Category: Construction news

CMU Converting to Wind Power Could Set a Precedent in the Area

CMU Converting to Wind Power Could Set a Precedent in the Area

CMU Converting to Wind Power Could Set a Precedent in the Area

In September of 2019, Carnegie Mellon University announced a deal with Engie Resources for wind power from a 306 megawatt wind farm in Illinois. The deal is to last through 2024, and would power its Pittsburgh campus. This was a bold move towards sustainability and viability of variable renewable energy (VRE), and sets a precedent for other businesses and universities in the area. The move could potentially signal a paradigm shift towards institutional use of environmentally conscious infrastructure for new construction and renovations alike.

With all of this in mind, today we will discuss wind power 101, how other regions and countries have successfully implemented wind power, and ultimately how the recent CMU wind power deal could impact the local CRE landscape.

Wind Power: the Basics

Wind power is a type of variable renewable energy (VRE). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) does not identify technical barriers to a grid running solely on VRE, but instead, many of the challenges come from capacity factors. A capacity factor is based on how much power a plant produces in comparison to its overall potential, and it is often based on how often a plan is running or generating power. A conservative estimate for the capacity factor for VREs, namely wind and solar, is around 50 percent.

When there is wind, there is power. On the other hand, nuclear power plants usually have over 90 percent capacity factor. In the long term, however, the resources being utilized will dwindle, which is why many businesses, cities, and states are moving towards either a mix of “clean” energy or, in the case of Carnegie Mellon University, 100 percent wind power.

Examples of Wind Power Around the World

Examples of Wind Power Around the World

As of March 2020, 60 percent of Germany’s energy came from renewable sources, the majority of which came from wind turbines. China and the US lead all countries with total wind power usage, clocking in at 221 GW and 96.4 GW respectively. Interestingly, Germany (the third highest wind power producer in the world) sets a far more productive example of using wind power the right way. Meanwhile, China’s ambitious wind farms have been reported to go largely unused.

This concept of wasted alternative energy hits home in the US. While many Americans support alternative energy over traditional fossil fuels, recent polls have also shown that Americans also fear alternative fuels are less efficient and costlier than the current energy infrastructure. Germany is also a great parallel for Western PA as a region in that Germany has traditionally depended on coal economically and for their energy needs.

German infrastructure has been updated over the past 10 years to adopt more alternative energy sources including wind power that made energy production more efficient, cost effective, and beneficial to the economy overall. Other countries including India, Spain, and the UK have all adopted wind power with mostly positive results.

Implications of CMU Using Wind Power in Pittsburgh

Implications of CMU Using Wind Power in Pittsburgh

That background information leads us to the simple question: will CMU’s converting to wind power have a material impact on commercial real estate in the Pittsburgh area? Unfortunately, as with many issues concerning alternative fuels and climate change the answer is less than clear. Here are a few factors and considerations that will likely come into play when it comes to wind power adoption in Pittsburgh.

  1. Will there be sufficient alternative fuel infrastructure? Businesses and other organizations with the intention of switching to an alternative fuel such as wind power is one thing. Having the available resources and/or infrastructure to make that change is another. The US might produce the second most wind power on earth, but it is primarily located in the Great Plains states.
  2. Governmental and public support. Again, converting to wind power is a very significant choice that requires available supply and infrastructure. The US currently gets slightly more than 7% of its energy needs from wind power. While this number is expected to rise, the future remains murky.
  3. Cost viability of wind power in Pittsburgh. The success of the wind power program at CMU may influence public opinion but investment in wind power in the near future will still depend upon return on investment. As CMU’s contract will run through 2024, we expect to see more detailed numbers over the next 4 or so years.

Implications of CMU Using Wind Power in Pittsburgh

Going Forward

Alternative energy sources become less “alternative” by the day. Some countries, including Sweden and Iceland, have committed to cutting fossil fuels from their energy creation entirely. Such a transition is harder to sell in places, like Western PA, where natural gas and coal are still significant economic drivers. There are ideological and political shifts which will determine the future of alternative power sources including wind energy. American institutions like CMU committing to 100% alternative power generation will certainly have an impact on public perception of such programs.

Working Through the Fear and Some Construction News

On March 20 I posted about how difficult the coming weeks were going to be. As expected, the past week brought much worse news than the previous week.

News about the spread of COVID-19 has followed the same pattern as the news that has come from the rest of the world. As states have responded to the outbreak with shelter-in-place orders, the economy has slowed. The huge jump in first-time unemployment claims filed – some 3.28 million new claims – shocked the public but was also not a surprise to economists tracking the pandemic.

The next few week’s news will be bad too. That’s how the fear stage of a crisis works out. It is likely that the news won’t improve much for a while. That doesn’t mean we won’t work through the fear stage. We’ll accept the gravity of the situation, or get used to the bad news, and then work our way through the crisis. Business owners I know started doing that very thing this week and it was a tough week for that reason. Working through this means layoffs and pay cuts. Small business owners hate taking those steps but they are the first steps in recovering. You have to survive to recover. And there will also be good news too. Last week Congress passed a package of measures that will help with some of the economic damage from the outbreak. Federal guidance on isolation were extended and showed the government was taking the outbreak seriously as a public health threat. Even the stock market showed signs that the selloff may have stopped.

