Commercial Real Estate
A Matter of Speculation
It was time to face facts, Ned Barowsky recalled.
For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies left at Barowsky’s property at 98 Lower Westfield Road by the departure of Pier One Imports and Kaoud Oriental Rugs. And they had gotten … nowhere.
“I met with them on the phone weekly, and they sent me a sheet of everyone they talked to and e-mailed, and all the responses they got,” he said. “For six months prior to COVID, not one bite. And they worked it. I felt bad for them; I wanted to pay them, but they didn’t get me anybody.”
Faced with this handwriting on the wall and an uncertain future for the Holyoke property he has owned for nearly 35 years, Barowsky is doing what so many are doing in the midst of COVID-19, and in general. He’s pivoting — big time.
Indeed, he intends to remake those vacated storefronts, and some additional space at the complex, into a franchise for the emerging co-work concept known as Venture X, which bills itself as “the future of workspace” (more on that later).
This intriguing pivot is just one indication that the local commercial real-estate market is in a state of flux, if you will, with perhaps profound changes to come as the pandemic continues and its impact on this sector grows.
Indeed, there is already significant movement in the market when it comes to additional vacancies and properties becoming available. Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation that the office market in particular may see considerable disruption as businesses with some or most of their employees working remotely consider making such arrangements permanent.
“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live.”
And even if they don’t swing that far when it comes to working arrangements, there are questions about how much of their present space they’ll retain when their lease is up.
“We have lost a few tenants, mostly due to non-renewals as companies look for ways to be more efficient and perhaps consolidate if they had multiple locations,” said Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and co-owner of 1350 Main St. in Springfield, noting that Bay Path University, which occupies roughly 12,000 square feet, is one of these tenants.
But as some are downsizing or not renewing, others are actually taking more space to accommodate pandemic-era guidelines on social distancing and keep employees safe, said Plotkin, noting that he’s already seen such upsizing from a few tenants and expects more in the months to come.
In the meantime, new leases are being signed, and properties are being acquired, said Demetrios Panteleakis, a principal with MacMillan Group LLC, which has authored what could certainly be called a stunning turnaround at Tower Square in downtown Springfield.
Over the past 24 months or so, Panteleakis said, MacMillan has successfully backfilled roughly 80% of the 150,000 square feet of office space in the complex that MassMutual vacated, with about a third of that coming in just the past few months.
The latest additions in the office tower include Wellfleet and Farm Credit Financial Partners, which moved into 37,500 square feet on the sixth floor, but also a few law firms and a civil-engineering firm. Meanwhile, on the retail side, the Greater Springfield YMCA moved several of its operations last winter, White Lion Brewery is completing work on its brewery and eatery in the former Spaghetti Freddy’s space, and a nail salon has moved in. And all this is on top of a massive renovation of the hotel on the property into a new Marriott.
“Tower Square is absolutely on fire,” he said, adding that he believes the success at that address has been a function of providing an attractive product in a good location, in this case an urban area in the midst of what has been called a renaissance.
Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, agreed that there has been activity within the market despite the pandemic, noting that his firm has completed a number of transactions, including the sale of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield formerly occupied by United Bank, the Newman Center on the UMass Amherst campus, and lease of the former Chandler’s restaurant space at the Yankee Candle complex in South Deerfield, among others.
The $64,000 question is … what happens now?
No one really knows the answer. Many brokers are encouraged by numerous stories in recent weeks about both productivity being down as a result of remote working and pent-up desire to return to the office. But these sentiments are juxtaposed against others indicating that remote work has been a success and, as a result, less office space will be leased in the future.
Speaking for others, Panteleakis said there will likely be a lull or pause in the action until perhaps the end of the first quarter of next year as business owners sort some things out.
Work in Progress
Plotkin calls it a “remote work hub.”
That’s a term he borrowed from a request for proposals he’s likely to respond to, and it describes … well, a place where people can both live and work. But not like the current work-from-home environment many are now experiencing.
“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live,” said Plotkin, adding quickly that he’s thinking hard about whether 1350 Main St. can be shaped into one of these remote work hubs. He thinks it can.
