How does Boston bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic – and what does it look like?
Last week, we asked Boston.com readers for their predictions on what type of city — and region — will emerge from the life-altering pandemic and its effects on the work, home, and social lives of residents.
The responses were wide-ranging — from, literally, “gloom and doom” to a city “very, very similar to before,” to a reinvented Boston, either by necessity or happenstance in the wake of COVID-19.
Readers predicted a slow return toward, though not entirely to, a pre-pandemic normal, where a sustained increased in white-collar employees working from home has downstream effects on Boston’s housing, transportation, and restaurant landscape, even if some aspects of downtown’s appeal prove durable.
“People will return to the city for work but perhaps in lesser numbers,” one reader wrote. “That is good for the traffic. Maybe not so good for the restaurants that depended on that lunch revenue.”
For better or worse, some said the pandemic will force developers, restaurants, and other businesses to rethink their models, while other called for broader action to save what they value about the city.
Here’s a recap of the responses, some of which have been lightly edited for clarity or condensed for length.
Many readers predicted a return to ‘business as usual’ — but not completely — due to remote work
“A sizable number of people will still be working from home, resulting in less need for business clothes and dry cleaning, fewer lunches out with colleagues, less traffic and riders on public transportation. Businesses that depend on business people as customers just before, during and just after the business day will struggle. Rents will drop as people will leave the city, since a short commute to your workplace will no longer be needed. Also, it is much easier to socially distance in the suburbs vs. the city.”
“Continued shift away from the Boston and Boston prices, to Central Mass, Worcester and The Cape.”
“I think our post-pandemic future in Boston includes a slow but steady return to business as usual. Though remote work is popular now, I think businesses and people as a whole will have been deprived of and seeking the social connections that come from city life and work communities. In the next 5-10 years I think businesses/hospitals will make it a priority to improve ventilation/filtration systems. Restaurants and gyms, hit hard by COVID, will likely seek more open air location options or consider stockpiling funds for unexpected needs (heat lamps, barriers, closures, etc). Over the next 10 years, I do think we’ll see fewer new restaurants opening given that so many people have been set back financially.”
“A city where shared office space becomes the norm because people are either working 100% remotely OR as part of a hybrid model (some days in the office — others at home). Restaurants & eateries that survive will do so by offering take out or delivery options. Smaller schools of higher education will either close or merge with larger ones. Online education will continue to be offered, but hybrid models will grow in popularity because students want the classroom experience and interaction with other students.”
“I think people will return to the office when the pandemic is over, but perhaps not all of them and not for five days every week. I think people want (and need) to get out of the house and amongst other people. Going into the office helps meet that need. I think companies are evaluating how working remote is really going. Are people more or less productive? With people working from home, is it an opportunity to reduce expenses? Can they shrink their rented space? Can they pay people less? Can they save on utilities? Can they hire better people? If the answer is yes to at least some of these questions, companies may offer at least part time remote. I live on the 495 belt. I am a software developer with an in demand skill set. I am sure Boston companies would love to have me on their team, but there is [no way] I am commuting into the city everyday. Life is too short to waste hours everyday sitting in traffic.”
“I think things will return to the way they were pre-pandemic by mid-fall 2021. I don’t necessarily like that given I had a three-hour door-to-door-to-door commute five days a week.”
Some predicted a more drastic hollowing out reminiscent of the mid-20th century
“WFH is here to stay. Firms office space in urban areas will decrease, rates will drop by up to 50%, smaller firms will fill some of the the void over time; if rates stay low. The 495 beltway will be the 1960s 128 beltway. The creation of dedicated bus lanes and bicycle lanes will make the city even less inviting to commuters who will prefer to WFH 2-3 days per week and go to the urban ring for office time and go to the city when they have to. Commercial real estate will see 30% plus conversion to residential over the next five years.”
“More homeless, more empty housing, less culture, nightlife, etc. Boston will be like San Francisco soon enough. The city won’t die, but it will be in hospice.”
“Goodbye large office towers! No one will ever go back to long commutes and a standard five-day work week. Nor will companies want to pay exorbitant city rents when they’ve proven employees can successfully work remotely.”
Other readers suggested the city should use the opportunity to make reforms
“Given how sick people are of following restrictions, I think a lot of things will rebound quickly — basically anything social — if those businesses can survive the pre-herd immunity times. Sadly public transit I don’t think will hold its momentum. Cars and street traffic and horrible roads will quickly overwhelm the shared streets movements. Unless we get someone like Michelle Wu as mayor. Outdoor dining hopefully will stay.”
“I think taking advantage of more street space would do the city well. Making sure sidewalks aren’t as crowded as they were pre-pandemic would be a welcome change. Driving downtown is also a nightmare and this would remove cars from that equation.”
“Hopefully more emphasis on pedestrians & bike corridors, outdoor dining patios, and liveable, affordable areas. Let’s do it Boston!”
“Boston needs to reinvent itself in order to bring people back into the city. Steep rent cuts for residential and commercial properties are needed. The City needs to provide incentives to bring people back to work and visit.”
“The future is what we make it. Predictions are fruitless, action is everything.”
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