One thing that helps with the fear stage is being informed. That has its own set of challenges. You have to work hard at deciphering information from opinion but here’s a tip: avoid any article that has the words “could,” “might,” or “may” in the title. These are attempts at predicting how this crisis will play out. They are most certainly going to be wrong. The forecasts will be both too gloomy and too optimistic, but almost certainly wrong. It’s not that the articles won’t be well-researched or the forecasts unfounded; it’s that the most important variables are so far from being understood that you can’t reliably predict an outcome.

As an example, some very smart people earlier this week predicted that unemployment “could” reach 30 percent as a result of the shutdown. That was the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That’s 47 million people, or six times the number of people thrown out of work in 2008-2009. Several industry categories would have to go to zero employment for that to come true. More importantly, that kind of forecast leaned on variables about infectious rates and quarantining that aren’t even known in countries that faced the virus a month before the U.S.

Why does this matter? In the fear stage, our minds gravitate towards the negative emotions. We envision the worst that could happen as our likeliest future. Christy Uffelman from Align Leadership shared this Harvard Business Review article on the emotions of fear last week. It’s OK for leaders to embrace the grief that this kind of crisis brings; it’s not OK for leaders to embrace opinions and feelings as facts. Better we should stick with what we know, rather than search for what experts think might happen. Reflecting again on the financial crisis, many of the experts who were forecasting the end of the world in September 2008 were telling us that the panic was overblown in July 2008.

The course of events over the next few months is unclear. Uncertainty helps feed fear too. But some things that are uncertain will have positive outcomes too. There will be resources thrown at developing a vaccine as quickly as possible. It won’t take as long as we fear. Prior to World War II, it took three years to build an Essex class air craft carrier. By 1943, shipbuilders were launching one every 3 ½ months.

We simply don’t know what we don’t know about this pandemic. Stick with resources that inform you, rather than those trying to tell you what will happen or how to feel. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Allegheny County established a rumor control website for public health concerns.

Newmark Knight Frank issued a clear-eyed and objective report on how the pandemic is impacting commercial real estate and construction.

U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship posted a useful guide to the benefits in the $2 trillion CARES Act for businesses.

There is construction news, even in a shutdown. First, the shutdown of construction may be short-lived. Speaker of the PA House, Mike Turzai, is introducing HB2400 next week to allow all construction projects to move forward with mitigation efforts in place. Industry associations have been working to draft mitigation plans this week to make job sites safe for workers. It is not known if Gov. Wolf will support such a bill. The General Contractors Association of PA – working closely with the MBA – developed a COVDID-19 exposure mitigation plan that will inform PA policy.

In project news, Mascaro Construction is coming out of the ground on the $12 million Steelers Pro Shop addition to Heinz Field. Carl Walker Construction has started work on the $11 million renovation of the UPMC parking garage at 3500 Terrace Street. Omega Building Co. is underway on the $7.9 million kitchen and restroom renovations at the Cork Factory. M*Modal is taking 53,000 square feet in the $20 million expansion/renovation of 7514 Penn Avenue that Franjo Construction is doing. Lone Pine Construction was awarded the Westmoreland County Municipal Authority’s $5.5 million office and garage in New Stanton.

Second Phase of Major AHN Construction Project Nearly Complete

Second Phase of Major AHN Construction Projects Nearly Complete
Second Phase of Major AHN Construction Projects Nearly Complete

Allegheny Health Network, much like their latest business partners UPMC, have kept busy in recent years with commercial real estate purchases and developments. One of these development projects is a new emergency department in the Jefferson Hospital in Jefferson HIlls, PA. This project is just one of multiple renovations and new construction projects currently underway under the Allegheny Health Network Banner. Today, we will review the details of the AHN Jefferson Hospital project, discuss some other recent AHN commercial real estate deals, and end with how these projects might impact CRE in our local Pittsburgh region.

Details on the Jefferson Hospital Expansion Project

Details on the Jefferson Hospital Expansion Project

According to Commercial Property Executive: “Highmark Health and Allegheny Health Network have completed Phase I of the new emergency department of AHN Jefferson Hospital in Jefferson Hills, Pa. The project cost $21 million and expanded the existing facility by 34,000 square feet. During the renovations, the hospital’s helipad was also relocated to the roof of the structure. Phase II, which is expected to complete in May 2020, will consist of modernizing the current emergency department space.”

The AHN Jefferson Hospital is home to nearly 400 doctors covering over 40 areas of practice. The new emergency department will consist of:

  • 44 private treatment and observation rooms
  • 7 central nursing pods
  • A more modern and spacious triage area focused on privacy
  • Advance CT and x-ray capabilities
  • Trauma rooms
  • Rooms specially designed for behavior health assessments and treatments

The AHN Jefferson hospital currently cares for over 50,000 patients in the Lower Mon Valley and South Hills areas. This latest round of renovations comes on the heels of a $17.5 million investment into a new surgical suite.

