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The Case for Getting the Stimulus Package Done

Congress and the White House seem to be ready to get a second major economic aid package done (or not). I have to admit that I don’t understand the politics of this latest round of stimulus talks. An unpopular sitting president, struggling in the polls, would normally be cheerleading a bill home that put thousands of dollars in the hands of voters in the last weeks before an election. But these aren’t normal times. This morning’s press conference by Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized the negotiations as “just about there,” which gave Wall Street a boost after a brief plunge this morning. The S&P 500 fell 20 points by 10:00 but is now up 17 points from yesterday’s close. Reports from the Senate are less encouraging. Majority Leader McConnell is reported to be against passage of any aid ahead of the election, fearing it will limit Republican leverage in the event the Senate flips to a Democratic majority.

The best case for the stimulus came at 8:30 this morning, when the unemployment claims report for the week of Oct 17 was published. The good news: first time jobless claims fell under 800,000 for the first time in a while. The bad news: total unemployment insurance claimants have fallen by less than 8,000 since Oct. 3. The total number of people receiving unemployment claims was over 23 million.

Setting the politics aside (since politics will not feed the family or pay the rent), the need for more aid is clear as a third increase in infections and hospitalizations washes over the U.S. Doctors and researchers are still learning about COVID-19 but what is abundantly clear is that it will continue to drag down the economy until a vaccine is found. Because the opinions about how to deal with the outbreak have become politically polarized, a central economic reality has been glossed over. That is, that the steep decline in demand for services in major sectors of the economy is due to consumers avoiding those sectors to avoid the infection. Marker posted an excellent article about this demand shock. It’s not shutdowns that slowed the economy. Consumers have shown they will be wary, regardless of the government’s position. The best example of this is Sweden, where the official approach has been to allow the virus to move through the less vulnerable population to achieve herd immunity. Sweden’s GDP declined 8.9% in the second quarter without lockdowns. Its neighbors, Finland and Denmark, saw decline of less than 6%, even though they imposed short-term lockdowns and guidelines like mask-wearing and limited gatherings. A slower economy seems inevitable until a medical solution is found. Government aid for those impacted the most will help keep a floor under the economy until then. Absent such aid, evictions and foreclosures will begin to spike. What follows that is a double-dip recession. At this point, there aren’t any fiscal conservatives left in Congress. Moreover, there are some compelling cases made for the efficacy of borrowing money at near zero rates to stimulate growth above 3% again. Fiscal policy can tighten once the corner has been turned.

At the regional level, while unemployment in Pittsburgh is higher than most of its benchmark cities, the real estate market is recovering. Residential real estate has, in fact, seen growth across the board, with the exception of apartment construction. Sales of homes and home values have risen sharply. New construction of single-family homes is up over 29% year-over-year. New multi-family projects have fallen off last year’s pace. Through nine months, there were only 785 new apartments built in Pittsburgh, compared to 1,459 during the same period in 2019. Commercial real estate is beginning to reawaken as well, particularly in the industrial sector.

In construction news, Pittsburgh Glass Center took proposals from A. Martini & Co., Dick Building Co., A. M. Higley, and Massaro Crop. for its $6 million expansion. Burchick Construction is doing a $3 million build-out for Oculus on the 3rd floor of Schenley Place. Burns & Scalo Real Estate is building out a $12 million research space for Hillman Cancer Institute and a $4 million wet lab space for NeuBase at The Riviera. Al. Neyer was selected to build the second 60,617 square foot building for Elmhurst at the Heights of Thorn Hill. DiMarco Construction was awarded the general contract on the $3.8 million Robinson Township Police Station. Allegheny Construction Group is CM for the $4 million Jefferson Hospital chiller replacement. BJ’s Wholesale Club is taking bids on two 100,000 square foot-plus new stores in Ross and South Fayette. The $33 million New Kensington Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade is due Dec. 8.

 

Pittsburgh Office Market: Focus on Data – Not Speculation

Earlier this week, JLL issued its Skyline Report, which got a bit of media play, particularly in the doom-and-gloom Pittsburgh Business Times. JLL’s report highlighted concerns about the surge in sublease space and the media emphasized JLL’s opinions about the impact of tech work-from-home on future office demand and the uncertain future of office because of WFH. These concerns are legitimate. If WFH becomes another trend that leads to downsizing of office usage by even 10%, it will add five million-plus square feet to the vacant inventory. That stuff makes for good headlines and click bait. The problem is that we have no idea when we’re getting out of this pandemic, let alone what things will look like on the other side. The better course is to look at the data.