“I have a design here that works great,” he told BusinessWest. “We have some empty floors, and if we created maybe 20 units per floor and used the three floors that are empty, that would be 60 market-rate housing units. And if you had another floor that was a COVID-19 pandemic remote work space, which has yet to be designed, I think you’d have something very attractive.
“The idea is to make people feel that they can go someplace to work and not be in their kitchen, not be in their living room, and actually have some socialization and see other people,” he went on, adding that such a facility would help attract people of all ages, but especially young people, to downtown Springfield.
The fact that Plotkin is thinking about such a dramatic pivot provides more evidence that the commercial real-estate market is changing and there are certainly question marks about how — and how profoundly — the landscape may change.
The remote-work phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly at the heart of much of this speculation. Indeed, as more workers toil from home for longer periods — some of the massive tech companies have told employees they won’t be coming back for a year, at least — questions are raised about whether such arrangements will become permanent, and what this means for major urban centers and individual office facilities.
Barowsky, for one, believes that companies will be less likely to want to tie themselves down with long-term leases for large amounts of space. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s moving forward with Venture X.
A Holyoke native who has seen a number of economic cycles and an ongoing evolution of the area’s retail scene, Barowsky believes this co-work space is certainly the right concept at the right time — and especially the right place.
“I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”
Indeed, the site, just a few hundred yards from the Holyoke Mall, is right off I-91 exit 15 and only minutes off exit 4 of the Mass Pike.
“This is literally the crossroads of New England,” said Barowsky, adding that this address makes the Venture X facility attractive for businesses across a number of sectors.
Add all these factors up, and Barowsky doesn’t see this dramatic pivot — away from retail and into co-working space — as much of a gamble. And if it is a gamble, it’s one he believes will pay off eventually, perhaps sooner than later.
Indeed, he said the current timeline doesn’t have him opening the doors for another six months, but he’s already received a number of inquiries about his concept.
Questions and Answers
While Barowsky doesn’t have any doubts about his new development, there is a growing amount of uncertainty when it comes to the larger commercial real-estate market.
And it crosses many of the sectors within that realm, including retail — which was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 due to online buying and now is under even more — and especially the office market because of questions about the future of work.
“At this point, I think the jury is still out — the verdict is not in yet,” Plotkin said. “There’s been an abrupt change in how we work, and it has required us to work remotely. It’s been a complete lifestyle change, and it’s created a fair amount of fear. And those converging factors may prevail over a long period of time; we just don’t know.”
Panteleakis agreed to some extent, but said he concurs with JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently told American Banker that he sees economic and social damage from a longer stretch of working from home.
“Between 2002 and 2005, there was a big movement happening — commercial real estate had become so expensive that everyone was trying remote working,” he recalled. “Jamie Dimon is saying the same thing that everyone was saying back then — that they see a decrease in productivity. So I think real estate is coming back; I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”
Plotkin concurred. “Today, people can work from anywhere, and it’s appealing to people to work from anywhere. But the reality is that working from home is isolating, and I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.”
Added Bolotin, “there is a lot of speculation on both sides of that fence. I believe that the office market will still have a future — there will still be demand. Working from home is fine on a limited basis, but people will eventually migrate back to an office setting.
“Needs might change,” he went on. “They may need to consolidate, or they may wish to add more space for social-distancing purposes. But what the net effect of this will be … time will tell.”
Returning to the present, those we spoke with said there are certainly some deals getting done, and the market remains active. Panteleakis cited not only Tower Square, but also neighboring 1550 Main St., which he also handles, and which is fully occupied.
Bolotin, citing those recent transactions in West Springfield, Amherst, South Deerfield, and other communities his firm was involved with, said they provide evidence of a resilient economy and an equally resilient commercial real-estate market, one that has seen a number of downturns — and recoveries.
“We’re very active, we’re busy, there are transactions happening,” he said of his firm but also the market overall. “Over the past few months, we’ve had deals close across a number of categories — office, retail, industrial, land, investments. We’ve had activity in all segments.”
