Trying to get federal workers back in the office in Washington, D.C.

As big downtowns across the United States grapple with more employees working from home, Washington, D.C. is particularly hit hard:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At the swearing-in this month for her third term as the District of Columbia’s mayor, Muriel Bowser delivered a surprising inaugural-address ultimatum of sorts to the federal government: Get your employees back to in-person work — or else vacate your lifeless downtown office buildings so we can fill the city with people again…

There are days when downtowns in other American towns can almost look like they did before 2020. In the 9-to-5 core of Washington, though, there’s no mistaking the 2023 reality with the pre-Covid world. Streets are noticeably emptier and businesses scarcer. Crime has ticked up. The city’s remarkable quarter-century run of population growth and economic dynamism and robust tax revenues seems in danger…

According to census data, Washington has the highest work-from-home rate in the country. Week-to-week numbers from the security firm Kastle Systems back this up: The company, whose key fobs are used in office buildings around the country (including the one that houses POLITICO), compiles real-time occupancy data based on card swipes in its 10 largest markets. D.C. is perennially dead last…

To people who depend on commuters’ lunch-hour spending or transit fees, the change is less welcome. According to John Falcicchio, the city’s economic-development boss and Bowser’s chief of staff, the federal government’s 200,000 D.C. jobs represent roughly a quarter of the total employment base; the government also occupies a third of Washington office space — not just the cabinet departments whose ornate headquarters dot Federal Triangle, but plenty of the faceless privately held buildings in the canyons around Farragut Square, too.

On one hand, Washington D.C. is in a unique situation. One employer, the federal government, is responsible for a sizable portion of the local workforce.

On the other hand, this is an issue facing many downtowns. Can asking companies to have workers return or applying threats be successful? Or, is it better to try to offer amenities and encouragements so workers want to return? As a third option, is it time to transition from the decades-long emphasis on commercial downtown space to residences and other uses?

This could be an inflection point for a number of downtowns or it could end up being a version of the same old approach. However, it would not surprise me if the conversation between local politicians and business leaders heats up around this issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s