Category Archives: Construction news

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.

Developing Office Design for 5 Generations in the Workforce

Currently there are five generations of Americans currently active in the workforce. This impacts commercial real estate in unexpected ways; specifically, office design. It is common for the onus of office design to be on employers, but in recent years, developers have seen their role evolve to include this as well. 

 

Each generation stereotypically has certain design aspects associated with them: cubicles, private offices, open areas with standing desks, and more. The choices that developers make can influence what kinds of design choices employers are capable of making. If developers choose to have more or less open space, or to rely mostly on natural light, that will impact what  options are available for the final office design. How many conference rooms can the company have, can there be a coworking area with desks, loose chairs, and/or couches, is there space to include a ping pong table or a lunch room? Employers cannot make these decisions if developers do not allow for it through their own designs.

The Developers’ Role in Office Design

The-Developers’-Role-in-Office-Design

Benjamin Paltiel writes on this topic for Bisnow and the NAIOP saying:


Tenants themselves are behind today’s most productive and progressive offices…more landlords and developers are taking it upon themselves to collect data to inform and deliver the office spaces their tenants want…In an ideal world, landlords, developers and tenants would share an equal passion and drive for crafting innovative workspaces.

 

This growing trend demonstrates that the role of developers is changing. While employers and tenants are currently taking the helm of designing office spaces, it is clear that the developers themselves are increasingly expected to play a part in this process.

Generational Impact on Office Design

The five generations currently in the workforce were brought up due to their perceived differences when it comes to preferred workspaces. If developers are going to have to consider potential office designs when building commercial workspaces, then will they have to decide on which generation’s style to build around? Is it possible to compromise and combine these styles in some way?

 

Paltiel continues:

 

With a workforce that spans five different generations – traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z – companies today cannot build offices that appeal to only one age group. Instead, they need to consider the spectrum of work styles that their employees of all ages may have and design an office that can keep everyone comfortable and productive.

 

This is certainly easier said than done, but it is very clear: offices cannot be constructed to fit just one group. Office designs must be inclusive for each generation. The challenge comes in determining which aspects of previous and current office designs will the various generations support and be productive in. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for this. 

Compromising Between Generations

Compromising-Between-Generations

Rivka Altman, a director of portfolio management at Invesco, discusses how prior assumptions about what each generation likes cannot actually be trusted. There are older workers who do not mind open coworking spaces, just as there are millennials who do not mind cubicles or private offices. This mindset is backed up by Shannon Woodcock, a managing director of workplace strategy at Savills. 

 

Woodcock is adamant when she states that:

A lot of the things we say that younger employees want – more light, more access to open space –  I don’t believe for one second that those are specific to younger people…Older employees need them just as badly, but they may not be voicing that need as much.

 

When deciding on the final office designs, employers must know their employees well enough to provide a workspace that all of them would be comfortable in. If developers do not have assistance from a soon-to-be tenant in this respect, then they must do their own research. They must know their target market, and what employees and cultures those companies tend to support.

 

Woodcock believes that developers (and employers) shouldn’t be fooled by age. While the conversation is about generations, age does not have as much of an impact on design preferences as people may think. Rather than age, the focus should be on “work style”. Keeping up with workplace trends will inform developers on what work styles will resonate the best with the types of companies that are typically interested in their commercial properties.

Going Forward

Predicting the culture and workplace preferences of tenants when you are developing a new property is certainly difficult. The most developers can do is research their target market, and understand the common cultural decisions that those companies tend to make. While every business is different, there are common threads, and these threads serve as a way to inform developers. Even differences in preferences can be helpful at times. Like many other aspects of business, diversification is beneficial.

 

The design choices that developers make based on consumer and industry research will impact the design choices that future tenants can make. Allowing for personalization that successfully captures the culture that these tenants are looking for is a sign of a well-designed, well-developed workspace. Every style mentioned here can resonate with certain companies, so as long as the research is completed, developers should be able to connect their workspaces with the companies that will thrive in them.