Recent Allegheny Health Network CRE Investments

Recent Allegheny Health Network CRE Investments

While the AHN Jefferson Hospital upgrades are ongoing, they are certainly part of a larger effort being put forth by AHN to modernize and invest in their medical facilities. Here are some other recent examples.

AHN Constructing Harmar Hospital

AHN broke ground on a new Harmer Hospital location on October 5, 2018. The site is still under construction, but is expected to open this fall. Construction on the site was delayed for six months, but kicked back into full gear in July of 2019. The new Harmar Hospital will be located at the intersection of Freeport Road and Guys Run Road, near Zone 28 (formerly Fun Fest). The site will operate as an emergency hospital with additional services including imaging, inpatient care, and a multitude of lab tests.

AHN Construction on New Wexford Hospital

As of October 24, 2019, the final beam was put into place for the brand new AHN Wexford Hospital. The 160-bed hospital is expected to open in 2021. According to Cynthia Hundorfean, AHN CEO and President, “When Wexford Hospital opens its doors, it will be the most technologically advanced and patient-centric acute care hospital in western Pennsylvania.” The hospital is being built in response to the rapid growth in Pine Township and the surrounding areas.

AHN Waterworks Outpatient Center

On a smaller scale, Allegheny Health Network has also committed time and resources into developing outpatient centers for local residents. The most recent of these investments went into the AHN Waterworks Outpatient Center. The center employees ~35 workers, and includes:

  • Gynecologist/obstetrician appointments with full ultrasound capabilities
  • Orthopedic care provided by Allegheny Orthopedic Associates
  • Primary care for adults and children
  • Cardiology care including echograms
  • Diagnostics services including blood tests, MRI, CT scans, 3-D mammography, and more
  • Express care service for non-emergency healthcare with no appointment necessary

How Medical Construction Impacts Western PA Commercial Real Estate

How Medical Construction Impacts Western PA Commercial Real Estate

Allegheny Health Network has been investing heavily into the local community, but how does that impact the local Pittsburgh commercial real estate market? While the full breadth of these major CRE investments is far reaching, here are a few primary takeaways:

Investment in local healthcare drives the local economy. It is well documented that greater healthcare investments lead to greater economic health. This has been shown to be true on both large and small scales. As AHN and UPMC continue to invest and improve our local healthcare resources, the population gets healthier, jobs are created, and the overall quality of life improves. This creates a stronger economy which in turn has a positive impact on commercial real estate in the area.

Greater healthcare services serve our aging population. Pennsylvania, like much of the US, has an aging population. As a greater percentage of our local population is 65 plus, the need for healthcare services increases. AHN investing in hospitals and outpatient centers allows the aging population to remain in their current areas. This increases the demand for housing, retail locations, and commercial real estate overall.

AHN is choosing to renovate defunct retail locations. On a more specific note, AHN and other local healthcare providers have been more willing to renovate/repurpose spaces in dead malls and other retail locations. This could be great news for CRE investors sitting on vacant retail spaces. At the end of the day, any CRE investments from our regional healthcare networks should be a shot in the arm to the commercial real estate market overall.

Pittsburgh’s Tech Boom is Driving the Local Real Estate Market

Pittsburgh’s real estate landscape has changed significantly since the slowdown of the manufacturing and steel industry decades ago. The influx of technology giants such as Uber and Google has brought a rise in the demand for both commercial and residential real estate. The low cost of property relative to cities like New York and San Francisco has been attracting companies such as Duolingo, a language learning app that moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh and subsequently put up billboards in San Francisco in 2018 advertising, “Own a Home. Work in Tech. Move to Pittsburgh.” Although plenty of attention has been paid to the effects of the tech industry on residential real estate, not as much as has been placed on commercial real estate.

Today, we will try to connect the dots between the influx of high profile tech companies, trends in local employee behaviors, and how this new Pittsburgh business atmosphere is having a major impact on the local commercial real estate market.

The Current State of Pittsburgh’s Tech Boom

Most of us in Western PA have noticed the recent boost in high tech presence in our local regions. Splitting from our historical business ventures like steel and coal, Pittsburgh is becoming an affordable alternative for tech companies who are no longer willing or able to pay for spaces in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and other bloated commercial real estate markets.

Much of this tech boom is reliant on the rich talent pool being churned out by local universities. In particular, computer science, robotics, and other high tech programs at Carnegie Mellon University are routinely ranked amongst the best in the world. In recent years, companies like Google and Uber have been working hard to keep these young tech professionals in the local Pittsburgh area after graduation. Those efforts are starting to pay dividends.

Today, there are significantly more jobs (approximately 41%) in research and development than there are in iron and steel mills. Pittsburgh is also experiencing attention from investors. “SoftBank Group Corp (9984.T) last year led a $93 million investment in Pittsburgh-based AI company Petuum. Innovation Works recently hosted 30 Chinese investors interested in robotics and health care start-ups.”

