Some hotels and restaurants have yet to reopen and downtown offices and towers have emptied. It leads to the question: will downtown ever come back?By Andy Sheehan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The international law firm of K&L Gates leases 14 floors of a tower in downtown Pittsburgh, but the conference rooms, office cubicles and conference centers are empty. Manager partner Thomas Smith is one of the few who walk the empty halls.

Andy Sheehan: “You’re lonely here.”
Thomas Smith: “Yeah, as you can see we’re only at about 15 percent of our staff and lawyers for the past several months.”

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Most of K&L’s 550 lawyers and professional staff are working home — and Smith says they haven’t missed a beat. It’s a trend that predates the pandemic.

“But obviously COVID has accelerated that process, has demonstrated to us that we’re able to serve our clients with the high level of effectiveness remotely,” Smith said.

And that’s bad news for downtown building owners as clients reassess their need for space. While some businesses are planning to leave downtown entirely, at a minimum, most firms want to downsize downtown.

Brendan McManus of Hanna Commercial Real Estate says some are planning to establish satellite offices in the suburbs for staff and clients who don’t want the commute.

“I think it’s an accommodation to staff. They can drive their own car to work and not use public transportation and an accommodation to partners and associates who prefer not to come downtown,” he said.

Still, others say most firms remain committed to staying, believing downtown’s benefits will endure in a post-COVID world.

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“The sentiment is ‘not so fast.’ We’re not moving out of these high-density core areas,” said Jeffrey Ackerman of CBRE. He believes workers will tire of Zoom meetings and are most productive working face-to-face in the midst of a cultural hub.

“Having a cup of coffee together with your co-worker, innovating and generating new ideas and new products, new ways of thinking — that’s going to happen by being in the office and collaborating,” he said.

K&L Gates isn’t leaving but will likely have a much smaller presence in the future.

“We have not made a decision about how much we’ll reduce, but I’m confident we’ll be reducing our space substantially,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Dollar Bank is re-locating its home office downtown. The bank is closing its downtown offices in Gateway Center and moving to a 20-story office tower at Stanwix Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard.

Some employees will also be moving to the Liberty Commons in the Strip.

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The bank says the moves will allow for more physical distancing and accommodations to prevent the spread of coronavirus.