BOSTON, Massachusetts. October 2, 2020 (Herald News) — Commercial real estate and development experts said they are confident that the pandemic won’t spell the end of the development boom in and around Boston, but they said they are keeping their eyes on consumer and workforce trends that might reshape their industry. During a virtual panel convened by NAOIP Massachusetts, the development pros said that while the COVID-19 pandemic slowed construction timelines and injected generous doses of uncertainty into the equation, development still has plenty of track in front of it in the Boston region.
“We operate between Boston and Washington, D.C., and I think that Boston is clearly the strongest market of those three and maybe the strongest market in the country,” Shawn Hurley, president of Marcus Partners said, referring to the Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C., markets. “It certainly seems that development in this market remains really strong and that our economy is more diversified than ever before. So we feel very good about the Boston market and how we’re positioned today, albeit in a very volatile world and as we enter what appears to be a potentially very volatile fall.”
Lauren O’Neil, senior managing director at JLL Capital Markets, said she doesn’t foresee a persistent slowdown in development in the Boston area. After desirable long-term investment-grade tenant leases, she said development appears to be second on the investment strategy depth chart. “I think the thesis is that we may be in a bit of a slowdown now, but in two to three years when a project is set to deliver it sets up nicely for the rebound in this current slowdown, I won’t go as far as to call it a recession. And so we’ve seen investors and debt capital alike gravitating towards new developments,” O’Neil said.
“And in fact, it’s probably easier right now to capitalize on new ground-up development than it is a value-add office deal, for example, where you might have 70 percent occupancy and you’re trying to get to 90 percent occupancy in the near term. There’s just more conviction on what the world will look like in a couple years versus over the next six months.” O’Neil said hotels and retail developments are struggling to get financed right now. Retail developments with a grocer and that have “a compelling story” might fare better, she said.
“But with the delinquency rate on existing loans in the mid-teens for those product types, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to get those C-Suites on board with making any sort of aggressive bets on retail and hotel for the foreseeable future,” she said. Chris Brown, CEO of construction management firm John Moriarty & Associates, said biotech remains one of the hottest sectors in the marketplace right now and the “great need” for added research and lab space has not been diminished by the pandemic.
At the same time, there’s “a little hesitancy” to commit to any deals involving traditional office space, given the uncertainties around the future of remote working and the return of most employees to the office. “Biotech is probably the sector of the market that … will have the most traction moving forward,” he said. Tamara Small, the CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts who moderated Tuesday’s discussion, asked Brown about converting office space to research or lab space, citing conversations she’s had with people who have suggested that “biotech is the new office.”
Brown said his firm is working to “reposition” some office space at the Cambridgeside Galleria and has “a few other projects in the pipeline that look to take existing office space and potentially either add on to it or reposition it for biotech and lab space.” “That seems to be one of the hottest sectors for us and the most interesting questions we get is in regards to that type of product as well,” he said.
O’Neil said converting office spaces to research or lab space for life sciences and biotech companies could help meet some of the demand for those spaces sooner than the pipeline of new construction could on its own. “The demand from the tenants on the life science side was growing at an annual growth rate of a little over 8 percent and it’s projected to continue through 2023 at just over 7 percent, which if you look at the current 25.7 million square foot market, that means there’s demand for over 34 million square feet,” she said.
“We’re about 3 million short of meeting that demand based on the current pipeline for 2023. Now, that generally includes only ground-up, brand new developments, so maybe the conversion factor will start to fill in some of that.” The panel also took on the suburbs and the question of whether the pandemic, and the changes it has brought to commutes and daily life, is creating a time for the suburbs to shine and draw even more people out of urban cores.
In July, real estate market analysts at the Warren Group said increases in sales in more rural parts of Massachusetts were “far in excess” of the state average. “Cities are going to endure. The intrinsic qualities that brought everybody to them pre-COVID, we’re going to appreciate them all the more when this ends, and it will end. So we just envision a totally different kind of lifestyle returning when we’re through this,” Abe Menzin, a principal at the development firm Samuels & Associates, said.
“In my more optimistic moments, I actually think that remote work options for people could actually enhance the vitality of cities. It could help shave the peaks off of some of the congestion issues that we’ve encountered, and could give people more flexibility in their lifestyle and make a livable city like Boston even more liveable.” Kirk Sykes, a managing partner at Accordia Partners, is banking on people continuing to want to live in Boston but said aspects of two of his most significant projects aim to address concerns that the pandemic has highlighted.
Sykes is involved in the plan to redevelop the site of the Boston State Hospital into a development with more than 360 housing units near Franklin Park and Mass. Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan. He’s also part of the plan to convert the old Bayside Expo site in Dorchester into more than 1,000 units of housing, retail space, office space and more.
“We feel extremely blessed to have a 65-acre park, and the beach and the ocean in front of Bayside. And as such, I think those characteristics will play heavily into corporate relocations for campuses or even the decision to get on the train and go for five minutes to Kendall [Square] as opposed to being in Kendall,” he said. “So we’re designing in the desire to be in an environment that gives you the air, the light, the breath, the view that you might get in the suburbs, but getting it in a 20-minute bike ride, 30-minute walk or five-minute Uber/Lyft to the Financial District.”