Office Spaces for Google, Uber, Duolingo, and More

While there are many players in the technological revitalization of Pittsburgh, there are a few key players who are leading the way.

Google has long made massive investments in Pittsburgh, particularly with their Bakery Square office spaces. The refurbished Nabisco factory is a fitting transition from the old to the new. Much like Duolingo, Google has actively pursued bringing tech talent to the Pittsburgh area to live and work in the East End.

Uber employs thousands of workers in the Pittsburgh area, which of course does not include the drivers themselves. Perhaps more importantly, Uber has selected Pittsburgh as a research center for self-driving cars. This move ties the ridesharing tech giant to our region for years to come.

Duolingo was founded and is currently headquartered in Pittsburgh. In December, Duolingo became Pittsburgh’s first tech “unicorn” when a fundraising round pushed the company’s value above $1 billion. Rather than going the route of other tech giants and selecting our region as an affordable alternative, Duolingo has always been committed to revitalizing the Pittsburgh area. Duolingo employs 200 workers in local offices.

The Impact of Tech Companies on Commercial Real Estate in Pittsburgh

Beyond the obvious connection of tech companies’ presence being an injection to the local economy, here are some concrete ways in which tech companies have impacted the local commercial real estate industry:

  • Office jobs are on the rise: commercial real estate value for office spaces have been increasing as tech companies continue to occupy more and more space. Thousands of jobs were added in the summer of 2019 as a continuing trend of higher occupancy rates for local office space.
  • Tech companies are investing in properties: not all CRE impacts are directly related to office spaces. For example, Uber recently purchased 600 acres of commercial real estate in Findlay County, PA. This space is going to be used for a self-driving test track for their latest vehicles.
  • Tech workers are driving occupancy in apartment complexes: large multi-family CRE complexes have been going up around the Pittsburgh area, particularly in areas like East Liberty, Lawrenceville, and South of downtown. These complexes are being built in part to accommodate a rising number of tech employees in our area.
  • More tech investment = more local wealth: last but not least, it is undeniable that tech dollars drive local economies. A strong local economy often means a strong commercial real estate market.

Going Forward

There are no signs that the trend of high tech companies choosing Pittsburgh will slow any time soon. An industry-wide trend of shifting away from California and other west coast markets towards traditionally affordable markets is driving the tech industry overall. Other cities experiencing similar growth include Nashville, TN and Austin, TX. The Pittsburgh commercial real estate market has responded in turn, focusing more on offering high scale amenities at premium prices.

What remains to be seen is whether any other large companies like Amazon will set up additional headquarters in our area. Regardless, the effort to keep local talent and recruit local talent to our area will certainly continue to have a major impact on our economy and real estate markets.

Understanding Triple Net Lease (NNN) Agreements

Understanding the intricacies of different commercial real estate lease agreements allows investors, property managers, and lessees to come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial. One common “special” type of lease arrangement for commercial real estate is known as a triple net lease or a NNN lease. These types of lease arrangements are typically utilized in situations where a single tenant rents out an entire space. While NNN leases are almost always for commercial real estate agreements, they apply to other real estate ventures as well.

With all of this in mind, today we will define triple net leases in detail, explain how they differ from standard leases, single net leases, and double net leases, and finally discuss why NNN leases can benefit both investors and tenants for medium to long term commercial real estate agreements.

What is a Triple Net Lease (NNN) Agreement?

As mentioned in the introduction, a triple net lease may also be called a NNN lease or a net-net-net lease. In a triple net lease agreement, “tenant(s) agree to pay the property expenses such as real estate taxes, building insurance, and maintenance in addition to rent and utilities.” In other words, the landowner will not be responsible for many, if any, maintenance expenses on the property during the term of the lease.

For a multitude of reasons, NNN leases are less common for short term leases. It is more common for triple net leases to range from 10 to 15 years with stipulations for rate increases over the term of the loan as appropriate. As we will discuss in greater detail below, the primary benefits of NNN leases are lower risk for investors/property owners and lower rates for lessees.

Single vs. Double vs. Triple Net Lease Agreements

Net leases are not necessarily an all or nothing proposition. Instead, there are also single and double net leases that are sometimes used to balance risk vs. cash flow. Here are the similarities and differences between single net leases, double net leases, and triple net leases:

Single net leases are less common than triple net leases, particularly for commercial real estate. According to investopedia.com, single net leases are when: “the landlord transfers a minimal amount of risk to the tenant, who pays the property taxes. This means any other expense—such as insurance, maintenance and repairs, and utilities—are the landlord’s responsibility. The landlord is also responsible for any maintenance and/or repairs that must be done during the course of the lease within the property.”

Double net leases are much more common for commercial real estate agreements. In double net leases, tenants are responsible for insurance premiums and property tax on top of their rent owed. Maintenance costs remain with the landowner.

