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From office to residential in London

It was recently announced that the City of London — the historic town center and primary CBD of the region — is aiming to create at least 1,500 new residential units in the Square Mile by 2030. Part of its strategy is to convert disused office buildings into residential. Currently, the City has about 7,850 residences, which is a drop in the bucket and whole lot smaller than its 19th century population of 125,000.

Tony Travers, director of LSE London, is quoted in FT saying that the City is really facing “twin challenges.” You’ve got Brexit, which caused prime office cap rate rates to stagnate in the UK, and you’ve now got the whole work from home thing. Nobody really knows how this latter piece will fully shake out when it’s all said and done, but we shouldn’t forget the power of agglomeration economies. It’s what powers cities.

Calgary is another example of a city that is looking to encourage change. Last month a $1-billion plan was approved to help convert office buildings into housing. (Shout out to Steven Paynter of Gensler who is quoted in the article talking about what makes for a suitable office conversion project.)

What’s interesting about these announcements is that oftentimes cities cling to their non-residential spaces out of fear that once that supply gets converted it will never come back. That is certainly the case here in Toronto with its office replacement policies, although many years ago when downtown living wasn’t nearly as cool, there was a similar push to encourage more residential development in the core. Looks like that idea worked.

We know that office space isn’t going away. Zoom is an awful substitute for in-person interactions. People need to congregate (and tend to like doing it). Urban agglomeration economies drive innovation. Bigger cities with higher population densities tend to create more wealth for their inhabitants. So perhaps the takeaway from these announcements should be that, yeah, office space is vital, but it’s okay to do a little rebalancing once in a while.

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