JLL’s headline data point, a vacancy rate near 20%, is not comforting either, but it’s only marginally higher than 90 days earlier. Newmark Knight Frank released its thrid quarter reports today, and the data is similar. According to NKF, the overall vacancy rate moved from 17.9% in July to 18.5% in October. The more troubling trend is the year-over-year decline of 2.2 points. New construction deliveries of a million square feet were the main reason for the jump, with lower occupancy having a small impact. Rents held steady, rising three cents to $24.10/square foot. Rent is a lagging indicator, however, and the likelihood is strong that rents will fall as leases renew during the next 12 months. One interesting view of the NKF data is the stability of the market overall. Occupancy is above 80% for almost all submarkets. The east market is an outlier to the downside, with vacancies at 26.5%, and Oakland/East End vacancy is the outlier to the upside, at 11.8%. These two are the smallest submarkets by far, at just over three million square feet each. The remaining suburban and urban markets are between 16% and 18% +/-.

Vacancy has been growing in Pittsburgh since mid-2019. Source: Newmark Knight Frank

Office occupancy is a function of employment. Until there’s a medical solution to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, employment will be significantly lower than in February 2020. At last week’s meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank, the governors looked forward to unemployment staying below eight percent at year’s end and a steady decline in unemployment that returned to the four percent range in late 2022 or 2023. It won’t take that long for office occupancy to tick back down in Pittsburgh, but it’s worth remembering that 1) Pittsburgh’s office market was much softer in February 2020 than in February 2017, and 2) the speculation about declining office demand because of COVID-19 response is not unfounded.

The Fed’s observations about the economy were made before the Trump administration walked away from negotiations over a third major economic safety net package. The House of Representatives hurriedly passed a $1.3 trillion bill last week that was set to provide direct aid to households, additional assistance to small businesses, and funds for state and local governments, which have seen their revenues decimated. Aid for local government is particularly critical to the economy, according to the Fed. The bill contained a number of non-economic provisions that the Senate was not likely to accept but there was the basis for negotiations to continue. Reactions to the president’s shutdown of negotiations have been strongly negative and the White House today hinted that discussions had re-started. That would be good news. Fed Chair Jerome Powell cautioned in the FOMC minutes that the risk from providing too little aid was much greater than overshooting government intervention, especially since inflation remains well below two percent. Absent more assistance, the economy is expected to remain in declining GDP growth through the winter.

Regional construction activity has begun to pick back up, with more bidding and RFP’s out. Carlow University is looking for developers to partner in its proposed 400,000 square foot research/mixed-use tower in Oakland. Cavcon Construction is starting work on a $4 million-plus Education and Tech Center in Indiana PA for Westmoreland Community College. New-Belle Construction was awarded the $4 million new manufacturing facility for Barchemy in Donora. Facility Support Services was awarded $2.7 million in contracts for renovations to the Dept. of Energy National Energy Technology Lab in South Park. PJ Dick is the contractor for $3 million in renovations to Aramark concession areas at PPG Paints Arena. A separate $1.5 million package of renovations for Rivers Casino at PPG Paints is out to bid to Mascaro, Massaro, and PJ Dick. Turner Construction is doing preconstruction on the $35 million AGH Neurology Center for Excellence.

The Two Sides of the Regional Unemployment Story

There was a good story in Pittsburgh Quartelry’s digital update this morning on the region’s unemployment rate. Check out Julia’s Fraser’s story. The top line was good news. The unemployment rate fell from 12.8% in July to 10.5% in August. But the data was less rosy. The actual number of people employed fell by 39,405 from July to August; and the year-over-year decline in total employment plunged to more than 175,000. That’s the worst year-over-year decline since April 2020, and the second worst decline since the recession began in February. In part, that’s because August 2019 marked a high point in regional employment, with 1,157,274 people employed. However, the year-over-year decline jumped because the economy in Pittsburgh has weakened further with the end of the Payroll Protection Program.