Triple net leases put the biggest responsibility on the tenants, essentially making the tenants responsible for any ongoing fees and costs related to the property. These include all three of the costs discussed above: insurance premiums, property tax, and maintenance costs.

Gross vs. Net Leases for Commercial Real Estate

Of course, not all commercial real estate agreements are considered “net”. There are also gross leases in CRE in which the property owner maintains fully financial liability for the property during the course of the lease. All commercial real estate leases are considered either gross or net, with single, double, and triple net lease agreements being the differentiator for the degree of responsibility that will reside with the tenant(s).

Benefits of NNN Agreements for Commercial Real Estate Properties

This leads us to our last question: why are NNN leases preferable to other commercial real estate leases? The answer is that they aren’t preferable in all situations. All types of leases from gross to triple net lease arrangements have their share of benefits and risks. Here is a high-level checklist of the benefits of triple net leases:

  • NNN leases carry the lowest risk for investors. The primary benefit of a triple net lease from the perspective of the investor/property owner is the low risk. If insurance premiums go up or if a major repair is required, with a NNN lease, that onus falls on the tenant.
  • Triple net leases are more affordable for tenants. On the flip side, the selling point for NNN leases to tenants is their affordability. Lessened risk for the commercial real estate investor also means lower rental rates.
  • Triple net cap rates are easier to calculate. While this is all relative, calculating NNN cap rates is more reliable than calculating gross cap rates. This is tied into the concept of risk and a more reliable return on investment.

In Summary

Double and triple net leases are likely to remain an appealing option for commercial real estate investors and tenants for many years to come. In the right circumstances, NNN leases are mutually beneficial with their ability to reduce risk for investors and reduce total costs for tenants. Yet they are not appropriate for all CRE lease agreements. As with many decision-making processes, understanding all options available before entering into a commercial real estate lease agreement is a great way to make the best possible choice.

Construction Underway at Beaver Valley Mall

Recently, we discussed what commercial real estate investors were doing to solve the problem of America’s dead malls. As part of that article, one of the solutions which have effectively brought life back to struggling retail real estate is to invest in renovations or other related construction projects. The Beaver Valley Mall in Beaver County, PA has recently broken ground on a new construction effort. If successful, this revitalization could be a blueprint for other dying malls in the Western PA region.

Today, we will review some highlights of the Beaver Valley Mall, discuss the details of the newest construction project, and how this project might impact the local commercial real estate landscape.

CBRE Heads New Strip Mall Construction at the Beaver Valley Mall

Funded by commercial real estate giant CBRE, plans to redevelop a now-defunct Macy’s location are underway at the Beaver Valley Mall. The former site of a Macy’s megastore will be turned into a mini strip mall. This is part of a plan to redevelop large retail locations that were struggling in the region. This new mini strip mall is to be named The Shops at Beaver Valley Mall. JJO Construction started work on the first building in the fall of 2019.

As reported by timesonline.com: “The Shops at Beaver Valley Mall, which will include about 50,000 square feet of retail, office and service space with mall access available in various sizes. According to a CBRE press release, there will be nearly 27,000 square feet of retail space facing Brodhead Road. The Shops at Beaver Valley Mall will join other anchor tenants, such as JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, U-Haul, Rural King, Planet Fitness and Boscov’s.”

This is not the first renovation and/or construction effort that has recently taken place at the Beaver Valley Mall. Recent construction updates for restaurants and entertainment venues including escape rooms have been part of the shift away from large retail locations and towards smaller, more profitable business partners.

Beaver Valley Mall History and Current Climate

Beaver Valley Mall is located less than an hour north of downtown Pittsburgh. The location first opened in 1970 and boasts over 100 individual stores, a gym, restaurants, and is getting more involved in the entertainment space. Beaver Valley Mall is also dedicated to offering free programs and events for local community members and their families.

As with many American malls, Beaver Valley Mall enjoyed financial success through partnership with anchor tenants including JCPenney, Gimbels, The Joseph Horne Company, and Sears. The location of this latest construction, a now-empty Macy’s, is just one example of these retail giants struggling in the 21st century. Sears and Macy’s locations closed in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Despite all of the hyperbole surrounding the detail of traditional retail, many malls remain successful. Recent history has shown that successful malls have been willing to make updates to both their facilities and their business model. With the recent backing of CBRE, Beaver Valley Mall is looking towards the future.

Following the Beaver Valley Mall Template

As a continuation of this point, Beaver Valley Mall is by no means in a unique situation. Other large, local malls such as Ross Park Mall, Monroeville Mall, and The Pittsburgh Mills, are all in relatively similar situations. In particular, the Galleria at the Pittsburgh Mills has an uncertain future. Despite promises by Mason Asset Management that renovations were high on the priority list, no action has yet been taken.

The four most recent tenants of the Pittsburgh Mills: Allegheny Health Network Citizens’ School of Nursing, Focus on the Arts, Chicken Connection, and Himalayan Salts Co, tell the story of a shift away from large retailers and towards alternative mall tenants. Many Western PA malls are considering what these new tenants might require from an infrastructure perspective.

