Category Archives: Regional Economy

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.

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.

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.

Regional Scorecard Points to Regional Construction

Today’s release of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance’s annual Business Investment Scorecard shined a light on how the regional economy’s strengths are driving construction in Western PA. The PRA noted that there were more deals – 340 – in 2018 than in any year since the scorecard started in 2007. In those deals was $1.2 billion in capital investment in development. Drilling into the major business sectors, you find that the top job creating areas were IT/robotics, energy and manufacturing. It’s not a coincidence that these sectors are the ones filling up the new buildings in the Strip District, Bakery Square, Robotics Row, etc. The new economy in Pittsburgh is driving commercial construction.

From the news, it appears these sectors are still driving construction in 2019. Al. Neyer Inc. announced it had landed Victory Packaging as a lead tenant and was starting the 220,000 square foot Jackson Distribution Center (rendering above) north of Zelienople. RDC Star took its $50 million District 15 Version Beta through the city’s planning process this week. RDC Design + Build hopes to start construction on the building in August.

PA Turnpike Commission awarded contracts for the $20.3 million Southern Beltway maintenance buildings. Nello Construction is the general construction contractor. Mascaro was selected for the $40-45 million UPMC Mercy 3rd floor renovation. Dick Building Co. started work on the $2.3 million new quest cottages at Laurel Valley Golf Club.

Good News on the Economy

The first week of the month is an eventful one for economic data. Last week was no exception. First the Commerce Department announced that total construction spending had declined year-over-year, but was still near all-time record high levels at $1.282 trillion dollars annually. The news that followed was rosier.

The Commerce Department released its first estimate of GDP growth for the January-March 2019 quarter. The 3.2% annualized jump was higher than expected. The above average growth was a turnabout from the talk of recession from earlier this year. There were two notes of caution in the report, however. First, GDP was inflated by an unusual buildup in inventories, which generally means that a following quarter will have lower growth from inventory depletion, There was also a temporary decline in imports, likely resulting from tariffs, which boosted consumption of U.S. goods. The second caution was the 1.3% increase in the sales of domestic goods to consumers and businesses. This suggests that underlying demand is lower than the headline GDP growth.

On May 3, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly Employment Situation Summary, which found 263,000 jobs had been created in April. Unemployment fell to 3.6%, with the number of unemployed persons falling to 5.8 million. That’s more than one million fewer people than there are jobs open, which underscores the seriousness of the problems that businesses are having with finding workers. In reality, this trend of roughly one million more jobs than workers has existed for a year or so, and it should have slowed the economy by now. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

Light regional construction news. Research of April’s building permits in Pittsburgh revealed that Cavcon was selected to build Vollmer America’s new $4.8 million building in Findlay Township. PJ Dick has started work on the new $26 million multi-modal garage behind Bakery Square on Dahlem Place. A. Martini & Co. started demolition on the $6.5 million Wabtec TI at 30 Isabella Street on the North Shore.

Pittsburgh Jobs Bump

Department of Labor data this week showed Pittsburgh’s seven-county unemployment rate dipped to 3.6%, which is lower than the national rate of 3.8%. That’s the lowest since February 1970. Even more encouraging in the data was the estimate that Pittsburgh’s workforce grew by 8,000 in February, the second straight month of increased workforce. The Pittsburgh economy has been creating more new jobs each month than the net growth numbers, but the rapid retirement rate was consistently dragging the numbers down. Attracting population – and thereby workers – has been a major stumbling block for the region’s business attraction efforts. Let’s hope two months becomes a trend.

pgh y-o-y jobs

One of the job creators in Pittsburgh, Facebook, is taking bids on the buildout of its 105,000 square foot VR space in District 15 in the Strip. Proposals are due from Burchick Construction, RDC Design + Build and Turner on April 5. RDC is also out to bid for subcontractors on its next building, the 260,000 square foot + 387-car garage District 15 Beta.

ConstructConnect is reporting that Carl Walker Construction was the low bidder on the Washington County Courthouse Square Parking Garage and Plaza renovations, at $8.5 million or $13.4 million depending on options selected. DiMarco Construction was the low general on the $6 million Gill Hall Elementary School addition. Volpatt Construction was selected for the $1.2 million West Penn Hospital ERCP project.

Big Win for Indiana County

Thursday morning, URBN announced they were building an 863,000 square foot fulfillment center for Urban Outfitters at the Windy Ridge Business & Technology Park in Indiana, PA. The project is one of the few mass fulfillment centers located west of the I-81 corridor and is a tremendous return on the investment made by the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations (CEO).

Indiana County CEO executive director, Byron Stauffer, says that $20 million had been invested in the Windy Ridge project over a period of more than ten years. Stauffer was effusive in his praise for the governor, Senator Don White and Rep. Dave Reed for their support of the project, which attracted a variety of grants and loans. URBN said that the fact that Indiana County had a prepared site, available workforce (the facility will employ more than 200), access to Route 422 and the IUP supply chain management program, tipped the decision in favor of the Windy Ridge site.

“The lesson learned here is if you think small, you get small,” Stauffer concluded.

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Blue Rock Construction from Allentown is the construction manager for the $60 million-plus facility, which will have 45-foot precast concrete panels on the exterior. Construction is scheduled to be completed by late summer 2019.