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WeWork's long game

On one hand, I am absolutely the target employee for WeWork: a millennial without a steady job history (thanks, journalism!) who spends most of his time in front of a laptop. This is at least WeWork's communications scheme: a huge chunk of their clientele comes from giant enterprise firms.

On the other hand, I am definitely not the audience: I really care about the small businesses that make up a streetscape.

However I have to kind of admit that these small businesses are drying up. From malls to commercial strips, retail is disappearing. Folks in general have less disposable income thanks to rising house and health care costs, and the disposable income they have is increasingly spent online. Factor in the incipient restaurant bubble (and accompanying coffeeshop and tap room inflation) and it is a terribly difficult time to be paying rent on a street.

This mean that retail zoning in suburban commercial strips (and the malls as well) is getting loosened. More personal service and pseudo-retail like window treatment and interior architecture companies are taking up storefronts, at least in affluent areas. Community Developer blogs have suggestions to fill vacant storefronts. It’s in these areas that WeWork is looking for conquest.

The coworking space promises to essentially subcontract out from commercial real estate agents the need to find warm bodies and take up space. WeWork uses their “algorithmically-sound” layouts to make attractive arrangements for loosely-employed young workers. They don’t provide the work, of course, but extract rent for a place to stay.

A filled-up WeWork center could be a boon for suffering commercial space. Young workers provide the daytime density that a lot of commercial business districts want. Cafes, pharmacies and tchochtkeshops all stand to benefit.

On the otherhand, WeWork sees itself as a counterpart to Amazon, AirBnB and Uber. If they are in that industry, they are flattening space and hiding labor to make it easy for users (both WeWork inhabitants and property owners) to forsake attachment to the space itself. WeWork here makes space a commodity, even more so than it already is.

There is something oddly countercyclical about this: as downtowns and commercial corridors look to placemaking and heritage businesses in order to make themselves unique, WeWork serves almost as a teleportation device that serves a certain type of worker the world over. The identity of the worker and the work being done are irrelevant to the space, so long as they interact with the walkshed in reliable ways: buy coffee, have an after-work drink, pick up prescriptions and grab lunch every so often at the food hall.

I am perhaps being too cynical here: the entire point of the contemporary office and the cities around which they are constructed is that people are fungible inputs. I am perhaps wrong, and the office was the first thing to go full AirSpace and not one of the last.

Frictionless work, however, runs the risk of annihilating tenure as well as the oral histories and placefulness that it comes with. If cities are more than places to make money, they have to have to be made of more than hubs of money-making. This sounds a little tautological, I admit, but I am worried of getting too far lost in the weeds. Cities, simply, are places where lives are lived.

WeWork is not antithetical to this, not even close. It is a very convenient way to get people to work, and it is a symptom of - not the cause - of the gig economy. There is no natural tension, I don’t think, between a place being both “good” to live in and “efficient” to live in. WeWork can be a tool for sick commercial districts, to be sure, but relying on a constant cycle of gig workers (and a gig economy) can make it difficult to see through long-term plans. What is good for WeWork is not necessarily good for places in which the company wants to find room.

Asher Kohn