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Many urban downtowns hope converting empty and underused office buildings to apartments will mitigate the fiscal impacts of increased working from home. But can office districts and buildings be converted to residential, building new neighborhoods? A great exhibit at New York’s Skyscraper Museum, curated by Museum Founder and Director Carol Willis, says “yes” by documenting the history of actual conversions in lower Manhattan.

“Residential Rising: Lower Manhattan Since 9/11,” the Museum’s current exhibit, shows how lower Manhattan—the home of Wall Street and the finance sector—now has a strong residential presence. The Museum tells us “the population of lower Manhattan, which was 39,000 in 2000, now tops 82,000 residents.” The exhibit emphasizes this growth came even after the catastrophe of 9/11, when many observers had written downtown off.

When you think of “Wall Street,” you think of finance, the stock exchange, and busy offices and trading floors, right? So you’ll likely to be surprised (as I was) to learn that a good percentage of buildings on the actual Wall Street are now residential, not offices and financial exchanges.

Downtown got an initial residential boost from Battery Park City, built on landfill in the Hudson River from the original World Trade Center project. But that construction, and all downtown commercial and residential development, largely stopped after 9/11. (Federal funds eventually were directed to the area, which were significant in its overall recovery.)

A good deal of attention has gone to dramatic downtown luxury residential projects from famous architects like Rafael Viñoly and Frank Gehry. (Gehry’s shape-shifting building at 8 Spruce Street was recently purchased by Blackstone for $930 million.)

But the Museum shows us converting older office buildings has provided more new residences downtown than new construction. Since 2000, “about 12,000 units had been converted to residential versus around 9,000 units added in new buildings.” Of the twelve largest residential buildings added since 2005, seven of them are conversions.

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Willis is an architectural historian with a firm grasp of design and construction, but also economics. Her 1995 book, Form Follows Finance, details how building and zoning codes, technology, and especially financial considerations shaped development of modern skyscrapers, not just the aesthetic visions of architects.

So the current exhibit discusses not only the physical challenges of changing offices to residences (plumbing, building codes that require windows for residents, access) but the economics and regulations around conversion. While government post-9/11 funds were significant overall, private developers had to make money in order for conversions to happen. New York enabled that through a variety of “incentives for density, historic preservation tax credits, and new construction.”

Some commentators think big office buildings with large floor plates are too difficult and expensive to convert. But Willis is a historian, and the exhibit gives us the historical evidence. Conversions can happen if the finances are right—if the project “pencils out,” as they say in the business. Several of the largest successful conversions in lower Manhattan are indeed big postwar office buildings with large floor plates and other design features that some claim make conversions almost impossible.

The exhibit doesn’t prove (or suggest) office conversions are a magic solution to any city’s central business district problems. The unknown scale and permanence of working from home versus the office, the technical complexities of building conversion, political opposition to new housing and changes in regulations and zoning, and the higher costs of investment and construction as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates all present barriers to conversion.

The Museum also is worth a visit for its permanent exhibits about skyscrapers, urban density, city life, economics, and design. If you’re in New York, go see “Residential Rising” (it runs at least until next January.) If you’re not in the city, see the Museum’s great website. You’ll learn from history and real experience that significant conversions of offices to residences can happen, even in complex urban environments like New York City.

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