Beaver Valley Mall is amongst the local commercial real estate leaders investing significant capital into their retail facilities. With backing from a well-financed organization such as CBRE and a commitment to investing in the space, local commercial real estate professionals and residents will be watching how this new construction effort pays dividends.

Going Forward

As all commercial real estate professionals know, there is not much room for waiting in this industry. As the retail space continues to evolve, so too will commercial real estate investors’ mindsets about malls and other large spaces. The process of revitalizing America’s dead malls is already well underway. In the local Western PA area, it remains to be seen which malls will be able to successfully adapt to a changing retail reality. The truth likely lies somewhere in between exaggerated reports of the demise of traditional retail and the rosy reports of modern retail evolutions.

The mall industry will need to adapt to changing consumer behaviors. Beaver Valley Mall is using a now-defunct mega-retail location as an opportunity to develop a location for multiple, smaller, more profitable tenants. Whether this investment will pay dividends remains to be seen. In either case, the success or failure of mall renovation projects will inform future decisions in our area.

Interest Rate Cut Boosts Housing Market, Other Pittsburgh Construction Market News

Right off the bat, let me offer a disclaimer about the Fed’s rate cut. It’s going to help certain (very limited) parts of the US economy but will do nothing to help with whatever economic headaches result from the coronavirus. You can read more of this rant in the Publisher’s Note of the March/April BreakingGround in a couple weeks. The economy doesn’t need stimulus. What will be needed is a safety net for those who get thrown out of work. That will probably be cheaper for us taxpayers and way more effective than measures that will mainly please big donors to political parties. The oil and gas industry is getting clobbered further because the Russians and Saudis have started an oil price war. If the coronavirus was cured tomorrow that wouldn’t change. Likewise, giving people payroll tax relief helps those who are on someone’s payroll, not those who are laid off. That’s the disclaimer. I didn’t say it would be short.

Cutting rates is bad overall for banking because it reduces bank interest income from lending. Rate cuts are good for banks and lenders, however, when the cuts stimulate mortgage loans. Boy, has last week’s cut worked in that regard. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported this morning that there was a 79% jump in refinancing activity since last week. SINCE. LAST. WEEK. Refinancing activity is up 479% compared to last year. Refinancing is a zero sum game, which in the long run reduces the interest income for lenders overall. But, in the meantime, a 479% increase in refinancing will mean a significant increase in fees associated with the new loans. And, for the consumer, the refinancing means a big improvement in the household balance sheet. Cost of home ownership is lower. There’s more discretionary income. Mortgage indebtedness is cut to 15 years or less for millions.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

The Mortgage Bankers also reported that there had been a 6% increase in home purchase mortgage applications, which was a 12% increase year-over-year. That pales in comparison to refinancing applications but there isn’t a Realtor in America who wouldn’t take a 12% jump in home sales. Likely that increase would be greater if there was a normal inventory of homes for sale.

On to Pittsburgh construction contracts. The Builder’s Exchange is reporting that Mistick Construction is taking bids on its $13 million 49-unit Clairton Inn mixed-use project. PBX also reported that Watson Institute is taking bids from A. Martini & Co., PJ Dick and TEDCO. Turner Construction was awarded the $12 million Price Waterhouse TI at One Oxford Centre. PJ Dick will be the contractor for the $10 million conversion of the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green. Volpatt Construction was awarded the $4 million Carnegie Library Downtown Branch renovation. Stevens and Chapman Corp are building the new 250,000 sq. ft. plant for AmeriPrecision Metals in Canonsburg. Landau is the CM for Grove City College’s $8 million library renovation. And in non-Pittsburgh construction news, Mascaro Construction is the CM for the $90 million Carolina Panthers headquarters and training center just south of Charlotte in Rock Hill, SC.

Renovations have Brought the US Steel Tower Back to Prominence in Pittsburgh

The US Steel Tower, also referred to as the Steel Building and the USX Tower, has been a trademark of the Pittsburgh skyline since its construction was completed in 1970. The building is now also known as the UPMC building, and has a long history of importance to the Pittsburgh people, identity, and economy. Recent renovations have breathed new life into the now 50-year-old building. Office spaces in Pittsburgh have become more decentralized in recent years with tech companies like Google and Uber electing to headquarter outside downtown offices.

With all of this in mind, today we will review the recent work being done on the US Steel building and what impact this might have on the building itself and downtown as a whole.

Details of Steel Tower Renovations

Although there is no onset of renovations, the US Steel Tower has undergone some major facelifts in the past months and years which will be noticeable to regulars in the area. Here are some of the highlights:

The US Steel Tower is now the second-largest LEED Silver Certified office building in the world

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. While the US Steel Building may be thought of as a 50-year-old dinosaur, it is likely the most economically and technologically advanced building in downtown Pittsburgh. This is thanks to recent renovations aimed at efficiency and eco-friendliness.

