Office Conversion: Vacancy to Vibrancy

Potential is diverse, from residential to hospitality to community spaces

by Jay Silverberg

The pandemic dramatically accelerated the rise of remote and hybrid work, resulting in many companies downsizing their office space. This trend is expected to continue due to investments in technology and shifts in worker expectations. 

Companies that are demanding amenity-rich, high-performance workplaces are now migrating to new, Class A buildings, leaving Class B and C properties sitting vacant and at risk. But by thinking creatively, it’s possible to convert these buildings into engaging, health-and-wellness-driven, diverse typologies — from residential to hospitality to community spaces.

Following the national trend, our Gensler Phoenix office has started to be approached by developers who are interested in exploring these building conversions. Gensler has designed a scoring algorithm to quickly determine which buildings make good conversions, based on factors like site context, building form, floor plates, envelope and servicing. Through this algorithm, we can evaluate assets quickly and draw rapid conclusions about the initial suitability of transforming office buildings into various uses. The system has been developed to align with a developer’s pro-forma or business model for a project.

Conversion to Residential

Phoenix has a significant stock of Class B and Class C office buildings that are well suited for conversion to first-class, market-rate residential buildings. These are often three- to five-story garden-style office buildings or non-performing high-rise urban core structures as they are particularly good residential candidates because of several innate design elements.

One design feature is ceiling height. Office buildings typically have significantly higher ceilings, making the tall ceilings feel luxurious for residential. Similarly, offices are built with a plethora of windows, which easily transition to the needs of daylight and views in a residential setting.

In Phoenix, we really value the indoor-outdoor connection, and that becomes a significant driver for residential living decisions. Façade modifications have the potential to bring the outside in and create new common spaces for a residential building. Recessing the glazing line on the building can create private balconies for the units. Larger-scale modifications to the façade, coupled with removing parts of the floor plate, can carve out outdoor terraces for the building residents to enjoy the connection to the outdoors, recreation space and gardens.

One example of this type of conversion is Franklin Tower in Philadelphia. The vacant and outdated building was converted to a mixed-use residential tower. The first several floors include office tenants that create a street-level presence. The ninth floor features a continuous balcony that wraps the building and presents an array of tenant-shared amenities, and the new two-story rooftop penthouse provides a fitness center, kitchen and lounge.

Conversion to Hospitality

Another possible conversion of existing office building stock is to hospitality spaces. This takes advantage of the same residential conversion benefits, while also contributing to the pedestrian city experience. 

The Westin Phoenix is an example of a hospitality conversion, with the first eight floors of an office building converted to a 278-key hotel. The geometric grid of the office plan easily converted to the standard hotel room width, and the atypical floor plates allowed for unique corner king and hospitality suites that connect directly to meeting rooms.

On the ground floor, there are two restaurants, a bar, valet and the addition of the pool on an urban block, making for an active pedestrian experience with visual and physical connectivity. These amenities increased the amount of engagement, compared to a limited flow of office workers at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Conversion to Community Space

For some Class B and C office buildings, there’s yet another type of conversion opportunity, one from private, low-use spaces to ones that engage and connect to the community. 

The Link, at 7th Street and Missouri, repositioned two existing stand-alone buildings into a vibrant Class A creative office campus. Originally, between the two buildings sat an underutilized courtyard. But now, in its place is a modern glass box atrium, full of natural daylight and a 40-foot biophilic wall. The three-story space includes a restaurant, bar, open seating areas and integrated art by local artists. Connecting the two buildings with this atrium has made the building available for tenants needing to lease larger spaces across the two buildings. But it has gone past being just an amenity of the workspace. It has become a true community asset by providing a social destination for the neighborhood and hosting various events. 

By including this space conversion as a part of the building refresh, the space has become a recognizable icon that serves the greater community while simultaneously drawing in new office tenants.  

A nationally recognized architect and design leader, Jay Silverberg brings more than 30 years of experience to his role as Design Principal in the Gensler Phoenix office. He has collaborated on projects throughout Arizona and the Southwest. He applies his specialized expertise in large-scale, technically intricate projects, and is known for creating design solutions that embrace local context and are sympathetic to the survival of the unique Sonoran Desert environment.

Did You Know: To date, Gensler has assessed more than 15 million square feet of downtown office space in more than 300 buildings in 25 different cities across North America.

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