Source: Department of Labor

These two concepts may seem at odds. How can unemployment drop more than two points when employment drops by almost four points? Remember, the unemployment rate is just the math. It’s easy to forget that if the total number of people in the workforce decline, the unemployment rate will decline (assuming the number of jobs lost doesn’t outstrip the number of people leaving the workforce). That’s what happened in August. While unemployment rose by 74,800 compared to August 2019 (or 6.5 points), the workforce declined by 48,000 people. It’s the latter number that is a key metric that we don’t understand at the moment. Pittsburgh Quarterly quotes Pitt’s Chris Briehm on the subject and he notes quite correctly that we won’t know the full story until the public health crisis ends.

It’s worth digging into that a bit. Briehm’s point is that the varying motives of people leaving the workforce during a pandemic make it impossible to judge whether or not there is an accelerating trend towards a smaller workforce. Unemployment insurance allows some people who can’t work remotely to not work, rather than take the risk of infection. Others will take the choice of unemployment over illness, even if they don’t qualify for UI. Still others who must work – like in restaurants or bars – may have chosen to relocate to states where those establishments have reopened to a greater degree than in Pennsylvania. And some of the workers have quit looking for work for now or have chosen to retire. Until there is clarity about the safety of the workplace, we won’t know how many of the workers who left the workforce are coming back; and until there is organic job growth, meaning adding of new positions, we won’t know how much of the discouraged workforce will return.

The significance of a declining workforce is obscured in a severe jobs recession like we’ve seen since March. For now, at least, the decline has positive benefits. Fewer people are looking for work. Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate is lower, even though the number of employed is much lower. If the people who have declared themselves as out of the workforce in August remain out, that means unemployment is not artificially low. That’s a good thing. But, if that’s true, then Pittsburgh faces a much bigger uphill battle once economic growth returns. Employers will struggle to find workers with the skills they need. Growing companies can’t tolerate that, so they will look elsewhere for talent. That means some will close shop in Pittsburgh and move elsewhere, or expand elsewhere instead of Pittsburgh. The region’s future is predicated on the innovation economy driving job growth in Pittsburgh. That can’t happen if innovators can’t find employees in Western PA. Our vaunted university research does Pittsburgh no good if the businesses that spin out of them move to Palo Alto or Austin or Nashville. Let’s hope that the cure for the public health crisis results in a cure for our workforce decline as well.

Green Shoots of Recovery for Higher Education

Throughout the U.S. colleges and universities have become hot spots for new COVID-19 infections, often with numbers that are astronomical for the small towns in which the schools are located. After one month, however, returning to school has been less of a problem for the economy than was feared. This doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, of course, but the outbreaks have so far been mostly confined to the campuses, rather than setting off big spikes in the college towns. Obviously, stay in touch with this issue as flu season begins.

This morning brought a report from the National Student Clearinghouse that was more good news for the higher ed market. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released a preliminary report on fall enrollment across the U.S. today and its results were better than expected. Colleges and universities have seen undergraduate enrollment decline 2.5% in fall compared to last year. Public 4-year schools were nearly even with 2019, and private non-profit schools were off 3.8%. One downside surprise was that community colleges saw a 7.5% decline. Community colleges were expected to get a bump because of the economic impact of the pandemic. Another troubling trend was the decline in foreign students. The pandemic, and its related travel restrictions, accelerated the declining foreign student enrollment to 11% in fall 2020. Only 22% of the colleges and universities reported in time for this update, so it is possible that these trends will see revisions by the time of the final report in late fall.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse

Pennsylvania institutions fared much worse than the nation as a whole, probably because of the predominance of private 4-year schools, with enrollments shrinking 9.2%. One national trend that is likely to hit Pittsburgh universities harder than most is the 11% drop in foreign students enrolled in U.S. colleges. Locally, Duquesne University was off very slightly, as an increase in graduate students virtually offset the drop in undergrad enrollment. The same trend boosted enrollment slightly higher at Slippery Rock and California University of PA. Local private colleges Point Park University and Grove City College both report that enrollment was lower but in line with 2019. Robert Morris University saw a decline of just under 10% but attributed that to an unusually large graduating class in 2019 and a significant drop in international students. Data on Pitt and CMU enrollments wasn’t available but, assuming enrollment declines were milder than expected there also, news is good for the many planned construction projects in Oakland.