The Beat Goes On in The East End

Walnut Capital brought plans before the city’s Planning Commission today for what it’s calling Bakery Square Refresh. The Refresh project involves the demolition of the small retail building on the outparcel on Penn Avenue and construction of a two-story, 12,400 square foot retail building that will connect to the original Nabisco bakery. The $5 million Refresh is being designed by Strada Architecture and PJ Dick is the contractor. According to Walnut’s CEO, Gregg Perelman, the new construction – which will be home to several restaurants – is to be ready next October when Phillips occupies its new space in Bakery Square Three. That means construction will start around the first of the year.

The 2-story Bakery Refresh will be adjacent to the Nabisco bakery building. A new green space will be created along Penn Avenue. Rendering by Strada Architecture LLC. Use courtesy Walnut Capital.

Around the corner from Bakery Square, Echo Realty is moving forward with its Shady Hill Center. The project involves 220 units of apartments, to be developed by Greystone Real Estate Partners, a 500-car parking garage, and the replacement of the Giant Eagle with a new 37,000 square foot store. Carl Walker Construction has been selected to build the parking garage.

Data on employment and unemployment was released on the national and regional level within the past week. The job creation data for Pittsburgh showed modest improvement, with 5,500 more jobs in August 2019 than one year before. Unemployment fell by 0.3 points to 3.9%. The good news inside the Pittsburgh metro data, which came from PA’s Department of Labor, was the net growth of employment. The workforce grew by 18,400 from August-to-August, while the number of unemployed fell by 1,000. Retiring Baby Boomers are putting great downward pressure on the workforce supply in Pittsburgh. That the number of people working grew by more than 1.5 percent suggests that the gains in employment are offsetting the demographics for now.

US job growth was better in September than in previous months, according to the Census Bureau’s report on October 4. There were 136,000 new jobs in September. Estimates for July and August were also revised upward by nearly 60,000 jobs. The headwinds on the economy are certainly growing, but US employers are still adding to payrolls.

An Interesting Take on Growing the Workforce

The shortage of skilled workers in construction has been a problem for several years and the impact on construction costs has reached the point where commercial real estate development is being slowed, according to NAIOP. There is a CoStar post about the issue that is very interesting in that it puts contractor groups on opposing sides of what you would think would be a unifying issue.20190422_174002

At issue is the Department of Labor rule, which resulted from an executive order in 2017 that expands apprenticeship programs to allow trade groups and employers to establish separate training from industry certifiers. The revised National Apprenticeship Act exempts construction from its rules for now, but developers are pressing for the rules to be expanded to include construction, and the nation’s largest contractors group is supporting them. Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) has been advocating for growing the construction workforce, including pressing for supportive legislation. AGC supports the revised rules, even though the rules allow apprentices to be paid minimum wage.

The last point is what has developers hoping that the rule change is extended to construction. It’s also what has union-affiliated contractor groups in opposition to the expansion of the rules. Union apprentices are typically paid two or three times minimum wage while working their way to journey-level. Opponents of extending the rules to construction also worry that independent apprenticeship programs won’t adhere to industry standards for certifications and will lead to poor work or unsafe conditions. The arguments are summarized in this excerpt:

Proponents of expanding construction apprenticeships argue the initiative will address the dearth of these kinds of workers and help close the job gap, adding to the workforce pool for contractors and reducing their costs as well as those of developers. The lack of construction workers such as pipe layers, sheet metal workers, carpenters, concrete workers and pipe fitters/welders, as well as logistics employees, has hurt the commercial real estate business.

That’s driving up development costs and hampering the expansion and profitability of warehouse and distribution centers, according to NAIOP, the national trade organization for the industry, which issued a report on the issue earlier this year.

