On a recent spring weekend afternoon, Manhattan was bustling. The energy on its streets seemed no different from before the pandemic, as tourists and residents filled parks, shops, restaurants and theaters.
But inside Manhattan’s skyscrapers, a different story is playing out. Earlier this month, the amount of Manhattan office space available for lease climbed to a record 94 million square feet. The vacancy rate hovers around 20%.
That’s not to say people aren’t going into Manhattan to work. They are, although many remain on a hybrid schedule, often avoiding Fridays and sometimes Mondays, too. And not all office buildings are seeing equal difficulties. The newest, priciest skyscrapers seem to be leasing more quickly, and spots with modern amenities are in hotter demand.
Yet it’s clear the way we work — and live — will never be the same. Perhaps the most significant shift: Many people no longer feel they have to keep to the traditional suburban-Manhattan divide in their time, work or travels. That creates an opportunity for suburban companies to lure Manhattan residents, and for Manhattan companies to add regional outposts so suburban residents can work closer to home.
Developer Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, who has significant real estate holdings in both New York City and the suburbs including Long Island, notes that in the wake of the pandemic New York City can’t thrive in a vacuum. The suburbs, he said, need to act as “magnets for talent” by providing “the quality of life, affordability, character, culture and diversity that the talent pool wants.”
“In the post-COVID world, superstar cities can’t be sustainable unless they’re part of a superstar region,” Rechler said.
The question is whether Long Island can meet the moment.
For Long Island to capitalize on the opportunity, the region has to offer residents welcoming office environments closer to home and build new neighborhoods with modern work spaces, restaurants, retail, entertainment and housing. Post-COVID-19, many people still note flexibility as a clear priority, but connecting with neighbors and colleagues and being part of walkable, vibrant communities remain important, too.
To meet those needs, Nassau and Suffolk leaders in government, business and civic groups will have to rethink and invigorate their neighborhoods, so the oft-used notion of “live, work, play” can come to life.
There already are some signs that local elected officials, developers and planners are taking the right steps. Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth hopes to rezone some of Melville’s office parks to allow for a mix of uses, including housing, to give Long Islanders an opportunity to live where they work. Revised plans for the Ronkonkoma Hub’s Station Yards envision a place that combines up to 1,450 residential units with 21st century work spaces, retail, entertainment and more, while nearby Midway Crossing could add life sciences space and even a convention center. Additional possibilities around the Island include honing in on transit-oriented development, repurposing old strip malls, and adding more entertainment and tourism options.
To that, fold in the still-necessary public transit piece, where the addition of Grand Central Madison and Third Track particularly matters.
If the Island wants to be a talent magnet, it’ll take a coordinated, regional approach — something the Island isn’t usually good at. But if Long Island gets it right, neighborhoods here will be the ones bustling, this time with a new energy that’ll make the region a true superstar.
COLUMNIST RANDI F. MARSHALL’S opinions are her own.