In project news, JMC Holdings selected the PJ Dick/Dick Building Co. team as construction manager for the 1501 Penn Avenue office building, which is expected to advance in spite of rejection by the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. Another large redevelopment will be before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in October. Echo Realty’s Shady Hill mixed-use project, a demolition and redevelopment of the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle in Shadyside, involves a new 36,000 square foot Giant Eagle and 38,000 square feet of retail, to be built by Continental Building Co., and a $10 million, 432-car garage that has been awarded to Carl Walker Construction. Shady Hill also includes a $37 million, 252-unit apartment being developed by Echo’s partner Greystar. Massaro Corp. is the contractor for the apartments.

Mele & Mele was low on the $25.7 million Canonsburg-Houston WWTP. Yarborough was low bidder on the $1.9 million Port Authority Manchester Garage engine test facility. Masco Construction was low on the $3.6 million Robinson Township Police Station. Sentinel Construction is about to start on an $8.7 million renovation of Seven Oaks Country Club in Beaver. Johnson Development has awarded a contract to Franjo Construction for the new $6 million, 105,000 square foot Cube Smart Self-Storage on the North Side. Franjo is also the contractor for a $3.2 million upgrade to Zamagias’ Shaler Plaza.The $67 million Canon McMillan Middle School is out to bid due Oct. 15. 

Pittsburgh Planning Should Approve This Project

On September 15, the Pittsburgh Planning Commission will again hear from JMC Holdings about its plans for a $200 million mid-rise office building proposed for the for Wholey refrigerated warehouse site. The project , 1501 Penn Avenue, is a 525,000 square foot office building, with 12 floors of offices atop a podium that includes parking and retail. JMC has worked with Turner Construction on preconstruction, although the project is expected to eventually bid to Turner, Mascaro, Rycon, and a PJ Dick/Dick Building Co. joint venture.

Rendering by Brandon Haw Architecture

When the geometric 21-story structure was first revealed to the public earlier this year, Mayor Peduto panned the design and the Planning Commission was lukewarm about the project. One of the principal concerns is the building’s height, which will be roughly twice that of the next tallest building, the Penn-Rose Building one block east. The 1501 Penn project presents the city with the perfect opportunity to transition what is Pittsburgh’s second-hottest office market (and the one with actual land on which to build) towards Downtown. Real estate professionals have considered the Strip District to be the fringe of the Central Business District for a while now. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership includes it in its description of the Greater Downtown. If the vision of developers matches the demand from Pittsburgh’s emerging technologies, the Strip could ultimately look like what Fifth and Forbes are becoming in Oakland – blocks of 10-15 story tech “towers” that put thousands of well-paid people in proximity to the city’s center. The image above shows the glass tower rendered in the context of the 1500 block of Penn Avenue, with Downtown beyond. Its location does not threaten the character of the Strip’s iconic retail blocks to the east and provides a reasonable first step towards denser, taller construction between the 16th Street and Downtown.

Wholey’s warehouse

For those concerned about the cold, symmetrical architecture, let’s remember what building will be replaced by 1501 Penn (see above).

If your argument is that the project is overly ambitious for the times or the market, I understand. That’s the call the developers and their investors get to make, however. The same argument was reasonably made about Bakery Square in 2009. That turned out rather well. Like 1501 Penn Avenue, Bakery Square was the latest in a series of attempts to redevelop a legacy building that was unworkable in the 21st century. Bakery Square was also started during the depths of the Great Recession. The Wholey’s warehouse has been proposed as a telecomm center, apartments, condos, and offices over at least two decades. The structure is poured concrete. The concrete is meant to act as one of the insulating materials so the walls are extremely thick. It simply won’t be re-purposed within the bounds of economic sense. If JMC and its investors see a diamond in the rough, I hope the City of Pittsburgh allows them to polish it. The city may no longer need to offer enticements to attract developers like JMC Holdings from New York, but Pittsburgh isn’t Seattle. Planning Commission would do well to remember that we’re still the pursuer, not the pursued. JMC isn’t proposing a chemical plant, just a place where 1,500 or so people will work. After the obstacles that were put in front of McCaffery Interests for five years to make development of 1600 Smallman and the Terminal Building possible, it might be a good idea to put 1,500 customers one block away. How do you think McCaffery feels about the vision rendered below? Seems like the occupants of 1501 Penn Avenue might like having those lovely lifestyle amenities close by.

