May 8, 2023 - COVID

Downtown Detroit still less active than pre-COVID

Mobile device activity in select downtown areas compared to pre-pandemic levels
Data: University of Toronto; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Recorded cell phone activity in downtown Detroit is still just half what it was pre-pandemic, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Alice Feng report.

  • That's according to anonymized mobile device connectivity data analyzed by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

Why it matters: Even as the pandemic ebbs, the era of remote and hybrid work it ushered in means fewer people are visiting restaurants, bars and shops.

  • The effects have been felt in our commuter-heavy downtown, though large-scale events and entertainment have brought visitors in droves and some companies like GM are bringing employees back to the office.

The big picture: Downtown activity has returned to — or even exceeded — pre-pandemic rates in a handful of U.S. cities, but most are still struggling.

  • In Detroit, the average weekly number of mobile devices detected from December 2022-February 2023 was 52% of the amount measured in the same period from 2019-20.

By the numbers: Salt Lake City (139%) and Bakersfield, California (118%) had among the country's highest post-pandemic downtown recovery rates as of February, the most recent data available.

  • San Francisco (32%) and St. Louis (38%) had among the lowest.

How it works: The researchers essentially treated smartphones and other mobile devices as a proxy for their owners — if a device pings a nearby cell tower, it's a good bet that's where the device's owner is.

Zoom in: We averaged 34,300 daily downtown workers last month, per Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) data. That number is increasing but is still just about half of April 2019's 67,400.

  • But when the DDP measures daily visitors, excluding residents and workers, we're closer to catching up: 79,600 last month compared to 106,300 in April 2019.

What they're saying: "My guess is we'll probably even out someplace around 70% of that work population coming back," DDP CEO Eric Larson said on Detroit Public TV early this year.

  • But "the residential demand outstrips our supply by a lot. I mean, we are virtually 100% leased in the downtown," he said.

Details: Office-to-residential building conversions are poised to skyrocket in the coming years as cities endeavor to rethink the composition of their cores.

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