Downtown Detroit Ahead of the Game for Office Space Conversion

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By Joshua Long, Data Program Director

The number of office employees working remotely jumped dramatically due to the pandemic, which profoundly impacted Downtown business districts worldwide. Since the end of the emergency phase of the pandemic, the shift back to offices has been slow and incomplete. It is becoming clear that the remote or hybrid model is now here to stay for many office jobs.

Since we also have a housing affordability crisis broadly in cities across the United States, the practical solution would seem to be to repurpose much of the now-unused office space for residential or civic purposes. And in fact, cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Boston have recently introduced plans to incentivize office to residential conversions. In practice however, modern Class A office buildings are often actually difficult to convert to residential uses for both practical and economic reasons.

David Whitney Atrium (before)
David Whitney Atrium (before)

The challenges of converting office to residential are detailed in this wonderful article from the New York Times’ Upshot project. In short, modern glass and steel office buildings, starting from after the second world war, tend to be built with large, deep floor plates, and without individual opening windows that residential uses require. The deep floor plates are perfect for cubicle farms, but they do not let natural light and air permeate into what would be interior residential units. Because of these difficulties, the conversion of those modern Class A commercial office buildings to meet residential requirements is often unprofitable and impractical, if not impossible. Older office towers were built differently; with a design scheme centered on individual rooms and windows which makes residential conversion more practical.  

Though the challenges to converting modern office buildings affect Detroit as well, the city’s growth (and decline) patterns separate it from the nation’s higher growth cities.

Downtown Detroit enjoyed its biggest building boom in the 1920’s. Detroit’s population peaked in the 1950’s when it had close to 2-million residents, and demand has declined since. However, this has become an opportunity with many of the older 1920’s skyscrapers not being replaced with modern glass and steel structures. Because of this abundance of older-designed office buildings, Downtown Detroit is ahead of the game in terms of capacity to create residential out of office space and other adaptive reuse projects. Many of those older office towers have been converted or are currently being converted. And there are still a number of those architecturally significant 1920’s era office towers that may be practical to convert if the demand for office space Downtown were to fall farther (The Penobscot, Buhl, Ford, Dime, First National, Guardian, to name a few that fit the criteria).

David Whitney Atrium (after)
David Whitney Atrium (after)

In fact, Crain’s Detroit Business recently reported that Bedrock Detroit had begun actively seeking proposals for a conversion of the Buhl Building. Could Downtown Detroit’s high proportion of pre-war skyscrapers, which put Detroit at a disadvantage for attracting modern office-based companies, be an advantage in converting the Business District to a more vibrant 24/7 economy?

The DDP tracks development projects Downtown and produces an annual Downtown Detroit Community and Development Update. Below is a list of adaptive reuse projects, pulled from this information, that were originally office space. These were either completed in the last decade or are currently in development.

Recent Office Conversion/Adaptive Reuse

Building NameAddressPrimary TypeYear CompleteProject Status
The Foundation Hotel at the Detroit Fire Department Headquarters250 W LarnedHospitality2017Complete
The Albert*1214 GriswoldResidential2014Complete
Vinton Building600 WoodwardResidential2018Complete
David Stott Building1150 GriswoldResidential2019Complete
Aloft Hotel at the David Whitney1 Park AvenueHospitality2014Complete
Church of Scientology1 GriswoldInstitutional2018Complete
The Elliott Building1403 WoodwardResidential2017Complete
Louis Kamper and Stevens Buildings1410 Washington BlvdResidential2019Complete
Broderick Tower10 WitherellResidential2012Complete
Shinola Hotel1400 WoodwardHospitality2018Complete
Philip Houze415 Clifford StResidential2018Complete
Malcomson Building1215 GriswoldResidential2016Complete
139 Cadillac Square139 Cadillac SquareResidential2019Complete
The Farwell Building1249 Griswold StreetResidential2019Complete
Security Trust Lofts735 GriswoldResidential2013Complete
The Siren Hotel at the Wurlitzer Building1509 BroadwayHospitality2018Complete
Capitol Park Lofts1145 GriswoldResidential2017Complete
Clark Lofts35 W Grand RiverResidential2017Complete
The Press 321321 W. LafayetteResidential2020Complete
Gabriel Houze305 Michigan AveResidential2020Complete
Detroit Savings Bank Apartments1212 GriswoldResidential2015Complete
Harvard Square Center1346 BroadwayResidential2021Pipeline
United Artists Theater Building (150 Bagley)150 BagleyResidential2023Under Construction
Book Building and Tower Hotel1241-65 Washington BlvdHospitality2022Under Construction
Book Building and Tower Residential1241-65 Washington BlvdResidential2022Under Construction
* The Albert was first converted from office to residential use in the 1980’s but was then again fully renovated in 2014.

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