Rendering by Studio 97.

1501 Penn Avenue can be another linkage between Downtown and the burgeoning Strip District. The Downtown market has gotten softer in recent years. Allowing the Strip Dictrict to become more like Downtown will make for better connections and better rationale for renting Downtown. Planning Commission should let the rising tide continue.

Another interesting project on the agenda for September 15 is the Uptown Tech Flex development proposed by Westrise. The former commercial laundry on Jumonville Street will be converted by Omega Building Co. into a 63,000 square foot office/lab/shop for emerging tech companies. The property type is suddenly a hot item and the Uptown Tech Flex project is located about midway between Oakland and Downtown, just a block from the route of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). You can view Desmone Architects’ design at the Planning Commission’s website. The Westrise development is one more private investment that is slowly bringing Oakland and Downtown together, with Uptown and the Hill District standing to benefit. You can only imagine what might occur in this neighborhood if the BRT was running.

Late Summer Project News

Even in the dead, slow summer in the middle of a pandemic there are still some interesting project announcements. Earlier this week, Clark Street Capital made a presentation of its proposed 300-unit apartment project at 3500 Forbes Avenue in Oakland. A rendering of the project by architects Dwell Design Studio is below. No CM announcement as yet. The $50-60 million tower is the third mid-rise project moving through development in the western Forbes-Fifth corridor in Oakland. Walnut Capital’s innovation Research Tower is under construction. Wexford Health’s research tower on Forbes a block to the east is moving through city approvals.

3500 Forbes Avenue. Rendering by Dwell Design Studio

The city announced an innovative approach to the increased level of homelessness this week. A public/private partnership is developing the “Project Cares” building on Second Avenue. PJ Dick is the contractor for the $15 million, 45,000 square foot building, which is scheduled to start by fall.

In other construction news, TEDCO was the successful bidder on the new $1.7 million PNC branch in Rostraver Township. DiMarco Construction broke ground on a $4.6 million, 18,000 square foot new animal hospital for AVETS in Monroeville. Caliber Contracting Services was selected to build the new $2 million Kinder Care in McCandless. MBM Contracting will be the contractor for Dollar Bank’s new 80,000 square foot headquarters space at 20 Stanwix Street.

The Consumer is Losing Momentum – The Economy Will Follow

This isn’t a great chart, at least not if you’re hoping for an economic recovery to go into high gear. This chart was floating around the internet this week, highlighted by former U.S. Treasury Dept, economist Ernie Tedeschi (@ernietedschi). Stu Hoffman (@StuHoffmanPNC) from PNC commented on it. He’s been unfailingly upbeat about the recovery but noted that the loss of $600 and slow walked unemployment compensation payments will drag August’s consumer income and spending. Consumers have been fueling the recovery since April ended. This chart also explains why Congress needs to act so that consumers and businesses have some certainty about what to expect.

Housing starts jumped 23.4% from July 2019 to July 2020. That’s a very hopeful sign. Much of the demand is being driven by record low mortgage rates but data from the sales suggests that the pent-up home ownership share of Millennials is finally adding to demand. Prices of homes, whether existing or new construction, are up 8% year-over-year. The sustained demand is helping but the short supply of homes for sale is really creating upward pressure. At the end of July, the inventory of homes for sale was 35 days worth. That’s one-third what is necessary for a smoothly functioning housing market.

One harbinger of construction recovery that is languishing still is the AIA’s Architectural Billings Index (ABI). The AIA surveys its member firms each month and the ABI tracks whether billings, design contracts, and inquiries are higher or lower than the previous month. The July ABI was at 40 (same as June). That means only four out of ten firms saw higher billings. Inquiries were at 49.1. Half the firms saw declining inquiries. With design leading construction by 9-12 months, the results from the ABI survey foretell a slow winter.

