Can Downtown St. Louis survive with unused office space amid the pandemic?


ST. LOUIS – It’s been about a year now since the pandemic began and thousands of people moved their offices from Downtown St. Louis into their living rooms.

Mayor Lyda Krewson issued the city’s first stay-at-home order on March 21, 2020. Employees working in large downtown office buildings packed up their computers and headed home.

David Biales is a managing director at JLL, a commercial real estate company. Biales specializes in office space and says they have been surveying their clients.

“What we heard from them was that once it is safe to do so, most employers want employees back in the office for meetings, to collaborate, for culture building,” he said. “And the majority of employees want to be back in the office as well, but they want a more flexible work environment.”

JLL found most employees want to work 1 to 2 days at home and 3 to 4 days at the office.

Biales said office space isn’t going anywhere but how we use office space is going to change.

The trend for the past 5 to 10 years in office environments has been an open collaborative work space with a more densely-populated headcount. In a post-COVID environment, we’ll see that revert back to more private offices, barriers in office space, and room for social distancing.

Biales is hearing that 80% of employees will be back in the office by December 2021.

As people return to the streets of downtown, they shouldn’t expect to see many more vacant buildings then when they left.

Jason Hall with Greater St. Louis Inc. said there was $8 billion of downtown reinvestment when the pandemic began and that hasn’t stopped.

A Memphis developer just bought the historic Butler Brothers building. The building takes up a full city block and has at vacant for over a decade. The developers plan to turn it into a mixed-use residential and commercial space.

There are other large vacant buildings like the AT&T Building and the historic Railway Exchange. Hall said they are looking at buyers but they are complex real estate.

Biales thinks the pandemic could unexpectedly work in favor of those old buildings and downtown all together.

“I hope St. Louis can be the benefactor of this new thinking of workplace strategy,” he said. “As technology increases, employers are starting to realize that they don’t have to be in major cities and they are starting to gravitate towards lower-cost options. I think that’s what St. Louis offers. Low cost of labor, low cost of real estate, and I think there is an opportunity there that St. Louis can capitalize on.”

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