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Column: Downtown D.C. is down but not out. To bring it back, think big.

“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely / You can always go downtown,” go the opening lines of Petula Clark’s 1964 anthem for urban living. If only that were still the case. The pandemic put an end to business as usual in downtown D.C., emptying out office space, quieting once-busy streets and slashing the city’s revenue.

Now, Mayor Muriel Bowser is planning downtown D.C.’s “comeback,” attracting new residents, partnering with local universities and, perhaps most of all, getting government employees back to the office. But for downtown D.C. to thrive, it’ll need to become a place where people want to go — not just somewhere they’re forced to be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ask Bowser, and she’d tell you that in-person work is essential to revitalizing downtown in two ways. First, downtown office workers help support local businesses. Whether they’re student interns living in Foggy Bottom or commuters from beyond the Capital Beltway, office workers have to buy that $16 salad for lunch somewhere, after all.

Second, vacant office space translates to millions of dollars worth of lost revenue for the city. The federal government owns or leases one-third of D.C.’s office space and accounts for 27 percent of the jobs in the city — for D.C.’s struggling downtown, the end of the work-from-home era can’t come soon enough.

So, Bowser called for “decisive action by the White House to get most federal workers back to the office most of the time” during her inaugural address in January. President Biden heard her loud and clear. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” he said at his State of the Union address in March.

Even with Biden on board, there’s no guarantee that standalone “return to office” mandates for government employees will revitalize downtown. It’s a simple but pretty heavy-handed approach that ignores one basic fact: Some people just won’t spend money in the city.

Let’s say you’re like my coworker, who has a four-hour round-trip commute from the foothills of West Virginia to D.C.’s Union Station. Once you’re in the office, do you spring for the overpriced, underseasoned grub across the street once lunchtime rolls around? Or do you stick with last night’s leftovers and the coffee pot in the breakroom?

Anecdotes don’t replace data, yet I hope this little comparison exposes a flaw in the city’s plans. Transforming vacant office space into a hub of bureaucratic activity would undoubtedly help D.C.’s finances without tangibly improving downtown for the people who live, work and operate businesses there. Rent translates to revenue, but force workers to come to the office, and they may just keep themselves — and their wallets — at their desks.

Despite all the discussion around these return-to-office policies, they’re only meant to be one part of the city’s plans to “fill the space, change the space and bring the people” downtown. These last two points hold some real potential for the neighborhood, and they’re a much more solid foundation for the area’s future than memos and mandates ending remote work.

D.C. is improving transit connections on K Street, converting offices to homes and carving public space out of roads no longer trafficked by commuters. And if you can get past some of the consultant-y jargon, there are exciting plans — albeit just plans as of yet — to transform downtown into a place to come to instead of a place to pass through.

When you focus less on reestablishing the pre-pandemic status quo, the potential for downtown’s revival seems enormous. If you’ve gone down to the National Mall at all this summer, you know that there are plenty of people ready to shop for souvenirs, grab a bite to eat or otherwise enjoy some air conditioning only a short walk or Metro ride away. And students are always in search of affordable housing and places to work, as are aspiring Washingtonians.

All of that’s to say that if the mayor and president want people to spend their time and money in the city, then downtown needs to be a place where people want to be, not just another few blocks with offices, lobbying firms and advocacy groups.

Downtown D.C. may not need the pretty neon signs, bright lights and movie shows of 1964 to be great, nor even a return to the office en masse, to recover from the pandemic. If these plans come to fruition, “Things will be great when you’re downtown.”

Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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About the Contributor
Ethan Benn, Opinions Editor
Ethan Benn, a senior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.
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