Construction bidding in Western PA remains slow. Competition is driving bids much lower than a year ago. Recent contract awards include Kokosing Construction landing the $14.16 million general contract on ALCOSAN’s $19.1 Return Activated Sludge Piping and Pump Replacement project. DiMarco Construction started work on the $3.3 million NorthStar Chevrolet service center.  Oxford Development selected Rycon Construction as CM for its $3.5 million adaptive re-use of the Achieva Building in the Strip District. Rycon is also the CM for a $2.2 million renovation to medical device manufacturing and office space for Phillips in Murrysville. Dick Building Co. is fitting out the new offices for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership in the Bank Tower.

The State of the Economy in a Few Charts

Thursday morning’s report on first-time unemployment claims brought (relatively) good news on the state of the economy. First-time claims for unemployment fell by 228,000 to 963,000. That marked the first week in which claims were below one million since March. The relief felt by the decline in unemployment claims is tempered by the fact that the 963,000 claims is the highest in U.S. history prior to the pandemic. Some 28.3 million American are receiving unemployment compensation of some sort as of July 31.

The drop in unemployment claims is the second bit of improvement news issued during the past week. The Census Bureau announced last week that durable goods orders jumped for the second straight month, climbing to $207 billion in July (see chart below). Durable goods shipments declined from nearly $250 billion in February to $168 billion in May. The increase in purchases of durable goods suggests that consumers are more willing to spend on bigger ticket items than they were during the shutdown.

Other reports on economic activity during the second quarter were not so upbeat. As expected, the first reading on GDP in the second quarter showed a 9.5% decline from March to June. That’s a 32% drop on an annualized basis. The shutdown in economic activity from mid-March through May made such a decline inevitable. Economists expect that the increase in activity will be strong, although the renewed outbreak of COVID-19 in most of the U.S. since mid-June is going to slow the pace of growth. Job creation slowed in July after two months of robust hiring. Employers added 1.7 million jobs in July. That level of hiring was not enough to offset the cumulative number of first-time unemployment claims during the month. Unemployment continued to fall in July, to 10.2 percent.

While the shelter-at-home orders stopped economic activity cold in the spring, a look at indicators of consumer behavior since the outbreak hit the U.S. reveals the difficulty policy makers faced. Those who viewed the shutdown of businesses as a cure worse than the disease overlook the reality that people were going to alter their behavior because of the pandemic, whether the government mandated it or not. The chart below reflects insights on three metrics of consumer behavior. The number of dinner reservations and travel trips plummeted from March to April, and have remained at depressed levels through July. In response to the plunge in mortgage rates, home buyers have bucked the otherwise negative trends to purchase houses in much greater than normal volumes. The housing industry in general has been one of the few bright spots in the economy.

Construction news is limited in mid-2020. Bidding has slowed precipitously. Construction has proceeded on a few projects that were in the pipeline for 2020. Rycon Construction started work on the $38 million Fifth & Clyde Student Residence for Carnegie Mellon. PJ Dick started work on the $55 million Pennley Place mixed-use development in East Liberty. Seneca Valley School District awarded contracts for its $48.8 million Evans City Elementary School. Rycon Construction is the general contractor. Franjo Construction was awarded the contract for the $5.5 million new Munhall Borough Building. Franjo also started construction on two condos in Lawrenceville, the 24-unit Lawrenceville Lofts and the 21-unit Penn 23 condo. Turner Construction is the contractor for Perkins Eastman’s fit-out of 15,000 square feet in 525 William Penn Place. Dancing Gnome selected A. Martini & Co. for its $1.6 million expansion in Sharpsburg. TBI Contracting was selected for the $1.5 million new Derry Township VFD.

Some Random and Personal Observations

Jack Mascaro died on Sunday. There were few figures who played a bigger role in the construction industry in the era following the collapse of the steel industry than Jack did. His personality will be missed. I’ve done business with Mascaro Construction for 25 years now but didn’t get to know Jack until the time between selling Pittsburgh Construction News and starting the magazine BreakingGround. Over the past decade we became friends, working together every year or so on a project that he was pursuing (and for which he wanted some free information). I will miss getting those calls.

In his obituary there was mention of his starting his business in 1988 on the Ping Pong table in the basement of his Upper St. Clair home. This story is part of the Mascaro lore but it always makes me chuckle. Jack was proud of the humble beginnings story but he was anything but the kind of businessman who worked from his basement. Jack invested heavily in his people, his technology, his equipment, and his facilities. He didn’t do things on the cheap and he built a company that is one of the leaders of the construction industry. He was proud of that and of the fact that his three sons were trying to take the business to a higher level than he left it for them.

