It’s only July, just a few months after the governor essentially reopened the state and things started returning to normal. We have a long way to go before we can even begin to know the full impact of the pandemic on the local business community and individual communities.
But to many, it’s already apparent that new and intriguing uses will have to be found for spaces in the office towers and some of the other buildings in downtown Springfield. It seems clear that many of those already in those office towers will be downsizing or moving out when their leases expire. Meanwhile, there are few if any signs that retail can stage any kind of meaningful comeback, as the current vacancies along Main Street clearly show.
These indicators make it clear that creativity, with a generous amount of patience as well, will be needed when it comes to bringing new life to the properties downtown. Old answers and traditional ways of thinking won’t work. People should be thinking not about what these properties were designed to be — office spaces, for the most part — but what they can be.
If the pandemic has done anything, it has probably only accelerated a process that has been in place for years now. Indeed, downtown vacancy rates have been consistently, and somewhat disturbingly, high, with new inventory, at locations like 1550 Main Street and Union Station, only adding to the challenges facing those owning and managing property in and around Main Street.
There has been some movement in recent years when it comes to office-space absorption — Wellfleet Group moving into several floors in Tower Square, the Community Foundation moving out of Tower Square and onto street-level offices on Bridge Street, and the Dietz architecture firm moving into Union Station — but much of it is the kind of ‘musical chairs’ action that has defined the commercial real-estate scene for years now.
Looking forward, there is certainly potential for downtown to become more of a destination when it comes to office space, especially with regard to the manner in which the pandemic has shown business owners that they don’t necessarily have to be in downtown Boston or New York, paying sky-high lease rates, to conduct business. They can work from anywhere — including Springfield.
Unfortunately, every city in the country is sending out that same message, including communities with larger, deeper workforces, better climate, and more vibrant central business districts.
There are steps being taken to try to convince elected leaders to move some state offices to Springfield, again in recognition that they don’t need to be in Boston or even the Boston area. There is some optimism regarding these efforts, and the argument makes a great deal of sense, but we wonder if there can be any meaningful movement when it comes to agencies that have been headquartered in the eastern part of the state forever — and when it might come.
Beyond these initiatives, it’s clear that some real creativity in the form of imaginative new uses will needed. We’ve seen some already downtown with the YMCA of Greater Springfield, two colleges, and now White Lion Brewing moving into Tower Square, but we’ll need more.
That’s because traditional office-space users — law firms, accounting firms, insurance agencies, financial-services firms, and even nonprofits — will almost certainly need less of that space in the years to come. It’s time to look at a host of options, including residential, hospitality, healthcare, education, and others. Perhaps a live/work type of facility, such as the type being proposed for 1350 Main Street, can be one of the answers.
We’re not sure what the future will look like, but we’re reasonably sure it won’t look like what we have now. So something else will be needed. Something creative.