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The Scourge of 1970s-Era Office Towers

The Scourge of 1970s-Era Office Towers
Wikimedia Commons

There's a particular flavor of 1970s-era office tower that's starting to feel its age. Your city probably has at least one. Stuck in between the perceived coolness of early 20th century facades and the newness of all-glass towers, these buildings are having a hard time retaining existing tenants, let alone attracting new ones. 

"Our 1970s-era towers are certainly a concern, especially the ones in what's considered 'old downtown,'" says Thomas Stosur, Baltimore's city planning director. Baltimore's tallest building, 100 Light Street, built in 1973, went mostly dark after its anchor tenant left in 2009 for a new glass tower one mile east. Only after a sweeping $44 million renovation (including its long-uninviting public plaza) was the building filled back up again, easing slightly some of the city's growing concerns over downtown office vacancies.
 
Baltimore actually established an Office Vacancy Task Force at the end of 2010, which produced recommendations for buildings that face high vacancies as a result of a building’s age and amenities. Its 2011 report states that for such buildings, “office use may not be the highest and best use given physical constraints," adding that “several Downtown buildings do not meet today’s standards and are considered functionally obsolete for office use, even with substantial investment.” The city is now focusing on mixed-use and residential conversions for these buildings, including 2 Hopkins Plaza, built in 1970 and currently 42 percent vacant (a figure that will substantially worsen when the lease of anchor tenant PNC Bank concludes).
 
It's much the same story in Buffalo, which has a nearly identical '70s tower, One HSBC Center, in its downtown. The building is likely to see most of its space go dark as soon as 2013, as its two largest tenants move into newly renovated buildings just blocks away. In an attempt to convince HSBC to renew its lease, building owners Seneca One Realty proposed erecting a modern addition on top of its desolate public plaza. But the plan didn't sway HSBC, and in the meantime another tenant departed after Seneca One could not commit to upgrading its facilities.

Aesthetics and floor widths are not the only issues. Many of these buildings require asbestos removal, provide limited natural lighting and contain outdated technological infrastructures. 
 
Consider the case of another office tower in Buffalo, the old Dulski Federal Building. Built in 1973, the building’s asbestos issues and the city’s low demand for office space put it in a particularly challenging spot. Four years after going dark, developers Uniland came to its rescue, re-skinning and re-naming it as the Avant, a glass tower containing luxury condos, an Embassy Suites hotel and four floors of office space. “The view of the Dulski wasn’t the greatest,” says David Tytka, market researcher for Uniland. “And from the inside, we were dealing with pretty small windows, a lot of them you couldn’t even see out of."
 
In cities across the country, many more buildings from the 1970s face similar challenges. Mid-sized markets like Baltimore and Buffalo are seeing mixed results, but their successes can translate elsewhere, avoiding the demolition-oriented solutions from urban development strategies of the past.
 

Top image: 100 Light Street (left) and One HSBC Center (right) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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