David Cochran, Paces Properties’s president and CEO, sees this workweek as what could be the dawn of “our new daily lives.”
Best known for developing Krog Street Market, Cochran’s company is also playing a significant role in the redevelopment of Memorial Drive, moving forward with construction and tenant signings at Atlanta Dairies and Larkin on Memorial, among other ventures. In the face of a global pandemic—a foe to Atlanta’s explosive growth of nearly a decade—Cochran is assessing all developments while trying stay empathetic to the emotional impact today’s new realities are having on everyone.
“In times of uncertainty and fear, we can often lose touch on a human scale,” Cochran wrote in an email to Curbed Atlanta. “We believe in our [tenant] relationships, as these are the foundation of our business, because they were built to withstand times as tough as these.”
As job markets have flourished after the Great Recession, the metro’s population has swelled, packing on more than 70,000 people annually in recent years and boosting the need for housing.
In the City of Atlanta, those years have seen more construction than any other point in the city’s history, government leaders have said. Thousands of new houses and townhomes have been built, alongside enough commercial space to fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium more than 25 times and fresh forests of ITP towers, contributing to more than 30,000 new apartments.
But could something microscopic derail it all?
The answer, as with most things COVID-19 related, is that it’s too early to definitely say. But a few players in Atlanta’s homebuilding, high-rise development, and city planning realms lent perspectives this week on what they’re dealing with now, and how they might move forward.
“We recognize the importance of permitting and inspections to the whole community, but the most critical responsibility we have right now is to do all we can to limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Tim Keane, the city’s planning commissioner. “The safety of city staff and the community is foremost.”
Permitting and inspections continue in Atlanta, but with remote work becoming more prevalent and person-to-person contact restricted, some additional delays in response time should be expected, Keane said.
Plans submitted online should be processed as usual, city officials have said.
Mike Dunham, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia, said he’s heard from only one contractor who’s been forced to shut down a job site due to the virus—and that was because of its proximity to a school.
“Now, if that school system decides to go home, the contractor could be in an accelerated position to move forward with their work,” he said. But as with Atlanta, “some [governments] have said, ‘Don’t even walk into our offices; we’re not handling paper plans anymore,’” he noted.
Asked whether online permitting might be sufficient to operate, Alan Cablik, president of Atlanta homebuilder Cablik Enterprises, which has projects in the works from Kirkwood to Chamblee, said it’s too early to tell.
“We’re certainly trying all avenues,” said Cablik.
Delays in permitting, inspections, and the issuance of certificates of occupancy and other key paperwork “will bring construction to a halt eventually,” Cablik said. “That’s our biggest concern at the moment.
“You can imagine the domino effect on the economy if this occurs,” he continued. “We were already down due to the excessive rains over the last three months, and we were all hoping for a strong spring. If this lasts more than a few weeks, it’ll be challenging for all in the industry.”
Jarel Portman, JPX Works founder and developer of Midtown’s lilli apartment high-rise, pointed to the long gestation period of real estate development—predevelopment—in hopes “two great projects” his team is working on come to fruition.
“We’re confident that these deals will get realized,” said Portman. “If not, and it’s due to the COVID-19, we have far bigger issues.”
Jim LaVallee, Epic Development sales and marketing director, said city officials informed his team Monday that two of four buildings have been approved for a project that’s still under review—but that the city was shutting down for two weeks.
“Thus, we’re stuck on those projects, as it seems unlikely the building department will make much progress from any remote working initiative,” said LaVallee.
All developers relayed news of either shutting offices this week or ensuring that employees work farther apart.
As Dunham pointed out, no two construction sites are the same, and some projects are more conducive to social distancing than others.
“If you’re out in the middle of a field pouring a new slab for a warehouse, that kind of work can continue to move forward, as long as your permitting and inspections are done properly,” he said.
“Some tasks lend themselves to keeping that distance, but it’s a trade-dependent job,” Dunham added. “You can set tile, and the next tile-setter could be six feet away. But if you’re both working to put in a door, and you need someone to help you hold it as you send it in, you’re going to be a lot closer than six feet.”
More uncertainty could be on the horizon regarding construction materials and what could happen if contractors are buying from countries hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
Dunham said, during a meeting in Las Vegas last week, he heard of one case in which materials had to be isolated.
“The company a St. Louis contractor was working with was supplied doors from China,” he said. “Those doors had to be left in the container and quarantined for 90 days. I haven’t gotten anything like that from anybody here.”
Dunham continued: “If those kind of scenarios start taking place, you can really see where it would be hard to keep on schedule. I think everyone’s holding their breath to see.”