Pittsburgh’s Regional Update (A Preview)

Today’s groundbreaking for the new milllion-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center at Chapman Westport is an example of how the commercial real estate market has driven construction in Pittsburgh over the past decade.

The November/December edition of BreakingGround is in production now. For those who want a sneak preview of what’s inside, below is an excerpt from the Regional Market Outlook that deals with commercial real estate:

 

In the September Metro Mix publication by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Pittsburgh’s employment situation was characterized as “steadily advancing.” Among the data cited by the Fed are an unemployment rate that fell 0.4 points to 3.8 percent from September 2018 to 2019, and total payroll employment of 1.123 million, a net gain of more than 10,000.

Metro Mix also took a look at the income and balance sheet of Pittsburgh residents. The real income per capita of a Pittsburgh resident was nearly $56,000, a 2.1 percent increase from 2017. This is above the income per capita for Pennsylvania and the U.S. Consumer debt in Pittsburgh is significantly below the Pennsylvania and U.S. levels as well. Debt per capita for the average Pittsburgh consumer was $26,968 after the first quarter of 2019, following one percent growth in 2018. Not surprisingly, the credit card delinquency rate for a Pittsburgh resident was only 6.6 percent, lower than the 7.5 percent U.S. average.

A strong economy is a good indicator for commercial real estate development. The resurgence of Pittsburgh’s economy over the past decade has been matched by a strong, if not booming, commercial real estate market. A number of factors suggest that commercial real estate will continue to be a positive driver of construction in 2020.

Pittsburgh’s industrial market is extremely robust as the third quarter ends. Normally a slower season, summer saw unusually high activity for leasing and acquisition. The latter is getting a boost from capital sources outside of Pittsburgh, which love the steady returns and strong fundamentals. Among the metrics that are tempting investors and developers are the low vacancy rates, especially for Class A warehouse, and the steady increase in rents. Occupancy levels for Class A reached 97 percent through the end of September and the overall industrial vacancy rate was 6.4 percent. Rents for Class A space rose to $5.70/square foot. Most impressive was the net positive absorption of 1.9 million square feet, which threatens to eclipse the highest annual total on record.

According to Newmark Knight Frank’s analysis of the industrial market, the high absorption, coupled with increased users in the market for space, will drive construction of build-to-suit opportunities in 2020. They specifically forecast increased activity for users of 200,000 square feet or more.

One of the factors driving industrial development in Pittsburgh is the growing demand for smaller warehouses to meet the demands for e-commerce fulfillment. Heretofore, fulfillment centers, like the one million square foot warehouse under construction for Amazon at Chapman Westport, were large and sited close to interstate transportation hubs. The growth of e-commerce volume is accelerating delivery times and pushing warehousing and fulfillment to smaller facilities located closer to denser population centers. This shift in logistics is making Pittsburgh more feasible for warehouse development than it was when the previous logistics models drove construction.

Pittsburgh’s office market held strong through three quarters, despite increases in space available for sublease. Through September 30, net absorption stood at 160,000 square feet, according to CBRE. The increases in absorption were mainly due to strong activity in the Central Business District (CBD) fringes – primarily the Strip Distict – and in the Airport Corridor, which saw positive absorption of 130,000 square feet. The occupancy level rose to 86.3 percent, with a total Class A direct vacancy rate of 12.5 percent.

Vacancy increased in Downtown proper due to large corporate consolidations, including BNY|Mellon, PNC and Bank of America. Falling vacancy rates in the Strip District and Oakland helped offset these holes in the market. According to CBRE, Oakland’s Class A direct vacancy rate fell to one percent. Even with more than 550,000 square feet of new space under construction, occupancy levels are expected to remain constant. Rents rose for the sixth consecutive quarter, hitting $27/square foot overall and topping $30/square foot in the CBD.

The office market is less supportive of new construction than industrial, primarily because of the available space and the high cost of construction in the most desirable locations. The continuing growth in employment in the emerging technology, healthcare, and research fields will create more demand for space and new construction. The market for tenant improvements should be more robust in 2020 and, depending upon how much of the proposed spec development proceeds, new construction in the Strip and Oakland could top two million square feet.

Not a lot of construction news. Volpatt Construction was selected as CM for $3.5 million Mellon Institute 1920 Lab Renovations. PJ Dick will build the $20 million natural gas power plant that will generate electricity for the airport’s microgrid. EIS Solar will design/build the 7,800-panel solar farm.

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