Office to Residential: Converting New York’s Future

By Justin Brannan & Richard A.C. Coles | April 4, 2024

In New York City, office-to-residential building conversions will transform lives. Driven by the best kinds of private-public partnerships, we can address multiple citywide issues at once and take huge steps toward our most basic goal: getting people into housing they can afford. This is new, exciting ground, and our rules and regulations must change to meet this moment.

Today, we, the elected official championing these conversions and the innovative developer on the ground, are calling on our colleagues in Albany to remove the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) cap, a regulatory barrier to office-to-residential conversions and other ways of expanding affordable housing. If you want to know why, look no further than Pearl House at 160 Water Street: an early and hopeful real-world example of office-to-residential conversion in the heart of New York City, where every challenge is indeed an opportunity.

As the realities of daily life, work, and our economy change, so too does our city. 25 years ago, the notion of “Wall Street” on a residential home address seemed inconceivable. But Pearl House is proof of our power to change that narrative. A healthy city is responsive to the needs of its people; therefore a healthy city is an adaptive city. In lower Manhattan, what was once a symbol of corporate America now embodies the promise of vibrant, inclusive communities.

We can realize this vision and build on our present successes, but it will take bold action. While office-to-residential conversions offer a compelling solution to address the pressing need for affordable housing, they also present formidable challenges. As developers, we recognize the imperative to navigate regulatory hurdles and financial constraints with ingenuity and perseverance.

As policymakers, we should have that same determined spirit to find ways to incentivize development of truly affordable housing. When we do find promising pathways forward, we must be unafraid to explore them. When our policies serve as obstacles, we must be unafraid to reshape them. We all understand that more housing means more affordability across income levels. We can keep the right guardrails in place, and still take bold action to support development that puts people first.

Our first bold step, which is very relevant to office-to-residential conversions, should be to eliminate the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) cap, a 60+ year old regulatory constraint that places arbitrary size limits on new apartment buildings relative to the square footage of their lots. Today, the FAR cap prevents office-to-residential conversion of buildings that exceed the size limits, meaning we can’t convert some of the large structures best physically positioned to help us build more housing en masse.

It’s simple: the FAR cap went into effect decades ago, implemented in a very different New York City. In 2024, eliminating the FAR cap would help us get more people housed.

160 Water Street shows us exactly what’s in reach. As the largest office-to-residential conversion project in New York City, it embodies our shared vision for a more equitable and inclusive urban landscape. Through meticulous planning and strategic investment, we have found new use for a dormant asset, breathing new life into the fabric of Lower Manhattan and addressing citywide housing problems along the way.

We should do whatever we can to replicate the success of Pearl House at sites across the city and beyond. By harnessing the lessons learned from this landmark project, we can deliver the sustainable, people-first development that people need. With Pearl House, we proved the concept. The blueprint can be repeated all over the city.

We know our colleagues in Albany share our commitment to improving the lives of New Yorkers everywhere – that’s why we were called to serve. Of course, no single rule or law change can do that alone. But repealing the FAR cap is one big step we can take in the right direction, by way of innovation, responsible development, and the building of a more inclusive and resilient city for generations to come. Let’s learn from what we’re doing right today, and give ourselves permission to do it bigger and better tomorrow.

Justin Brannan is a New York City Councilman. Richard A.C. Coles is the Founder of Vanbarton Group.