Columbia Property Trust reinvigorated its 116 Huntington Ave. office tower in Back Bay with a new lobby and private terraces. Photo courtesy of Dyer Brown

With an occupancy rate hovering around 90 percent, the commercial real estate market in Boston is in very good shape compared to the national average. This happy news comes with a challenge for owners: how to identify assets in need of repositioning. 

To do so one must consider what circumstances may arise 10 years from now, and whether a given property will continue to enjoy healthy occupancy rates when the market inevitably changes course. Most critically, savvy owners and developers are beginning to factor in the arrival of Generation Z, a.k.a. the post-Millennials, into the workforce. 

This younger demographic brings new sets of expectations for their work environments, which employers will accommodate to compete for talented recruits. The assumption that younger cohorts prefer to live and work in urban centers may no longer be operative – in fact, new studies of Millennials’ preferences show a distinct shift – as amenity offerings become an increasingly important part of the equation for lessee firms. Owners and developers are investing in repositioning properties in outer cities like Waltham and even Worcester, and these secondary markets are emerging as competitive with Boston sites for high-value tenants, thanks in part to revitalization efforts by community leaders and the talent pool fed by top schools and universities. 

Leading owners and developers have their own market research, and know which tenants they would like to attract. The design challenge is to respond with ideas for creating a building and a brand that the owners know how to market, and one size does not fit all.  

Successful repositioning begins with identifying the property’s brand, in tandem with the design process, to provide a satisfying user experience that results in an increase in rental value. The engagement process that reveals the brand should address all factors, including those that may seem esoteric or minute but are actually vital, such as how the client wants the leasing agent to talk about the building. 

A Creative Spin on Seaport Property 

For the updated brand to resonate, owners must recognize that a brand is a promise. That promise may be “We can help you attract top recruits” or “You’ll have what you need to support your creative energy.” In most cases, the brand promise is some version of “You can be great!” The building itself must then become the fulfillment of that promise, resonating throughout the leased and shared spaces. 

A rebranding campaign for 88 Black Falcon Pier in Boston’s Seaport District emphasized creativity and the site’s industrial heritage with large format artwork and photography. Photo courtesy of Dyer Brown

This branding idea was essential in working with The Davis Cos. to redevelop 88 Black Falcon Pier for high-tech and industrial startups. Initial engagement workshops revealed that a brand focused on the Seaport location might not be useful as a differentiator. The collaborative design process steered the brand toward an alternative focus on “creative spirit” tied to the site’s industrial heritage, introducing large-format artwork and photography throughout the site and common spaces. 

In the Back Bay, collaboration with Columbia Property Trust for repositioning 116 Huntington Ave. focused on a “good neighbor” promise for the exterior, bringing the block to life with an attractive and lively street-level arcade feature popular with pedestrians, and a refreshed facade for the tower’s first three stories. Inside, the redesign focused on presenting a bright, airy lobby and a reimagined 2-story penthouse that would recapture a unique oculus window and offer private terraces – positioning what had been an out-of-date property as a high-end Boston icon. 

Demand for Frictionless Spaces Will Rise 

As the workforce evolves and welcomes the post-Millennial cohort, successful repositioning approaches remain unchanged.  

Building owners and developers still engage with the market to understand the needs for repositioning, and how to present their brand. But the shifting landscape will have an influence on recommendations for design strategy.  

Karen Bala

Most notably, Generation Z’s expectations are shaped in part by a consumer culture that prizes seamless experiences. Think of the out-of-the-box functionality of a smartphone, or other fuss-free, plug-and-play technologies and applications – at some point, a failure to provide seamless experiences onsite will begin to negatively impact rental value. 

Already, Dyer Brown is hearing conversations with owner and developer clients that focus more on real estate technology and the infrastructure to support it. The potential benefits are considerable: owners can realize improvements in facilities management, maintenance and operations efficiencies, while end users may enjoy web-based scheduling apps for booking shared amenities and other seamless-experience-supporting conveniences.  

The technology market is huge, and there are opportunities for the real estate community to dig deeper. In this way and myriad others, design firms like Dyer Brown are working with owners to up their game.   

Karen Bala is a senior architect at Dyer Brown. 

Repositioning Commercial Properties for Generation Z

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min