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Could turning office buildings into apartments solve Boston's housing crisis?

Question Everything: Could vacant office buildings help solve Mass. housing problem?
Question Everything: Could vacant office buildings help solve Mass. housing problem? 04:21

BOSTON – With Boston in the midst of a housing crisis, could office buildings be the solution?

Boston has tens of millions of square footage of office space. But in the new empty desk world of "Let's just Zoom!" some office buildings are partially or completely empty. "Office Space Available to Lease" signs dot the landscape.

An answer for Boston's housing crisis?

At Gensler, a global architecture and design firm in Beacon Hill, architects and designers have been consistently talking with landlords and developers about transforming offices into residential buildings. 

Jared Krieger, an architect at Gensler, thinks turning office space into living space could be one of the tools in fixing Boston's housing crisis.

"It's one of the answers. It's supply and demand and if you don't build more, the prices will never come down," he said.

How many office buildings are vacant in Boston?

Almost 20% of Boston's office space is vacant and top city leaders actually see that as an opportunity.

Arthur Jemison, Boston's chief of planning, is leading the city's new pilot program that offers a massive 75% property tax discount to owners willing to transform their office buildings.

That tax break lasts for 29 years. Right now, the program is focused on some of the smaller, older buildings that are really struggling trying to compete with newer offices with tons of amenities.

"Those are the buildings we are trying to turn as fast as possible," Jemison said.

What buildings could change?

Right now, four buildings have signed up with hopes of beginning their renovations over the next couple of months.

One is an old brownstone on Franklin Street in the Financial District. Another is on Devonshire and Washington in Downtown Crossing. There are two more buildings in the West End by Storrow Drive.

Four projects in Boston where office buildings are being turned into apartments. CBS Boston

Those four spots will be turned into 170 housing units. Twenty percent of the units must be affordable housing. Jemison considers those four buildings a test.

"I see it getting bigger once we tweak and learn from what we've done," Jemison said.

What we already know is, it's expensive and hard to pull off.

Construction challenges

Krieger, the Gensler architect, said "It's very expensive to tear down all the walls in an office building and put up rental units with bedrooms and a kitchen and shafts for plumbing. It costs a lot of money."

To make a real dent in the city's housing crisis, some of Boston's much larger office buildings will need to make the transformation. Gensler just designed and helped transform an underutilized office building in Manhattan. He said it was definitely a challenge.

Most office buildings have huge "foot plates" - windows along the sides with some offices and cubicles buried deep in the middle, dimly illuminated by fluorescent lights. No one would want an apartment in the middle, without windows.

So, in some cases, builders will literally remove the center of the building, top to bottom. It's like coring an apple. Removing the middle means the new housing units don't have to be so deep and all that weight that is removed means even more housing units can be built on top of the building.

"You are literally moving density that was previously approved," explains Krieger.

Transforming Boston's downtown

For Boston city leaders, this is about creating housing and also about transforming neighborhoods like the Financial District and Downtown Crossing.

As the head of City Planning, Jemison said he's excited about the future of his program and the thought of getting people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes into the downtown area.

"You might see some baby strollers. Might see some restaurants down there. Those are the things we've seen in other areas that have done these conversions," Jemison said.

If you have a question you'd like us to look into, please email   

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