Some of these transactions bode well for the region and some of its individual communities, he noted, such as the sale of 95 Elm St. in West Springfield. Considered a key to development of the downtown area, the property is being targeted for a mix of office and retail, said Bolotin, and his firm is currently negotiating several potential leases in that building.
Meanwhile, other deals have been closed involving retail (two Family Dollar stores), industrial (more than 500,000 square feet in total), and even a few church properties.
“It is certainly a challenging time, and there are people who have been negatively impacted,” he stressed. “But there is still activity within the marketplace.”
As for the immediate future … Panteleakis said a pause, or lull, is common just before presidential elections. And this year, COVID-19 has given business owners and managers more reason to be cautious.
“People are in a wait-and-see mode,” he explained. “Most of the executives that I’ve spoken with are waiting to see what happens in the first quarter of 2021. So I think the jury will be out until that first quarter of next year.”
After that … no one really knows when the jury will actually be back and what the verdict will be.
But some are already anticipating long-term changes to the landscape. That’s why Venture X is taking shape in Holyoke and why Evan Plotkin is drafting plans for a remote work hub.
Plenty of questions remain about the future, and the answers won’t come easily.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Evan Plotkin calls it the “trickle-up effect.”
He was referring specifically to the pressures placed on the owners of multi-family dwellings and apartment complexes — and also to those landlords’ vendors — when, as a result of job losses forced by COVID-19, tenants cannot pay their rent, yet they’re protected from eviction by state and/or federal legislation.
“Multi-family property-management companies and landlords may be impacted disproportionately to the extent that there are forgiveness rules being discussed that would loosen rent-payment obligations and allow residential tenants to defer rent payments,” he said. “Clearly, unless there are provisions for the property owners to be made whole on the deferral or forgiveness of rent, it could create a variety of economic hardships to those property owners.”
But the trickle-up effect applies to virtually all types of commercial real estate and fallout from COVID-19, said Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who tragically lost his mother to the virus earlier this month. He and other property managers who spoke with BusinessWest noted that the pandemic has forced the closure of all kinds of businesses and severely impacted the cash flow of almost all others. And this has obviously made it difficult for some to the pay the rent.
Some tenants have requested deferrals or other forms of help, but others didn’t exactly ask. They essentially just took them.
“I have some tenants, large, strong companies, that have sent letters saying they have stopped all payments to all vendors, landlords, etc. — period, without any time frame,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Development Associates, which has co-developed and now manages a number of office and retail properties in Western Mass. and Connecticut. “There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.’”
Vincunas, who was in the process of writing e-mails to those at the top levels of those companies saying that such tactics were “un-American, like hoarding, and not the right thing to do,” said many other large companies have been far more diplomatic, with actual requests for 50% of rent payments, with offers to pay it back over the next six to 12 months.
Meanwhile, others we spoke with said they are working with tenants while also introducing, or reacquainting, them with the phrase force majeure (more on that later).
“There was no explanation, really, just ‘we’re strong and we’ll be back, but … we’re not paying you.”
But issues with collecting rent comprise just one of the many COVID-19-related challenges now facing commercial real-estate brokers and managers. Others include trying to do business differently, with many people working remotely; a dramatic slowing of activity within the market as companies pause to assess the damage and debate whether to move forward with planned deals; and emerging concerns that, as time goes by and companies see the advantages to having people work at home, companies may adjust their needs for space downward in the years to come, creating more problems for building owners.
“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home,” said Plotkin. “And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.
“Everything flows from the occupancy of your building,” he went on. “If your building becomes less occupied, it’s worth less, the market value goes down, and it triggers all kinds of things that are not necessarily good for the office-business market; that’s a clear fear that we have.”
Jack Dill, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, which manages a number of properties across the region, agreed, but offered the hope that these ongoing experiments will lead some to conclude, as he has, that having people working in one place promotes collaboration.
“Work is a social enterprise — it’s about relationships, and it’s about trust,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s about the free flow of information, and that’s a lot harder when people are disbursed.”
As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-April, Vincunas noted that he had recently sent in his application for relief from the SBA-administered Paycheck Protection Program.
