The Neighborhood That’s Shedding Offices for Housing

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. We’ll look at the transformation of the financial district, as office buildings are being turned into apartments. We’ll also look at why the Police Department is spending $500 million on new radios.

Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

“Adaptive reuse” has appeared in The New York Times more than 260 times, the first time in 1974. A story in 1980 called the term “a trendy phrase.” Our architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, mentioned it just last week, and adaptive reuse came to mind as I read a story by my colleague Matthew Haag about the transformation of the financial district.

Matthew says that the financial district points to the possibilities of adaptive reuse because it is the only neighborhood that has turned languishing office buildings into housing. One result? The district, which covers a section of Lower Manhattan that is roughly the shape of a grand piano on the map, no longer empties out with the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. I talked with Matthew about whether this kind of adaptive reuse could work elsewhere in a city with an acute housing shortage.

Why haven’t other neighborhoods done office-to-residential conversion on a large scale?

There are a couple of reasons. For most of Manhattan, there was not a need to reconsider the use of an office building before the pandemic disrupted corporate work routines. Second, modern office buildings, which dominate the skyline in Midtown, were built for office workers, with deep layouts and artificial light, but are costly and difficult to reconfigure to bring in natural light for residents.

You write that the financial district has the highest office vacancy rate in Manhattan. Is the neighborhood reaching a tipping point, with more residents than office workers?

Despite the changes in the financial district, there are still a lot of people who work in the neighborhood. About 230,000 people work in offices there, according to the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit organization that manages the local business improvement district.

But some 66,000 people now live there, up from 13,700 in 1990 and 39,700 in 2010.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams have championed residential conversions as an answer to the office glut and the city’s housing shortage. Are enough apartments being created in the financial district to make a difference?

The apartments — and the people who moved there — have made a big difference. As new apartments opened, families moved in and many businesses and establishments followed, including schools, grocery stores and shops. A Whole Foods opened there this year.

Nearly 1,500 residences in new buildings and converted structures have been added since early 2020. Thousands more are expected in the next few years. Some will move into what is believed to be the largest conversion going on anywhere in the United States — 1,300 apartments in an office tower that JPMorgan Chase vacated in 2021.

The neighborhood’s transformation really goes back to the mid-1990s. What started it? And what about tax incentives for developers to do office-to-residential conversions?

The downtown office market went through many ups and downs before the pandemic, including in the 1980s and early ’90s, as financial and insurance firms continued to leave the area for other parts of Manhattan and New Jersey.

A few residential-to-office conversions happened before then and during that period. But the big change started in the mid-1990s, when tax incentives were offered to developers to create units out of struggling office buildings. Those tax incentives expired in 2006, but developers continue to alter office buildings at a slower pace.

That said, the lots in the financial district can be compact, making for slender buildings. But they have high ceilings and large windows, so turning them into spaces that make sense for rental tenants or co-op or condo buyers is easier.

A lot of Manhattanites think the financial district can’t possibly feel like a residential neighborhood. What do people who’ve moved there say?

The financial district offers the charm of very early Manhattan that can be hard to find elsewhere: narrow, small streets and old architecture not laid out on a grid. People who have moved there say that the sun can be hard to find for parts of the day because of the slender buildings in tight quarters.

But the people I interviewed for the story said that for the most part, the darkness is not a dealbreaker for living there. There are rooftop bars, for instance, and plenty of other places to find sunlight, including at the nearby Seaport district.


Prepare for rain, with temperatures steady in the low 50s. At night, expect a breeze and heavy rain.


In effect until Thursday (Thanksgiving Day).

The latest New York news

Credit…José A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
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  • A former Police Department officer’s overturned murder cases cost New York $100 million: Louis Scarcella was accused of framing dozens of people for murder. The city and state have paid a steep price to settle claims over the past decade.

  • Vacated tenants and an illegal loft: Tenants of a Bronx building have been displaced since the city ordered them to vacate. They want the landlord to make repairs and for their loft apartments to be legalized.

Arts & Culture

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  • A composer’s return to the Philharmonic: Julia Perry’s “Stabat Mater” was well received in the 1950s. But it took until this week for the New York Philharmonic to program the work.

The N.Y.P.D.’s $500 million radio system

Credit…Dakota Santiago for The New York Times

With the right radios, one could hear airplane pilots talking with control towers, railroad engineers talking with dispatchers and police officers talking to each other.

But now the Police Department is spending $500 million on a new radio system, which people outside the department will not be able to listen in on. The system will encrypt officers’ communications, creating problems for people like John Roca, above, a photojournalist who chases breaking news. He races to potential crime scenes, thanks to the calls he hears on his scanner. When a robbery is in progress and officers are on the way, he does not want to be far behind.

The new system will make things difficult for Roca, because the chatter will come over in a form understandable only on police radios. The change to encryption will take at least five years to complete, although some unencrypted frequencies have already gone dark.

Chief Ruben Beltran, who heads the Police Department’s Information Technology Bureau, said the department needed a system that was faster, more reliable and more secure. He told my colleague Chelsia Rose Marcius that disrupting police channels has become too easy for outsiders who have equipment that can transmit as well as receive police frequencies. In June, a prankster held down the button on his microphone, keeping everyone else off that frequency for about five minutes, an eternity for the police.

Opponents of encrypting police radios include elected officials, news outlets and those who want more accountability from law enforcement. They maintain that encryption keeps crucial information from being reported quickly — and erodes trust in the police. Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project in New York, said the idea that information from radio transmissions would be “accessible to the public at the whims of police is just truly chilling.”


Earning points

Dear Diary:

I was in line at a Panera Bread shop in Queens. A woman in front of me took out her phone and began snapping photos of receipts that had been left on the counter by other customers.

The cashier’s expression saved me from having to ask the obvious.

“When I get home,” the woman explained, “I’ll plug the receipt numbers into my Panera account and earn points.”

“Not a lot,” she added, “but why let them go to waste?”

I was reminded of how, when I was growing up in Rego Park in the 1950s, I used to scour gutters for discarded Bazooka Bubble Gum comics and Raleigh cigarette coupons, both of which were redeemable for merchandise. And being in charge of my mother’s S&H Green Stamps books, I never let stray stamps lie on the floor at the A&P.

Once the woman had her pictures, she got herself a big cup of hazelnut coffee, and I stepped up to place my order.

The cashier asked for my rewards number. I said I didn’t have one.

“But,” I added, “I think I know someone who’ll appreciate my receipt.”

— James Penha

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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