The evidence that remote work is here to stay just got serious.
As serious as empty skyscrapers in Bellevue.
We’ve been casually debating when workers will finally return to their office cubicles after the dislocations of the pandemic. I think most people, me included, figured workers would dribble back eventually because … that’s the way we’ve always done it. And the offices with their Aeron chairs and coffee carts are all sitting there waiting for us!
But in the past few weeks, the region’s two biggest employers have signaled that “Build it and they will come,” the old normal, is no longer operative.
First Microsoft announced it’s ending its lease on a 550,000-square foot building in Bellevue along Interstate 90.
Then Amazon said it is pausing construction on five Bellevue office towers, as well as mothballing a sixth. For the ones already started, the company will complete the “core and shell” and then stop work for an unknown period of time. The six towers would total roughly half the company’s planned Bellevue footprint.
Amazon told the Puget Sound Business Journal it still intends to hire 15,000 more workers affiliated with its Bellevue operations (for an eventual total of 25,000). But it isn’t sure yet how often those workers will be at the physical office towers. So it doesn’t know how to configure the towers for the coming hybrid working world.
“We’re still learning how these new habits may impact our office footprint,” Amazon’s John Schoettler told The Seattle Times. “Our offices are long-term investments, and we want to make sure that we design them in a way that meets our employees’ needs in the future.”
Seems pretty smart to me. So shouldn’t cities be doing the same forward thinking?
Why are we continuing with the same transit planning — such as for Sound Transit’s future light-rail segments — without factoring that a third or more of the workforce may not be commuting to a downtown core, or commuting at all?
Cities maybe should also start preparing for a future in which the work areas of the city increasingly blur and overlap with the residential areas.
“Land-use law’s separation of work from home, and the emphasis on transit to maintain this separation, seems increasingly antiquated in an era of rising demand for remote work,” writes Stephanie Stern, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, in a recent paper in Stanford Law and Policy Review.
Stern coined the provocative term “untransit” to describe what she suspects is about to happen — a breakup of century-old work/life urban design patterns.
She dubbed Zoom, the remote meeting software, “the modern equivalent of the streetcar — a technological advance that will profoundly alter land use.”
Some of the changes are likely to be godsends. Taking even 10% of daily commuters off the congested roads has long been a dream of traffic planners.
But some will be challenging. Stern predicts that telecommuting will promote sprawl into the hinterlands, along with larger houses to accommodate home offices. Inequality may rise. Meanwhile dense cities may decline (not that they will shrink, necessarily, but their growth rates may slow).
Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington’s Washington State Transportation Center, has forecast we will probably see “less office space required downtown, lower economic activity in urban centers, and lower transit use into urban centers.”
If work shifts from downtowns to neighborhoods, then both need to change. Example: Seattle, but not Bellevue, fortuitously liberalized the building of accessory dwelling units and backyard cottages in its formerly single-family-zoned areas a few years ago. As a result, since 2020, more than 1,800 such units were approved, as many as in the previous 10 years combined. I’d bet a healthy share of those are being used as Zoom offices.
A survey in April found that Washington workers were at home 39% of the time (about two days out of five). That’s across the entire workforce, so it includes all the jobs where you have to be there every day, such as factory jobs.
It’s more extreme in downtown Seattle, where the business association’s tracker now reports only 32% “office worker presence.”
This sea change, if it continues, may cause cities over time to “untransit” — to unwind their transit-oriented, spoke-and-hub development patterns, Stern predicts. Cities will stop concentrating on building dense housing near transit lines, she wrote, and shift to infrastructure to support remote work (such as municipal broadband, or small “remote work” centers away from the old business core). Cities may adopt more mixed-use zoning everywhere to bring a taste of the old commercial downtown out to residential neighborhoods (where so many are now “going” to work).
This concept of “untransit” may be an awkward fit with Seattle-area politics, to say the least. But so is delaying six high-rises right where the region has devoted $3.7 billion to the under-construction East Link light-rail line.
Obviously nobody could have predicted this, and I’m not claiming to be able to forecast what comes next, or to make any policy proposal. As the Amazon guy said, we’re only beginning to learn what post-pandemic life might be like. I just don’t see local governments squarely engaging with it. They’re going along as if the remote-work transformation is a chimera — that it’s all bound to snap back to the old reality.
Amazon and Microsoft are like city-states, with their own transit networks and urban planning divisions. When Amazon presses pause on six projects at once, in rising star Bellevue no less, it’s not some catastrophe. But it does mean something.
If they’re asking some of these questions, then we should be too.