The application was made to essentially cover the costs of keeping the staff at Development Associates’ small office in Greenfield — located at the Greenfield Corporate Center, which the company manages — on the payroll.
And that’s just one of a long list of COVID-19-related hardships that the company is coping with. Indeed, Vincunas noted that one staff member, concerned about the health risks associated with coming to work, abruptly retired several weeks back, prompting some shuffling of duties and leaving the company generally short-handed.
“She didn’t want to leave the house,” he noted. “And that really set us back. She retired, and that was that, leaving us to pick up the slack.”
The story is generally the same with other property managers and brokers, who are, like businesses in virtually every other sector, coping with new realities when it comes to where and how work is being conducted.
“Businesses are getting a test run right now with working from home. And if that works for them, there’s a strong possibility they might want to continue that, which would create havoc in the office-leasing market — and the office-investment market.”
As for business itself … on the brokerage side, things have slowed considerably, as might be expected given the vast amounts of disruption, fear, and general uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
But some deals have been completed. Vincunas said he signed on a new tenant at the beginning of the crisis, and some smaller build-out efforts — being undertaken “slowly and carefully to ensure social distancing” — are in progress.
Dill said the ‘deal flow,’ as he called it, is still moving, and his company closed on a few leases early in April. Properties are still being shown, he went on, albeit carefully, and while observing certain protocols, such as frequent use of hand sanitizer and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.
But, like others we spoke with, he noted that, as the crisis has continued, the pace of business has slowed, and many who were in the exploratory stages of a potential move have backed off, waiting for the skies to clear.
“We’ve had some say, ‘interesting, attractive property, we’re interested, but things are so unsure, let’s let this settle down and we’ll re-engage at the other end of this.’”
Vincunas agreed. “At the beginning of this, I lost three hot deals that were going ahead, and none of them have come through,” he said, noting that one involved a building in Agawam he was going to buy and lease to an interested tenant. That interest is now gone.
“I had two other tenants who were going to lease space in a building we own already, and both of them said, ‘we have to slow down, things are changing … we don’t know,’” he went on. “Everyone has this uncertainty, and they’re thinking, ‘let’s not do anything for a while.’”
As for existing tenants, while some are experiencing something approaching business as usual — Vincunas has a kidney-dialysis venture and an ambulance company in his portfolio of tenants, and they certainly fall into that category — many have been forced to close their doors because they’re not essential, and most others are hurting to some degree.
Therefore, property owners are working with these tenants, offering some deferrals on at least a portion of their rent, Plotkin explained, noting that there is what amounts to a ‘base rent’ amount in each lease, as well as an additional amount to cover operating expenses, including security, cleaning, utilities, and others.
“The base-rent amount can be deferred, not abated, for a period of time,” he explained. “But the amount for operating expenses can’t, because we still have to keep the lights on, and we still have to pay the bills.”
This brings us back to ‘force majeure,’ a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability and obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance — such as a war, riot, hurricane, or flood — prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.
A pandemic certainly fits that description because some businesses have been forced to close by state decree, and almost all others have been negatively impacted in some way. It’s the force majeure clause that no doubt prompted those letters that Vincunas described earlier.
Dill said Colebrook is working with clients on a case-by-case basis, and is working with tenants experiencing hardships. Like the others we spoke with, he referenced the trickle-up effect, or the ripple effect, that tenants not being able pay some or all of their rent will generate.
“When you go to the next circle out … if landlords have tenants who can’t operate and therefore don’t have the cash flow to pay rent and other changes, that immediately impacts landlords and their ability to meet their obligations, including debt service,” he explained.
While coping with the present, those we spoke with are also looking to the future, and they project that the pandemic will change the landscape in perhaps profound ways.
For starters, Vincunas believes that the current trend toward more purchases being made online, with items — from groceries to books to sporting goods — being delivered to the home will continue, and it will drive need for additional warehouse space.
“So many things are drop-shipped,” he explained. “The warehouse and logistics business is due for a big infusion of activity, just by the nature of a growing reluctance among people to leave the house.”
