Zoning for Office-to-Housing Conversions

Zoning Practice — February 2022

By Elizabeth Garvin, AICP, Mary Madden, AICP


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During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, the news media started running two sets of planning-related, future prediction stories. The first set of stories fell into the category of "everybody is leaving our cities, and they will never be the same." And the second set were focused on "when everybody works at home full time, we won't need office space, so that space will convert to residential use on a large scale."

The notion that our cities are dying, has a long history in American culture, and we can expect to hear it again for any number of reasons, including during any election cycle, during a recession, or during the next pandemic. The idea that we should convert surplus nonresidential space into residential use has also had some high-profile moments. And this story may have better "legs" in our current circumstances than betting on the death of our cities.

This issue of Zoning Practice summarizes the benefits of adaptive reuse and widespread barriers to converting offices to residences. Then, it explores how different zoning standards and techniques affect opportunities to adaptively reuse office spaces for residences.


Page Count
Date Published
Feb. 1, 2022
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American Planning Association

About the Authors

Elizabeth Garvin, AICP

Mary Madden, AICP
Mary Madden, AICP, is a principal of Madden Planning LLC. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of urban planning and design, community development, and historic preservation at the federal, state, and local levels. Recent work includes town planning and urban design for public and private sector clients, with an emphasis on revising zoning codes to promote walkability, smart growth, sustainability and New Urbanism. In addition to working directly with communities, Mary frequently speaks and writes on the topics of urban design and form-based codes. Mary has served as an adjunct faculty member for the landscape architecture program at Oklahoma State University and for the planning program at Virginia Tech. She was previously a principal with Ferrell Madden for 20 years, and served in several positions at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Earlier in her career, Mary was the co-director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and worked in the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Mary Madden holds a Master of Urban and Environmental Planning degree from the University of Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Princeton University.