Last edited 23 Dec 2020

Is Turning Office and Retail to Residential Housing the Future of the High Street?

Why unconventional thinking could be the future of city-centre housing


The turmoil of the high street has been well-documented, with the COVID-19 health crisis further heightening the challenges faced by retailers. Wary consumers are shifting online and office workers are continuing to work from home, leaving once-bustling city centres virtual ghost towns.

Rising rents, falling profits, dwindling footfall and Covid-19 restrictions are combining to force difficult choices in the industry, with store closures and repurposing inevitable. 2019 research from international real estate advisor Savills revealed that up to three-quarters of landlords were undertaking or considering redevelopment of retail assets. Whilst the majority will look to continue in the retail sector, it’s likely that no option will be off the table.

In a similar context, the office property market is also starting to see a decline as a result of the interruption to demand from tenants and the sharp fall in investment interest. Employers are thinking about how much central city office space they want in the future, and many are delaying commitment to new and bigger space whilst they see how recovery pans out.

An area of real potential is in the upper floors of commercial buildings. Whilst many are empty and unsightly, with a little vision and investment they could easily be converted into affordable homes, student lets or even hotels. With big windows and great locations, they hold appeal to a huge demographic.

There is a real opportunity to revitalise town and city centres that are being left abandoned by retailers and property owners who simply can’t hold on given the challenges facing the sector. Whether social or private housing, the repurposing of empty space will support more than just the creation of houses; it has the potential to spark a sense of community and the bringing together of people. As our behaviours change as a result of the global health pandemic, this feels like something that should be whole-heartedly encouraged.

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