Conversely, this trend will negatively impact the retail side of the business, a trend that’s already playing out on Main Streets and in malls across the country.
But it’s the office sector that has those looking down the road most concerned. Indeed, those we spoke with said it’s possible, and perhaps likely, that companies will learn from this pandemic that there are advantages to having some people working at home and fewer people at the office. And, eventually, this will lead to downsizing and less overall demand for office space.
“The office market, and retail, are the two sectors of real estate that will be most impacted by this,” said Plotkin. “In the case of office, we were seeing some pretty good momentum right before COVID-19 — Springfield usually lags behind, but nationally, the office segment was doing very well. That has come to a complete standstill.
“And the fear amongst my colleagues is that people are starting to realize that this home-work model works for them, and will this replace the need for office space?” he went on. “It remains to be seen how this is going to play out, but that’s a real fear out there; as leases renew, those tenants might be evaluating whether they need the amount of space they occupied. They may do a home/office model that would reduce the amount of space they need.”
Those we spoke with are certainly hoping that, while businesses get this ‘test run,’ as Plotkin described it, they decide there are advantages to having co-workers in one place.
“That collaborative model is important for innovation,” said Plotkin. “Having people together in close proximity offers the sharing of ideas and collaboration in ways you can’t get with a Zoom meeting.”
Dill agreed. He said companies, and his is one of them, are experimenting with having workers dispersed and working from home, and some of the results are trickling in.
“It’s working pretty well,” he said. “But it’s not the same as having your people together, where they can meet casually, sit down in the same room, and solve a problem.”
Time and Place
Just what will come of the ongoing ‘test run’ of remote working remains to be seen.
What’s clear now, though, is that this pandemic is having a significant impact on the commercial real-estate market locally, and across the country.
The ‘trickle-up’ effect, as well as the trickle-down effect, are real, and as the crisis continues, the toll it is taking on this important sector continues to mount.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Jeff Daley boasted a long career in development, with experience on the municipal, state, and private realms, when an intriguing opportunity came about last year: the role of CEO at Westmass Area Development Corp., which oversees a number of newsworthy projects in the region, most notably Ludlow Mills. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect municipalities and developers on a larger scale — and help generate the sort of economic activity and job creation that makes communities strong.
Jeff Daley was working for the state in 2005 when it created a district improvement financing (DIF) program, essentially a tool that enables towns to capture incremental tax revenues from new private investment to pay for public improvement projects.
A decade later, while leading his own development firm, CJC Development Advisors, he put that knowledge to good use on the Longmeadow/East Longmeadow line. It’s the sort of experience — working with muncipalities and developers — that he brings to his latest role as CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp., which he took on last summer.
The project he referenced was a campus of sorts being developed by two entities — Baystate Health, which was building a multi-practice healthcare center on the Longmeadow side, and Berkshire Healthcare, which was building East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center on that town’s side of the line.
“I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”
“They needed about $3 million in public infrastructure to make those projects work,” Daley recalled, referring to the extensive road, water, and sewer work undertaken a few years ago along the Dwight Street corridor. So CJC put together a DIF by which new tax dollars from the two developers’ private investment paid for the debt service for the $3 million worth of public infrastructure.
“It was the first municipal DIF in the state,” he recalled. “And it’s a huge success. Those projects would not have come to fruition, either the larger Berkshire Health building out back or the Baystate Health facility up front. They just couldn’t make it work if they had to put $3 million into public infrastructure.”
Daley wants to bring that problem-solving spirit into his current role leading Westmass, where his responsibilities include negotiating corporate acquisitions, land sales and leases, and incentive proposals; applying for grants; and marketing resources and development services to organizations and businesses considering investment in the region, as well as evaluating opportunities for new industrial-park development and coordinating federal, state, and local economic-development grants and resources.
“If there are projects that need to be done, communities may not have the staff on hand to manage projects, and we can provide services for the development of projects,” he told BusinessWest. “And, in concert with that, we’re working with developers. They may not know all the programs that are out there, and those are the kinds of programs I want to instill at Westmass. When communities and/or developers have questions about development and how to go about programs, I want them to think of Westmass first. And if we can’t do it, we’ll tell you we can’t and set you up with who can.”
