When it comes down to it, many of the significant problems associated with the COVID pandemic resulted from a failure of imagination. Many of the nation’s best thinkers, having been surprised by the outbreak and the extent and speed of its spread, seemed to fear certain potential outcomes so much they froze.
The proper response is not timidity or inaction. Success tends to favor the bold, which suggests that the nation’s business and political and scientific leadership should have been exploring and experimenting with ways to keep the economy open, rather than shut it down.
The lockdowns that far too many embraced as the way to stop the disease from spreading produced adverse consequences that will be with us for some time. They did not stop COVID from spreading – indeed, it is still with us, continuing to mutate as most viruses do.
Health concerns aside, the lockdowns were economically and socially harmful. They put people out of work, enforced isolation, hampered the learning experience vital to our children’s future, and decimated many of the nation’s vital urban centers. Even though the U.S. economy is generally in recovery, our commercial centers, which had perhaps been hit harder than the rest of the nation because of their population density, do not seem to be coming back as quickly as other parts of the country.
There are ways to deal with this, both good and bad. What’s called for now are imaginative solutions to help urban areas rebuild quickly, that promote greater flexibility in the way space is used, and develop communities of which people want to be a part.
To put our cities back to work means changing the way we think about them. We cannot allow the urban rot that began in the late 1960s in so many major American cities to take root once again, displacing decades of progress that has been made in bringing our metropolises back from the brink. For that reason, rather than looking at downtowns and seeing them as they are, with 70 to 80 percent of real estate dedicated to office space, we need to be thinking of what they can become, even if the changes in the workforce and work habits become permanent.
The Revitalizing Downtowns Act, proposed by a handful of Democrats in Washington, would provide a tax credit equal to 20 percent of conversion expenses for developers seeking to repurpose vacant or obsolete office space into something new.
This is the right approach to transform declining business districts heavily devoted to office space. Repurposed urban towers renovated for mixed-use could become vibrant communities of their own, with people living and working and shopping and engaging in entertainment pursuits side by side without having to cross the sidewalk.
Conversion can be expensive and difficult. Incentivizing them in the tax code will make them more frequent. The Revitalizing Downtowns Act would provide a credit equal to the qualified expenses when converting vacant office buildings into small businesses or new apartments, including affordable housing — thus opening downtown and small businesses to more people and varying income levels.
The incentive approach works. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act again proved it, with the reduction in corporate tax rates fueling a hiring boom that reduced unemployment — especially among women, black teens, and other minorities — to some of the lowest levels ever recorded. People who have money don’t like to hide it in their mattresses, they like to put it to work. That’s, at least in part, how economic growth happens.
America’s cities are in crisis. The lockdowns, the recent riots, and the way Americans are changing in the age of the internet have come together in a way that forces us to make a choice. Do we want them to fall? Or do we want them to rise to become greater than they already are while restoring the vitality that once made them places people wanted to be?