Can design inspire the return to downtown?

It seems all eyes these days are on the future of metropolitan area downtowns. Office tower occupancy is down. Many restaurant and retail spaces remain vacant and many existing businesses aren’t seeing the work-week bustle they used to. Office tenants are leaving downtown in favor of suburban office space. Streets, sidewalks, and skyways still lack their pre-pandemic levels of foot and car traffic. Measured by the traditional transactional understanding of what makes a successful and vibrant downtown – people living, working, and spending their leisure time and money in the area – is only part of the conversation. Where do we go from here?



While the big-employer exits from downtown areas make the news, many business leaders are joining building owners/managers who see value in their commitment to downtown. What’s even more interesting is that building owners/managers and their tenants have united their focus on the individuals working in their office spaces.

Starting in 2014, a buildings’ LEED points began reflecting population, or individuals working in each leased space. During the pandemic, the importance of this metric became an even more critical and accurate way to measure the health of a building’s leased space. Today, population is starting to show some rebound in the number of folks coming back downtown.

Businesses are shifting focus to their populations as well. As business leaders look to augment their existing space or move to smaller spaces elsewhere, pre-pandemic office organization/cost-cutting strategies like “hoteling” and office-sharing are getting a second look. Creating spaces that enable employees to better and more flexibly manage their work and support their clients no matter where they happen to be working has been a key focus.

Building owners/managers continue to prioritize offering shared amenities, special events, entertainment as well as meeting and conference facilities. Business leaders continue to focus on perks such as free food, parking reimbursement, fitness facilities, and other allowances to pave the way for more employees to see value in returning to the office.


With Shelter headquarters in Minneapolis, and with our robust experience designing commercial spaces, we’re keeping a pulse on local trends around return to downtown in the Twin Cities. In 2024, Spring sports and entertainment events in both Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s downtowns are a bigger draw compared to 2023, according to recent reporting in Axios. Workday traffic for restaurant and retail businesses in our downtown areas is still slow, but WCCO reports that restaurants serving lunch and dinner are noticing a significant increase during after-work events. While hotels are still not seeing the same business-travel revenue they were in 2019, a Twin Cities-based hospitality management company reports that recreational-travel occupancy at their properties is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Minneapolis Mayors’ offices, city councils, economic development groups, and health and human services agencies are all working to curb vagrancy, manage economic, public health and safety concerns, attract new business, and think creatively about the use of existing leasable space downtown. Together, they’re working to bust the myth that downtown areas have devolved into lawless and dangerous places. The fact is, according to the Downtown Council, downtown is Minneapolis’ fastest growing neighborhood with 7,100 new residents added since 2020 and nearly a quarter of them added in 2023 alone.

But, we are seeing downtown areas across the country as communities in flux post-pandemic. As designers, we don’t see that challenge as something to avoid – rather it’s just another factor to be incorporated into the design parameters of our work. There are many areas where design can help address the concerns folks may have with an environment. Both pragmatically and psychologically, design can affect safety, comfort, and ease of use (just to name a few) which are all influences we consider in our approach.


Hybrid work models are here to stay for the foreseeable future. So even as some businesses may be slowly increasing the number of days per week they’re requiring employees to be in the office, they’re also recognizing that those requirements need to bend, and their spaces and systems need to support their people. There is a shift away from office spaces designed with an emphasis on client-facing amenities. The focus is now driven by changes to increase a businesses’ efficiency, efficacy, health, and wellness of employees where they are.

Building owners/managers who have a strong understanding of the value of their communities can better support their tenant relationships. Leasing space is still a priority but can now be more closely tied to the happiness and wellbeing of individuals in their communities. This can only be a good thing for businesses and employees wishing to stay in or relocate to downtown.

We are energized by much of what we’re seeing downtown and are eager to engage in design conversations about community-centered work-life spaces. It’s time to explore ideas fueled by the needs of folks who may want a less transactional relationship with downtown. We look forward to exploring and helping shape the next iteration of a vibrant and successful downtown.

Want to chat more about this topic? Curious about updating your office space? Moving back downtown (or elsewhere)? Contact us.

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