After all, development is good for communities, in many ways. But his passion is more organic than that, because when Daley sees development, he sees jobs.
“I believe the creation of good, stable jobs is really most impact you can have on communities. If people are working, they have money to spend, which is good for the economy. But it’s also providing a stable environment for kids to grow up in, when mom and dad are working and able to pay the rent. I look it as more granular economic development, as opposed to just building buildings and putting people to work. It affects everybody down to young kids in our communities, and that’s important to me when we’re doing developments.”
The former executive director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, Daley worked on several projects in the downtown area, which certainly needed more energy and vibrancy. He left that job in 2014 to work for a couple of construction companies before launching his own company in 2016.
“At CJC, I worked with a lot of clients, including municipalities and private developers, working on putting financial plans together for public infrastructure, commercial-development projects, and such,” he explained. “We did construction management for private developers, did a couple of urban-renewal plans, and strategic planning for those projects.”
When the opportunity arose to head up Westmass following the untimely death of its former CEO, Eric Nelson, the job seemed to mesh well with Daley’s experience and passions.
“My business was going very, very well, I had very good clients, and it was a hard decision to make,” he recalled. “But I looked at this as a challenge. Westmass has been around for 60 years, and certainly there’s still a lot of good left that needs to be done — there are a lot of good projects out there.”
Like Ludlow Mills, one of the agency’s signature projects. Last summer, Westmass announced state and federal funding to construct Riverside Drive at the rear of the complex, making the development accessible to substantially more development. The site already includes 75 Winn Development apartments in Mill 10 for those over age 55 and is host to Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts.
Creating a city street behind the property creates frontage for several properties and makes it more palatable for companies to access water and sewer, which makes the sites more attractive to lease, he explained. That project is scheduled to wrap up later this year.
In all, about 35% of the 7 million square feet at Ludlow Mills is rehabbed and active. “There’s a lot of activity,” Daley said, noting that Westmass moved its main leasing office to the site in December. “Additionally, we have about 80 acres off the east side of the back road, Riverside Drive, that is high, dry, and flat. There are some wetlands, but about 50 or 60 acres that are developable out there, and by doing this new road, it’s going to get them frontage in order for us to go out and market it to companies. So that’s really exciting.”
Meanwhile, Ludlow Mills is waiting for historical tax credits on the clock-tower portion of the development, a $20 to $30 million investment that will be what Daley called “the showpiece of our investment.”
“We’re really excited about that,” he added, noting that Ludlow is building a new senior center at the site. “That’s going to be a beautiful building to showcase the property from the eastern side. So there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of people are interested, and it’s not just storage facilities; there’s a lot of jobs in there. These people are coming in and creating jobs in machine shops and other facilities that really attract businesses. This is one of our marquee projects we’re looking to grow for a long time.”
A few miles away, the Chicopee River Business Park, which Westmass has owned for 25 years, tells a different story. Harvey Industries purchased a parcel a number of years ago, but Westmass is still looking to market the mostly vacant, 170-acre complex.
“We really want to look out for the long-term benefit of the park. We are selling it as a bulk sale for 170 acres, but we’ll work with people to do what’s best for them,” he explained, noting that the location is attractive for industry, with its proximity to I-291 and the ability to get trucks in and out without disturbing residential neighborhoods.
On the other hand, Westmass’ other industrial parks — in Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Westfield — are full, Daley noted. “We continue to build parks and take on projects that benefit Western Mass., both with jobs and creating quality of life for people. That’s the endgame of Westmass; we work to get parcels ready for sale and make sure the right businesses go into them.”
Step by Step
Westmass made a real-estate deal of a different kind in December, moving its corporate offices to Monarch Place in downtown Springfield, which Daley sees as an opportunity to raise the organization’s brand and presence, while continuing its work connecting developers, municipalities, and other entities.