The US Steel Tower renovations modernized the infrastructure

As a continuation of the above, the US Steel Tower has implemented a number of modern changes that improve cost and environmental inefficiencies. Modern renovations/improvements include retrofitting water supplies, sustainable energy practices, offering alternative transportation services, installing eco-friendly LED lights, installing eco-friendly HVAC products, and much more.

US Steel Building has renovated office spaces

As part of UPMC moving in, several large renovations took place to the office amenities of the US Steel Building. These renovations included:

  • Renovation of seven (7) full floors of office space to be used for UPMC headquarters
  • Changing cubicle like layouts to more modern designs including high-end, high-tech offices and support areas
  • Updates to the 60th floor “Center for Connected Medicine (CCM)”
  • Overall renovations to existing workspaces and offices

These renovations covered a total of 185,000 square feet over 11 months and were all part of the LEED silver certification process.

Pittsburgh Steel Building Facts

To understand why renovations of the US Steel Building are so significant to the local Pittsburgh economy and atmosphere, let’s look at some quick facts on the building itself.

  • The US Steel Building stands at approximately 841 feet tall, making it the 66th tallest building in the United States.
  • Those 841 feet are spread across 64 floors, which are mostly comprised of office space.
  • The single floor area equals 41,163 square feet, which is only ~2,000 square feet shy of a full acre.
  • The facilities include a 2,900,000 square foot grass area which is used as a local park for the public.
  • The US Steel Tower underbelly holds a three-level parking garage which can accommodate 700 cars.
  • The building holds 11,000 windows, 54 elevators, and boasts a massive lobby area with full amenities

List of Recent US Steel Tower Updates

In a five year period, over $60 million was invested into the US Steel Building in total renovations with no end date in sight. These changes include:

  • Lobby updates including renovations to many interior businesses
  • The addition of two (2) garage elevators
  • Newly installed brick and granite in the plaza area
  • A new fire alarm and security system
  • A new tenant and building sprinkler system
  • Renovated restroom facilities
  • Energy-efficient upgrades (as mentioned above) including closed water loops, HVAC upgrades, energy-efficient light installations, and more
  • Improved facilities to comply and exceed the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements
  • New infrastructure including improved electric distribution panels and “base building mechanical improvements”

Going Forward

For those of us native to Pittsburgh, the US Steel Tower is probably the building we think of when we think of the downtown area. While the name and ownership may have changed hands, the importance of this structure remains. Recent renovations have improved both the work lives of the office tenants within and the amenities for the public passing through the building for a bite to eat or just to take in the sights. With major backers including CBRE and Jamestown L.P., it is likely that we will continue to see investments being made into the tallest and most historic Pittsburgh skyscraper.

Construction Labor Shortage and Commercial Real Estate Projects

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Most commercial real estate professionals already know that there is a construction labor shortage in our country. This is true for major construction projects and renovations alike. There are a number of contributing factors which have caused this shortage which are likely to continue this shortage moving forward. As CRE professionals, this labor shortage has a material impact on construction deadlines, construction prices, and much more. 

 

Today, we will explore this topic by identifying the current state of the construction labor shortage, discuss what factors are causing the labor shortage, and finally how the construction labor issues are impacting and will continue to impact commercial real estate construction.

 

The Current State of the Construction Labor Shortage

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According to a new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Autodesk, 80 percent of construction firms say they are having a hard time filling hourly and craft positions – which represent the bulk of the industry’s workforce. That same report suggests that labor shortages are the biggest threats to the construction industry. By extension, that’s a significant risk for the commercial real estate industry as well.

 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 263,000 available jobs in the construction industry as of June 2018. The BLS predicts that the number of available jobs will increase over the next 10 years faster than average, with an above average median annual wage. Estimates place the total number of construction jobs at about 7.2 million.

 

Perhaps the most telling statistic is that 79 percent of construction companies are looking to hire new employees this year, but many are having a difficult time finding workers with the appropriate skills. To make matters worse, the disparity between the need for skilled construction workers and the availability of skilled construction workers is expected to increase moving forward.

 

What is Causing the Construction Labor Shortage?

The construction labor shortage would perhaps be more appropriately called a skilled construction labor shortage. Yet the reasons for the labor shortage are diverse. Some of the primary reasons for the current construction labor shortage include:

 

The industry is still recovering from 2008

 

The Great Recession of 2008 shook the commercial real estate world. A healthy construction industry in the early and mid 2000’s was suddenly placed into a depression where workers were laid off and construction projects were slowed or canceled altogether. The CRE industry has since recovered, but in the 10 plus years since 2008, the construction industry has been less appealing to prospective workers, leading to a shortage.

 

A decline in young workers with the necessary skills

A steady stream of young men and women graduated from technical schools and other training institutions ready to come into the construction workforce up until 2008. The Great Recession made construction a much less appealing option, which essentially slowed the flow of students and the flow of new employees needed for skilled positions.

 

The construction industry has grown and worker supply can’t catch up

Last but not least, it would have been difficult for construction companies to keep up with new hires even if there was the same level of skilled workers entering the workforce. Consider the labor statistics cited in the previous section regarding how many available jobs there are in construction. 

