business news in context, analysis with attitude

Danny Westneat, a columnist for the Seattle Times has a good piece in which he uses the recent decision by Amazon to pause construction on five Bellevue, Washington, office towers, to consider the impact of remote work on urban and suburban infrastructures.

"We’ve been casually debating when workers will finally return to their office cubicles after the dislocations of the pandemic," he writes.  "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 that may not be the case.  Amazon clearly is considering a future in which the traditional office construct does not exist.

"Seems pretty smart to me," he writes.  "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."

Westneat writes about how Stephanie Stern, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, has "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) … 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)."

KC's View:

Two things here.

First, if the work-home patterns indeed are disrupted to any sort of sustained degree, then this could have an enormous impact on retail development, as businesses reconsider where they ought to be building stores, what size and configuration those stores ought to be, and what mixes of products ought to be featured in those stores.  Retailers would be wise to start considering the possibilities now.

Second, this is an interesting column coming as it does as we've been having an extended conversation here on MNB about the role of communities in determining what kinds of retail ought to be built and, in some cases, discouraged or even banned.  While we don't know what the future looks like, there is some sense of how circumstances will reshape communities' and companies' needs and priorities.    The questions need to be asked so we can at least start pondering the answers, making decisions that make sense for the future.