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Public Lobbies Are the Next Big Office Amenity

In trying to lease space in a tough office market and lure workers back to the office, owners of office properties across the country have felt the pressure to beef up amenities. We’ve seen everything from pickleball courts to golf simulators pop up in high-profile office towers. But one building component not often thought of as a typical office amenity is quickly becoming one and is something every building has: the lobby. Over the past couple of years, office owners across the country have been undertaking major renovations of their properties, as competition for tenants has intensified due to remote work. At many of those projects, lobbies are a major part of the repositioning plan. The trend of doing more with lobby space, which has historically served as a transitional space and not much else, started before the pandemic but has accelerated in light of the global health crisis. 

Looking to stand out from the crowd, a lot of major office owners and developers are experimenting with lobby design and activation. It’s something Sofia Juperius, a design director at the architectural firm Vocon, has seen firsthand in her work helping landlords around the country renovate their office properties. “I think owners see the importance of activating the street level and they are trying to figure out what their draw is and what makes it different from others,” Juperius said. 

Vocon is heading up the design of the repositioning of 51 West 52nd Street in Manhattan, also known as the CBS Building and Black Rock. The 38-story tower is the only office tower ever designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen and was completed in 1965. Among the renovations at the property, amenities will be extended to the lobby so tenants will have access to a full-time food and beverage bar from day to night. 

As owners rethink their lobbies to serve more purposes, there’s a growing trend toward creating “porous” areas. At another property Juperius’ firm has worked on, 1740 Broadway, the general public can walk into the lobby and sit in the lounge or at a bar that is an extension of the ground-floor restaurant, an area between the lobby and the restaurant that falls somewhere between public and private space. “I do think what we’re seeing is definitely a pattern that more and more building landlords are looking to find an offering that blends the two a little more,” Jupierus said of public and private amenities. “How can our beautiful building amenity also function as a destination?”

Other reimagined office lobbies offer huge spaces to the public. At PENN 1, Vornado Realty Trust’s office tower in Midtown Manhattan, a $450 million redevelopment effort is transforming the 1970s-built property into a premier office tower, and a big part of the renovations are focused on the lobby. The first three floors of the building now include more than 160,000 square feet of what Vornado calls “WorkLife” amenities, including a fitness center, a full-service restaurant, and 100,000 square feet of flexible workspace and conference rooms. Now, tenants and the general public can walk inside the lobby, head up a staircase to the second floor, and take in a tennis match or soccer game on a large screen while lounging in the space’s bleacher-like seating area with a beer.

A second-floor lounge area open to the public at Vornado’s PENN 1 office property in Manhattan. (Image via Vornado)

Balancing public and private space in lobby areas is something a lot of landlords are thinking about right now. Security is certainly an issue, and something Juperius said most owners are prepared to handle. In Boston, where Vocon is doing a major repositioning, including activating the lobby, the main area is open enough that there is a security checkpoint off to the side so visitors going up into the office space of the building still have to go through a turnstile or pass by a security desk. What’s also happening more is that buildings are creating portions of amenity spaces, including some in the lobby areas, to be exclusive to tenants, while keeping other amenities public. It’s something that’s even appearing in lease agreements, where landlords agree that the restaurant will operate in the lobby but tenants will have special privileges for happy hours and team lunches at the lobby restaurant. “That way tenants will know that they always have a table,” Juperius said.

Adding amenities to the lobby, whether it’s a coffee kiosk, a co-working space, or a lounge area, not only creates a more inviting atmosphere and helps create a better energy to the space, but it also serves as another revenue source. And that’s something that will certainly be a welcome addition for office owners looking to increase cash flow in today’s tough office landscape, where many tenants are shrinking their footprints. It’s also something that could help retain tenants and boost office occupancy, according to Brenden Welch, managing director of Property Management at Bridge Commercial Real Estate. In a recent survey the company took of its tenants, Bridge found that in terms of property features that have the most overall impact on tenant satisfaction, an office building’s lobby appearance was more important than even the building’s location. The ability to hire, recruit, and retain employees continues to be one of the top challenges and focus area for tenants,” Welch said. “So when you see things like lobby appearance as an important piece of the puzzle, it has a direct correlation to their philosophy or goals around hiring and retaining talent.”

Is activating lobbies and adding public-friendly amenities just a trend though? It’s hard to imagine going back to the cold, museum-like lobbies that we have typically seen in Class A office properties, now that top office buildings in major markets have made a splash with more welcoming, amenitized spaces on the ground floor. In commercial and residential buildings, there’s been more attention paid recently toward connecting a property to neighboring buildings and the community as a whole, and lobbies are part of that movement. We can’t see the future, but if things do change, designing lobby spaces to be flexible so configurations can change over time could be the way to ensure they will be able to adapt to whatever trend is next.

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