But there is a debate on apprenticeship expansion, with opponents charging it would create a separate, and inadequate, certification system from existing programs, with poorly trained workers who could endanger themselves, others and do substandard work.

As the labor department proposal is written now, it excludes construction, an industry that has for decades had apprenticeship programs in place for trades such as plumbers and electricians. Those programs are registered with the labor department and are funded by unions and employers, as part of collective bargaining agreements.

History has shown that government making rules to solve temporary market conditions rarely solves the problem, and usually creates unintended negative consequences. If you are developing a commercial project right now, the costs of construction – and the schedule – are becoming unfavorable. The pro forma rents aren’t going up as fast as construction costs. Investors will have to accept less of a return or the project won’t pencil out. That’s not a great thing but that is an inevitable consequence of economic prosperity that lasts as long as the current expansion. In truth, wage gains have been held off for much longer than in any previous business cycle; and the magnitude of wage growth is much lower than the typical 4-5% that accompanies a recovery. During the recovery stage of this business cycle, wages barely grew and only moved above 2% since early 2018. Business cycles run from imbalance to imbalance, from lean conditions to fat. It’s not fun to be the development that builds during fat times but, then again, it’s also not fun to try to lease up during lean times. It’s the nature of business cycles. At some point, things will slow down and costs will fall back. New development will follow.

Note: In the Sept. 26 BreakingNews email blast, PJ Dick was omitted from the list of contractors proposing on the $15 million Flats on Forward in error. The list of contractors should have read PJ Dick, A. Martini & Co, Mosites and Rycon.

Housing Market Responds to Lower Rates – Pittsburgh Construction Market Awards

Recent reports on sales of existing homes and new construction show that buyers are motivated by the lower long term interest rates that inspired the two Fed Funds cuts this summer. August’s construction numbers were strong for multi-family and single-family construction. The rate environment seems unlikely to have made such a difference. Rates were already historically low. However, one of the major home buying demographic groups – Millennials – has proven to be very skeptical about home ownership; therefore, even small drops in the 30-year mortgage rate seem to be having the emotional impact that pushes shoppers to become buyers.

Wells Fargo Economics has a great short commentary on residential construction. An excerpt is below:

Higher builder confidence and an improving trend in single-family permits
indicate that new home construction is finally beginning to catch up to the higher pace seen in new home sales. Total housing starts jumped 12.3% to a 1.36 million-unit pace, the highest since June 2007. The headline number surpassed all expectations, but was driven to a large extent by a 32.8% surge in multifamily starts. New apartment construction, which is notoriously volatile on a month-to-monthbasis, had briefly dipped below trend the past two months, so a catchup in August is not surprising.
Still, single-family starts were quite solid, rising 4.4% to a 919,000-unit pace,
the highest since January 2019. Only three times in this long and gradual
housing recovery have we seen single-family construction at a higher pace
than in August. Single-family starts rose 3.6% and 5.3%, respectively, in the
South and West, the two largest regions for residential construction. They
were up 8.7% in the Midwest and down 1.7% in the Northeast. Nationwide,
year-to-date single-family starts are down 2.7% over the same period last
year.

In regional nonresidential construction news, decisions were made on several large projects that had been pending. The Gilbane/Massaro joint venture was chosen for the combined $200 million central utility plant/Human Performance Center at the University of Pittsburgh Victory Heights. Rycon Construction was awarded the $40 million UPMC Magee central utility plant/maintenance building. Rycon was also successful on the 200,000 square foot Phillips buildout at Bakery Square. Thomas Construction is starting construction on the $11.3 million Hoyt Science Center expansion at Westminster College.
CM proposals are being taken from Landau, TEDCO, Volpatt and Whiting-Turner on the $3.5 million CMU Mellon Institute Group 1920 lab renovations. Highmark is taking proposals from AECOM/Tishman, Mascaro, Massaro, PJ Dick, Rycon, Turner and Whiting-Turner on its $20 million lobby and exterior upgrade.

