Soon-to-be-Gov. Maura Healey should take a hard look at her predecessor’s plans to dramatically downsize the state’s office footprint in downtown Boston just when the neighborhood is sailing into stormy seas.
According to a Baker administration spokesperson, plans are in the works to shrink the space the state leases by 48 percent, a reduction of 661,000 square feet in “the coming years” that could save the state “tens of millions of dollars.” The spokesperson would not confirm a more specific timeline, but the Boston Globe reports 355,000 square feet of space will be vacated by 2024.
It’s clear that the state, like any major office tenant, needs to reconfigure how its offices work to accommodate this brave new world of hybrid and remote work if it wants to remain a competitive employer.
And, by the state’s own telling, it hasn’t been putting all its downtown square footage to the best use. The Baker administration claims between 15 percent and 30 percent of its floor space was once used for filing cabinets and record storage rooms – anachronisms in this digital age.
The state isn’t and shouldn’t be in the business of propping up landlords or any other business with handouts. But, for decades, governors used the state’s freedom from quarterly earnings reports to use the presence of state office workers to catalyze private investment in urban areas and to add vibrancy to downtown Boston.
If the state suddenly axes half its office space downtown at the same time as a large share of downtown office leases are set to turn over in 2023 and 2024, it will walk away from that idea while making the neighborhood’s challenges unnecessarily worse.
First, comparing private-sector space downsizing, where 20 percent to 30 percent space shrinkage seems to be increasingly common, it’s clear the state will be pulling workers out of downtown even when the state’s inefficient use of square footage is taken into account. Those workers are a vital part of sustaining the neighborhood’s retail operators and creating opportunities Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is trying to open up to diverse entrepreneurs.
Second, blowing a 661,000-square-foot hole in demand for office space in key places like Downtown Crossing right now will put even more downward pressure on property values downtown than there already is. This, in turn, will do appreciable damage to Boston’s property tax base.
It’s a well-established fact that vibrant downtowns are in everyone’s interest. They’re more climate-friendly thanks to their synergies with mass transit. They generate significant property tax wealth that gets redeployed to productive ends. And they’re fun and inviting destinations that draw tourists from around the state, country and world in self-reinforcing cycles.
Instead of following Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to bail on downtown Boston, Healey should conduct her own analysis that takes into account the harms created by this plan’s timing. A reduction in the state’s footprint will have to happen eventually, but is this the right way to do it?
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