Washington wants to move from a surplus of empty office buildings to a vibrant city center

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  • Jesse Nijmegen

    Washington Editorial Office

  • Jesse Nijmegen

    Washington Editorial Office

Major US inland cities have been undergoing a slow transformation since the pandemic. More and more people are starting to work from home and companies are vacating their office buildings. Cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are now looking for a solution to make their centers vibrant again.

In the capital of the United States now More than 2 million square meters of unused office floor. Precious space, especially when you consider that the entire economy downtown is focused on office life. So Mayor Muriel Bowser has a new mission: to convert old buildings into apartment complexes.

“We will never go back to the way we operated before the pandemic, and that is a disaster for the downtown area,” said Bill Bonestra, who owns an architecture firm in the city. “So we have to create projects that bring people together again. Not to work, but to live together.”

In the architectural office, Bonestra hangs large graffiti on the walls of old buildings that he has transformed into living spaces. The old laundry room is now a complex of modern studios with bay windows. Five floors have been added to another building. But the projects still have their old characteristics: “We want to be able to see the original format again.”

cutting in concrete masonry

Many of the converted buildings are free standing, which made it easy to use them entirely for apartment building, but there is a problem in the inner city. “You often only have windows on two sides of an office. It’s dark in the middle, while you want windows everywhere for the living areas,” Boonstra explains.

There are solutions for that. Bonstra: “What we can do is create a courtyard in the middle of the building for additional lighting. That means the concrete structure has to be cut down and sometimes that’s impossible. Then the building has to be demolished. Both options are very difficult. Very expensive.”

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    Bill Bonestra
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    Pictures of Bonestra projects in his office

Extravagant projects often deter contractors. There are also rules against tall buildings in Washington (no building may be higher than the Capitol Building), which means that it is not possible to build skyscrapers, as in New York.

So the costs are often higher than the potential profit. Boonstra says the municipality is intervening to convince the contractors. “There are subsidies and tax breaks for this type of project, so there is enough money.”

“this is our He considered“By adding much-needed homes here, we can create a lively city center where people will soon be working, living and rebuilding,” she said when visiting the construction site.

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At the same time, building a few more apartment complexes didn’t solve the problem, Boonstra says. “To create a successful living environment, distribution centers, stores and sports centers must also be built. You have to think about everything.”

He says it will happen automatically. “Apartment construction is the engine for other activities. It is very important to have a mixed environment in which there is a relationship between the resident and the utility, which has a strong impact. Because once one of these elements is missing, your city will fail.”

However, he gladly accepts the challenge. “It’s challenging, but it’s so much fun to give buildings a whole new purpose. It’s so satisfying.”

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