 

How the Labor Shortage Impacts Commercial Real Estate Construction

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Recent estimates suggest that ~70 percent of contractors are having difficulties meeting deadlines due to labor shortages. This simple fact causes a number of trickle down effects including:

 

  • Overall construction costs are increasing
  • Skilled laborers being asked to do more work
  • Investors are unhappy with contractors and construction crews
  • New projects are being rejected by construction crews
  • Many more

 

Labor costs make up about half of any building construction budget. Perhaps more importantly, no construction project can be completed on time and on budget without the appropriate construction crew. Construction labor shortages have a direct impact on the viability of commercial real estate construction projects for new construction and renovations alike. 

 

One of the keys for CRE professionals in the current construction is being realistic about costs and timelines. Labor shortages are a bottleneck for any construction project. They are even more of a detriment for large scale, commercial real estate projects.

 

Going Forward

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All of the available data points towards the construction labor shortage continuing in the immediate future. It is likely that the market will balance itself out as wages rise and skilled construction jobs become more appealing to younger generations. The question moving forward will become when the scales tip and the workforce begins to fill the available jobs. It is also worth noting that while many economists are predicting an imminent recession, most predictions also lean towards the next recession being much less impactful on the commercial real estate market

 

It is likely that a long term, stable construction labor demand will sort itself out. In the meantime, construction crews and commercial real estate investors alike will do well to understand how the labor shortage will impact construction costs, construction timelines, etc.

More About COVID-19 and Construction

Now that that Coronavirus (COVID-19) has become a political football, it’s worth noting two things: 1) it’s clearly going to have an economic impact, maybe a significant one; 2) we know very little about it.

The second point makes the first point more uncertain.

That point was driven home to me yesterday at the quarterly meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Business Advisory Committee in Pittsburgh. The Fed representatives were very interested in what impact COVID-19 was having on businesses thus far. Representatives from US Steel, Calgon Carbon, and CBRE shared information that shed some light. Again, the most important information shared was that there is little information to share. Because the virus was first detected in China, the reliability of the information is suspect to a degree. Some other places that have begun to experience outbreaks, like Iran, have proven to be less reliable still. Here are some of the things that came out of the discussion:

  • The virus is most dangerous to the elderly and person with compromised systems.
  • Of the 80,000 cases identified, 18,000 have already recovered to full health.
  • Disruptions to the supply chain from China and Asia have already occurred
  • US corporations have begun to implement travel bans. This will accelerate as cases of COVID-19 multiply in the U.S.
  • US corporations have begun to make contingency plans for employees to work from home or stay home.

The latter point is the most relevant for the construction industry in Pittsburgh. Even if nobody from Western PA becomes infected with COVID-19, many construction projects will experience delays in decision-making by owners that simply have higher priorities than capital project approvals. What we’ve learned from the small sample size of the supply chain thus far is that building products will be impacted, especially since U.S. manufacturers trimmed inventories at the end of 2019. Equipment and building products have as many as 20% of the subcomponent supply chain made in China. Japanese and other Asian manufacturers are about 40% reliant upon China for components. Construction projects will be impacted, including those in Pittsburgh.

What is really unknown at this point is the penetration of the virus into the U.S. Americans mostly avoided the SARS virus a decade ago but COVID-19 seems more difficult to contain. A pandemic that last a few months, even if it proves to be less deadly, is going to drain economic activity, which will slow the construction market.

Panic about COVID-19 seems unjustified. Concern about the effect on the economy does not. Read more in the first portion of JLL’s Economic Insights

In construction news, Allegheny County Airport Authority awarded the first major bid packages for the airport’s Terminal Modernization Program. Independence Excavating was awarded a $20.9 million contract for the early access site general construction. Mosites Construction was awarded a $20.7 million contract for upgrades to the PA Turnpike Allegheny Tunnel. Rycon Construction was awarded the $4.9 million AGH Genomic Lab. Rycon will also be building the $38 million, 220-unit 23rd & Railroad Apartments for SteelStreet Capital. PSU approved a contract with Turner Construction for the $112 million Liberal Arts Building at University Park. Jendoco Construction was awarded the $5.7 million Forker Lab Building at PSU-Shenango. University of Pittsburgh selected Turner for the $5 million Brain Institute Lab fitout at BST3. A.M. Higley was awarded a contract for the $9 million Convention Center Green Roof Phase 2. Uhl Construction was awarded the $5 million expansion/renovation to Lithia Motors South Hills Subaru. AHN selected Volpatt Construction for the $3.5 million Allegheny Valley Hospital 2D renovation. Swartz Builders is building a 140,000 square foot fabrication shop for Hranec Sheet Metal in German Township, Fayette County.

Pitt took proposals from Mascaro, Massaro, PJ Dick, Rycon & Volpatt on $3 million Langley Hall renovation. PJ Dick, Massaro & Turner were among the CMs proposing on PWC’s 70,000 square foot tenant improvements at One Oxford Center.