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Unions Should Convert 64 Office Buildings in NYC to New Housing

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Given the recent disastrous results when non-union contractors have tried to convert office space to residences, New York should insist that unions do the rest.

In New York City, a promising trend is emerging as the owners of 64 office buildings express interest in converting their properties into much-needed housing units, according to recent data from the Department of City Planning. Spearheaded by City Planning Director Dan Garodnick, this initiative aligns with Mayor Eric Adams' ambitious goal of repurposing office spaces into 20,000 apartments over the next decade, aiming to address the city's persistent housing shortage.

Its Gotta Be Done By Unions

If these projects proceed, the smartest next decision for the city to make would be to commit to having New York City’s construction unions do the conversions. One need only look at the non-union conversion disasters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 11 Green Street, and the deadly project at 20 Bruckner Boulevard to be warned away from hiring non-union to do it.

In the initial stages, four buildings have successfully transitioned into residential apartments or commenced construction, resulting in approximately 2,100 new housing units. Additionally, permits have been secured for the renovation of two more buildings, 650 First Ave. and 980 Sixth Ave. These conversions mark significant progress toward revitalizing unused office spaces into thriving residential communities.

The Need for Affordable Housing

The pressing need for housing in New York City is underscored by staggering statistics: while 18% of Manhattan offices remain vacant, the availability of housing across the five boroughs remains alarmingly scarce. Last year, only 1.4% of apartments were available for rent, with the rate dropping below 1% for units priced below $2,400 a month. The conversion plan aims to alleviate this crisis by introducing thousands of new apartments, albeit predominantly catering to the luxury market.

Despite the current focus on luxury units, there is optimism regarding future developments that could benefit low-income New Yorkers. Affordable housing has long been a union priority, because as one union representative said, “It’s great to build housing that can be affordable for the people doing the construction.”

Garodnick anticipates that recent legislative measures, including a substantial property tax break, will incentivize developers to allocate a portion of units for individuals earning an average of $80,000 annually. Proposed changes to eligibility criteria, such as lowering the age of offices eligible for conversion and expanding permissible conversion areas, signal a broader commitment to inclusive urban development.

One need only look at the non-union conversion disasters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 11 Green Street, and the deadly project at 20 Bruckner Boulevard to be warned away from hiring non-union to do it.

Innovative Needs Point to Unions

Architects involved in these conversions emphasize the innovative challenges and opportunities presented by retrofitting existing office structures into residential spaces. John Cetra describes the process as akin to a puzzle, where architects must creatively integrate apartments within the existing framework. Exciting features like rooftop decks offer residents breathtaking views of the cityscape, enhancing the appeal of these converted spaces.

Unions have led the way to new practices that benefit buildings and New Yorkers. They long ago established the floor-every-two-days standard that still sets the pace in construction today. And decades ago they prioritized green construction training and practices. For these reasons, New York City trusts unions with their most important projects.

Build it Right, Build it Union

Looking ahead, there is anticipation that forthcoming regulations will unlock additional opportunities for office conversions, particularly in Midtown. Proposed neighborhood-level rezoning initiatives aim to expand conversion possibilities while mandating affordability measures for low- and middle-income renters. These proactive measures demonstrate a concerted effort to address housing inequities and create more accessible living options for all New Yorkers.

In essence, the surge in office-to-housing conversions represents a pivotal step towards addressing New York City's housing crisis. By repurposing underutilized office spaces, these initiatives not only alleviate commercial real estate challenges but also contribute to the creation of vibrant, inclusive communities. And when completed the right way — the union way — the transition benefits New Yorkers and the city for decades to come.

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