Hiring Slows, Pittsburgh Construction Hums Along

This morning’s Employment Situation Summary for August showed that U.S. employers had added 130,000 workers to payrolls during the month, about what was expected. Unemployment remained at 3.7%. Observers are making headlines about the slowdown in hiring but it’s worth pointing out that a) the economists’ estimates of job growth are highly speculative and missing by 13% on a highly speculative estimate is hardly missing; and b) job growth that is still keeping pace with population growth at this stage of the economic cycle is solid growth.

Backing that last point up is the fact that the workforce is continuing to expand, even as unemployment remains unchanged. The number of workers grew by 30,000 in August, a sign that unemployed persons are continuing to come off the sidelines and find work. Also encouraging was the continued growth in wages, which topped $28/hour again for the second straight month.

The August report isn’t all sunshine, of course. The hiring paled in comparison to one year earlier, when 282,000 jobs were added. The lower number was also consistent with the 2019 trend, which is seeing an average of 158,000 jobs added monthly, compared to 170,000 in 2018 (and that after a 500,000 job downward revision to 2018). Moreover, the trend for the past six months is even slower, falling below 135,000 new jobs.

After the last two recessions, which were precipitated by catastrophic events, the U.S. economy seems to be on a course to slow down, rather than hit a wall. The current economic expansion started in March 2009. That’s a long time without a downturn. Trade wars are hurting U.S. corporations and farmers. Most of the rest of the G-20 nations are seeing flat economies, or even recessions, at the moment. It’s more likely than not that some of the jobs reports during the next six months will be even weaker than August’s. But maintaining the highest level of economic output in U.S. history isn’t the worst place to get stuck.

A look at the Builders Exchange his past week or so reveals that the bidding market is slowing but local project news reflects the healthy local economy. Franjo Construction started work on a $3-4 million expansion/renovation project at Innovative Carbide in North Huntingdon Township. Franjo also pulled a permit for a $3 million dispensary buildout for Solevo Wellness at the Streets at the Meadowlands in North Strabane. Massaro Corp. was awarded the $1.2 million WVUM Ruby Hospital radiology reading renovation. Waller Corp. started work on $5 million The Eagle Food & Beer Hall for Thunderdome Restaurant Group. Pitt is conducting final CM interviews with Massaro, Turner and Whiting-Turner for its $200 million central plant/Human Performance Center project. And the $200 million-plus, 600,000 square foot office tower proposed by JMC Holdings has gone back out for CM proposals. Last time, JMC worked with Turner, PJ Dick, Mascaro, and others, hiring Turner for preconstruction services.

Pittsburgh Builds Through the Worries

As the end of summer/back to school season brings a few weeks of slower bidding, construction continues at full pace. Few, if any, skilled workers are available. The Shell cracker is at peak employment of 5,000. There are cranes visible Downtown, Oakland, and most of the suburbs. Some of the recent contract awards/starts include: Mascaro Construction landing the 105,000 sq. ft., $9 million WeWork tenant improvement at 600 Grant Street; Al.  Neyer starting work on Crossgates’ 105,000 sq. ft. distribution center at Westgate Business Park in Big Beaver; and PJ Dick getting the green light for a $35 million project for the University of Pittsburgh, infilling behind Hillman Library off Forbes Avenue. AIMS Construction started construction on the $4 million UPMC CHildren’s Hospital pharmacy. Jendoco Construction started work on the $5.7 million Plaza at Hazelwood Green.

The Plaza at Hazelwood Green

At the Federal Reserve Bank’s Pittsburgh Business Advisory Committee meeting held August 28, the most recent survey of regional business owners found that the Pittsburgh economy was holding steady, despite worries about a recession in the coming year or two. Unlike respondents to business conditions surveys in other Federal Reserve Districts, Pittsburgh business owners reported that they continue to look to add staff over the coming months and see demand for products and services as the same or better than the past quarter.