Jan 12, 2022 - COVID

How the Downtown Austin Alliance tracks office reopenings

Photo: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When the pandemic shuttered offices across the city, the Downtown Austin Alliance was left wondering where the area's employees went and when they would return.

The nonprofit group, funded by commercial property owners, previously focused on market sector data to understand the area, but that wasn't enough as employees shifted to remote work and some businesses closed their doors entirely.

Why it matters: The pandemic is particularly challenging for downtown business districts, given that office occupancy affects the surrounding retail ecosystem.

  • Local businesses — coffee shops, restaurants, retail stores and more — needed to understand when foot traffic would ramp back up, and the alliance required better data to help them.

Now, the group uses Brivo's Reopening Index to analyze "unlocks" in the area, or the number of times someone physically opens their business, according to Janell Moffett, the group's associate vice president of strategic initiatives.

Brivo, a company that provides access control systems for workspaces, began tracking how frequently employees use their credentials to unlock businesses across the country.

  • "That gave us insight into this other sort of dynamic. … While there are spaces being occupied by a company, that doesn't necessarily equate to employees physically taking that space," Moffett said.

By the numbers: Austin has seen a continuous uptick in office unlock activity since its pre-pandemic numbers, but it still remains slightly lower than unlock activity in February 2021, reaching a peak of 81% in December.

Yes, but: Downtown Austin has only hit a recent peak in office unlocks of 50% since the pandemic began, Moffett said.

  • "We are still lagging behind Austin as a whole," Moffett said, adding that the decline is due to behavior, not the market. "People are still investing in downtown spaces. Construction is at a record high."
  • The pandemic hasn't stopped companies from buying urban real estate. Facebook's Meta recently leased half of what will be the city's tallest skyscraper, despite the company delaying its return to the office to late March.
    • "The economic decisions that these companies are making are for the long game and not necessarily for the short-term impact," Moffett said.

What's next: Moffett said the group noticed an uptick through 2021 in downtown foot traffic during evenings and on the weekends, signaling that remote workers are ready to head back into the city center during their off-time.

"It's not that people want to stay at home forever and all the time, but when they choose to participate in things, they were still choosing downtown," Moffett said.


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