluid rotation of classes, exhibits, and retail, or used to host career or health fairs, adult education programs, or even provide childcare, Stromquist says.
There are roadblocks to creating these diverse urban spaces. This includes municipal zoning laws that organize cities into separate places, unintentionally discouraging ingenuity, innovation, and democratization in redesigning ground-floor retail in office buildings.
“One of the biggest challenges in moving toward zoning reform is the limited way many cities interpret what retail and what vibrancy are,” NBBJ’s Ward tells Propmodo. “If we can widen that definition beyond point-of-sale for physical products and goods to include experiences and events, we can allow for a greater variety of tenants.”
He notes that zoning changes could provide great opportunities to create more engaging common spaces, especially in central business districts. Zoning changes, for example, could allow public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots to be converted to covered patio seating for restaurants or mini playgrounds.
It isn’t just the government that is stifling placemaking in our cities. Long-term leases make it prohibitive for companies to experiment with new concepts and landlords tend to favor more established businesses. A more flexible retail tenancy would allow a faster rotation of tenants, such as pop-up programming, and would bring in new audiences, drive greater foot traffic, and reframe how people view a given street.
Vibrant ground-floor retail is so useful for an office district that office landlords are now partnering with retailers, offering them space at reduced or no rent for a share of the profits and sharing the cost of buildouts. This arrangement, in which the landlord shares in both the risk and success of retail tenants, attracts more artisanal businesses to try their hand in the location. EQ Office, for example, partnered with Michelin-starred Chef John Fraser to operate a restaurant at its 1740 Broadway building in Manhattan.
“It’s a unique opportunity to define the street level of buildings,” says Ward. “If done right these changes can establish an identity for an area and offer a critical ‘third space’ that will likely be key to enticing workers back to the office.”
In order to change you have to accept that you need to change. We have to accept that our office buildings, and by extension the central business districts that they comprise, are not good enough. Once we do that we can start exploring the endless possibilities of how to make them better.