by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
Office vacancies are at a 30-year high while the US has a housing shortage of over seven million units. Converting some of that vacant office space to residential would reduce the environmental impacts of new construction, curb emission-spewing sprawl, and support downtown businesses that are struggling to stay afloat as more people work from home. Fortunately,the Biden Administration is offering financial and technical help to facilitate these conversions.
The White House has prepared the Commercial-to-Residential Conversions Guidebook listing over 20 federal programs that support office-to-residential conversions using grants, low-interest loans, loan guarantees, and tax incentives. In addition to these incentives, the guidebook reports that conversions of office and commercial buildings have produced roughly 12,000 housing units often using state and federal tax credits available for the rehabilitation of historic structures.
Preservation maintains the energy already embedded in existing buildings and avoids the additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from new construction through demolition, debris transport, raw material extraction, fabrication, and assembly of building components. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, from 10 to 80 years of operational savings in a new structure are needed to offset the climate changing impacts resulting from demolishing an existing building and replacing it with a new structure.
Conversions can also anchor the revitalization of declining city centers served by existing infrastructure with dense and diverse land use patterns that allow residents to reach schools, shopping, work, and other everyday destinations on foot, by bicycle, or using public transportation. In Atlanta, a vacant Sears & Roebuck regional distribution center built in the 1920s has been converted to the Ponce City Market, a two-million-square foot mixed-use complex featuring 259 apartment units as well as retail and office space. Best of all, the Ponce City Market abuts the Beltline which itself is a conversion of abandoned rail lines and underutilized industrial space into a 22-mile multi-use trail that will eventually link 45 neighborhoods encircling downtown Atlanta.
Conversions like the Ponce City Market achieve many of the goals of the Ecocity Standards including compact urban form, ecomobility, housing, energy efficiency, resource conservation, and the creation of livable, sustainable communities.
Pruetz. 2021. Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights. Accessed at Microsoft Word – Smart Climate – 8.5 x 11 final.docx (secureserver.net).
Pruetz. 2021. Prosperity Comes in Cycles. Accessed at Microsoft Word – Prosperity-Comes-in-Cycles-6×9 in.docx (secureserver.net).
White House. 2023. Commercial-to-Residential Conversions Guidebook. Available atCommercial-to-Residential-Conversions-Guidebook.pdf (whitehouse.gov).