Jack was impatient. He was a ball buster. He didn’t like to lose, even in an industry where you lose way more opportunities than you win. And he had a high level of curiosity. Jack gave me a new book to read every time we met in his office. There was a lot more to Jack than I ever got to see but two stories stick in my mind when I think of how to describe Jack.

The first took place in 2006 or 2007, when we were first getting to know each other. One of his competitors had just landed a big job that he was competing to build. It was not the first big job the competitor had landed recently. My phone rang. Instead of hello, I heard Jack’s unmistakable high raspy voice asking me if [fill in the blank] “needs to win every [expletive deleted] job in Pittsburgh?!?” When I reminded him that the same competitor could have asked that question about Mascaro Construction just a few years before that, he laughed and said, “Well that was then. This is now.”

In 2018, Jack asked me for a bunch of data to try and understand an aspect of the market better for an idea he had to create a more competitive environment for the Laborers union. We had lunch at Legends of the North Shore. There was a server who would speak Italian with Jack so he could practice learning the language. Jack was really interested in digging into the data I pulled together for him, trying to see if it supported his idea and thinking about where his argument might be weak. All of this was after beating a bout with cancer into remission. I asked him why he was so concerned about the industry when he was technically retired from the operations. “I’m 73 years old. I’m just starting to get good at all of this,” he said.

I just turned 63. I try to think about that lunch when I feel tired of the day-to-day nonsense of running a business much smaller than Mascaro Construction. Jack left behind a great legacy. His sons, John, Jeffrey and Michael, care about Mascaro Construction and its people the way he did. His humor, passion, and curiosity left an imprint on an industry and a city. Alla prossima Jack.


Changing gears, Monday brought more great news about the progress towards a vaccine for COVID-19. The vaccine being developed by Oxford University and Asta Zeneca completed an early trial on 1,007 people and was found to be safe and to trigger the antibodies needed to fight the virus. This news follows last week’s announcement that the Moderna vaccine had been effective in triggering the defense antibodies in 100% of its trials and would go into large-scale human testing. The news is a reminder that the solution to the economic problems caused by the pandemic will be a medical solution. Until then, data is showing that people are going to avoid economic activities that expose them to the public, meaning that the recovery will be slow until the fear of transmission fades. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart. Wear a mask.

In local construction news, Fay-Penn Economic Council announced the start of construction of a 100,500 square foot spec industrial building in Fayette Business Park in Georges Township south of Uniontown. Fairchance Construction is building it. Construction also started on the $20 million micro-grid project being developed by People Gas to power the Pittsburgh International Airport site. PJ Dick is the construction manager.

Healthcare Construction Update

One of the reasons the Pittsburgh construction market looks weaker for the next 12-18 months is the uncertainty in the healthcare market. Just two years ago, the major programs at UPMC and AHN were going to bring billions of dollars in construction projects to the region from 2019-2022. Some of those projects were being pushed back already (UPMC Heart & Transplant, UPMC Shadyside/Hillman were probably 2021-2022 starts at best), but the financial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you want an in-depth look at what’s going on in the healthcare market in Pittsburgh (and beyond), the July/August BreakingGround dropped this week. Check out the feature.Earlier this week, AHN presented the updated institutional master plan for West Penn Hospital to Pittsburgh Planning Commission. Among the major highlights of the ten-year plan were a $100 million outpatient/medical office, a replacement for the Mellon Pavilion, and a 450,000 square foot inpatient tower. Along with the inpatient tower, a 100,000 square foot inpatient infill project will be built, an investment of $300-400 million for new or expanded inpatient facilities. AHN’s other major project on the boards is the $300 million cardiovascular tower planned as a vertical addition above the new cancer center (see cover above) at Allegheny General Hospital. No schedule has been set for construction but CM proposals are expected to be sought this summer.

Following up two projects that had been bid earlier in the spring, PJ Dick is doing preconstruction services for The Watson Institute’s $9 million expansion in Sewickley and Evans General Contracting is building the 250,000 square foot global distribution center for Komatsu. That’s being developed by SunCap Property Group at the Alta Vista Business Park in Fallowfield Township, Washington County. That’s a big win for Mon Valley Alliance and Washington County.