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Despite reports describing the Big Apple as a deserted COVID-19 wasteland, Manhattan’s population has increased since the days of pandemic shutdowns — but not in Hell’s Kitchen.
New figures reveal the population of Hell’s Kitchen is down by as much as 10 percent since February 2018, putting it at odds with the borough as a whole, which has seen a net increase in the same period of 3.9 percent, despite plunging by up to 10.9 percent by June 2020, the depth of the pandemic.
According to a new report from analysts at Placer.ai, Manhattan’s growth is in contrast to all other boroughs, each of which has declined compared to February 2018. Staten Island is the worst hit, down by 7.1 percent in the period. The figures are based on cellphone location data, which the company makes anonymous and aggregates to reveal patterns of population change.
But while Manhattanites may be quick to celebrate, in at least one neighborhood there’s a gap in new arrivals: Midtown West. Placer.ai calculated the data at zip code level from November 2019, the eve of the pandemic, to October 2022.
Hell’s Kitchen comprises three zip codes — 10018 to the south, 10036 in the middle and 10019 to the north. The study shows that 10036, the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, has lost a whopping 10.8 percent since the eve of the pandemic. The picture in other two zip codes is less extreme: 10018 dropped 2.8 percent, while 10019, which extends to Central Park and 5th Avenue, was up 2.2 percent. Placer.ai does not provide absolute numbers for its population estimates.
The biggest overall winner, the analytics firm said, was the Upper West Side. Its four zip codes showed an aggregate gain of 30.7 percent since November 2019. While it did not address the causes of Hell’s Kitchen’s apparent decline, the report said that the major shift in Manhattan’s population dynamics was towards significant growth beneath 14th Street.
The study described Lower Manhattan neighborhoods as more desirable moving destinations, adding: “Manhattan is now undergoing something of a downtown renaissance, with areas like the Civic Center and Lower East Side seeing some of the most pronounced in-migration in the city. Part of the draw to these neighborhoods may well be their proximity to Brooklyn, which has firmly cemented itself as the hipper, sometimes cheaper alternative to Manhattan. In fact, the top five most popular neighborhoods in Manhattan as ranked by real estate searches are all close to Brooklyn.”
The remote work revolution has also affected residential trends, with many office buildings and their commuter-adjacent retail economies languishing in the light of permanently hybrid or work from home policies. In a recent piece outlining Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams’ ambitious “New New York” initiative, Gothamist noted that while subway usage and foot traffic in Midtown was up on the worst of the pandemic, commercial office vacancies stood at 22 percent — the highest they’ve been since the economic downturn of the mid-1970s.
The Adams administration published new details on Monday of how it could encourage converting large swaths of underused office space to create desperately needed residential housing, which could potentially re-populate Midtown’s business district. One part of the plan would effectively rezone parts of Hell’s Kitchen below W41st Street, close to the Garment District where such conversions are currently forbidden.
A falling population in parts of Hell’s Kitchen has not been matched by falling house prices, and the mayor and city authorities believe building more housing is crucial to boosting New York’s economic prospects. Increasing the supply of housing should create much more economic activity, which in turn will end population declines.
“Enabling more offices to convert to housing will help us bring back our commercial districts while also addressing our housing supply crisis,” said Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development Maria Torres-Springer in a press release on the initiative, which aims to add as many as 20,000 new units over the next decade. “The recommendations in this report will set us on the path to achieving these critical goals, and I look forward to partnering with our colleagues in Albany and the City Council to ‘Get Stuff Built.’”
Other recommendations include:
- Expanding the universe of office buildings with the most flexible regulations for conversion to residential use from buildings constructed through 1961 to those constructed through 1990 — easing the potential conversion process for an additional 120 million square feet of office space
- Allowing office buildings to convert to various much-needed types of housing, including supportive housing, which is currently effectively forbidden
- Exploring and pursuing a tax incentive program to support the production of affordable and mixed-income housing through office conversions — adding to the city’s affordable housing stock without deterring other private investment in conversions and housing creation
- Creating a property tax abatement program to incentivize retrofitting office space for child care centers, tackling another citywide shortage.
But when — and whether — the recommendations would make it past the idea stage with enough funding is still up for debate. Until significantly more affordable new housing and work-from-home, mixed-use spaces come online, Midtown may still be singing the high-rent, low population blues.