“We can work with towns and cities and private developers as well, and act as their economic-development arm, whether it’s putting together public infrastructure financing, putting together urban-renewal plans, putting together plans for strategic development in communities — all that is needed out there,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s the exciting part. A lot of cities and towns don’t have the ability to do that because they don’t have the staff or the means to take on those sorts of projects. We can, here at Westmass.”
He harkens back to his time in Westfield, when the city tapped into numerous funding sources to develop urban-renewal projects downtown and elsewhere.
“We just dug deep and figured out what we could do. There are more programs out there than people realize. They go about their daily business and it’s not their job to know about the programs, but Westmass can help them see what’s available for public infrastructure programs, for land deals — we can put together the infrastructure to get their project done.”
Which is good — not just for communities, but the individual families living in them.
“I believe everything good starts with people working, and the things we do to help projects get to the finish line and get developed really impact thousands of people around Western Mass. every day,” Daley said. “That’s what I’m passionate about. If people are going out to work and working hard every day, it’s a different life at home. Every little bit helps.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at businesswest.com
Sign of the Times
The sign just went up on the top of the structure a few months back. But the Republican building on Main Street in Springfield has been for sale or lease, on one level or another, for the better part of a more than a decade now.
Thus, it has become part of a regional and national story involving newspapers and commercial real estate. Technology has changed, papers have consolidated operations, and staffs have become smaller — those last two trends accelerated by a sharp decline in the fortunes of most all newspapers as interest in print advertising has waned. Thus, those papers’ real-estate needs have changed accordingly. And sometimes dramatically.
So it is in Springfield and at the Republican, part of Advance Publications, where publisher George Arwady estimates that the business — meaning the non-commercial-printing side of the venture (he stressed that repeatedly) — now requires not even half, and perhaps not even a third, of the roughly 64,000 square feet in the office building opened more than a half-century ago.
“We had maybe 500 people working in this building in the heyday — that’s when we were producing three newspapers, the Daily News, Union, and Republican, that were all competing against each other. There were competing newsrooms, competing circulation departments … they threw things over the fence at one another,” said Arwady, who came aboard as publisher nine years ago but certainly knows the history. “We might have 100 non-production people here now; we certainly don’t need all this space.”
Which brings us back to that sign. It announces loudly what has been widely known for years now — that there are large quantities of what Jack Dill, a principal with Colebrook Reality Services, which is now marketing the property, described as flexible, conveniently located space available for lease or sale as business condominiums.
And if someone wanted the whole building (again, not the huge commercial-printing operation), they can have that, too, if the price is right, said Arwady.
Indeed, he said the staff at the paper could easily be relocated into 20,000 square feet of space, and perhaps even less, in any of a number of downtown office buildings.
The fact that there are a number of properties that could accommodate them, including all the major office towers and several other buildings, including Union Station, helps explain why there has been little movement on the Republican space over the years, and why the sign has gone up on the property.
“It’s a buyer’s market, and certainly not a seller’s market,” said Arwady, noting, as area commercial real-estate brokers and managers have for some time now, that there is what amounts to a relative glut of office space in downtown Springfield, at least when compared with much hotter markets such as Boston, Cambridge, and even Cleveland.
In that last city, another Advance newspaper, the Plain Dealer, has relocated to smaller quarters, and its now-former headquarters has been sold and redeveloped. Something similar has happened at a number of other Advance publications, said Arwady, including the one in Grand Rapids, Mich. (the Press), and the Gazette in nearby Kalamazoo, where he once worked, where the newspaper property was acquired by a hospital group.
“They kept a portion of the old building, designed by a famous architect, and they built a large addition with offices,” he explained. “And the paper moved into nice space three blocks away in downtown Kalamazoo.”
And in Grand Rapids, he went on, the Press building was sold and redeveloped; it is now part of what’s known as the Medical Mile, a renowned healthcare destination.
“We’ve done this stuff all over the country, so we’re experts,” Arwady said of the Advance group, noting that the story has been replicated, to one degree or another, with newspapers — and communities — of all sizes.
The pattern has continued regionally as well, with a number of newspaper properties, perhaps most prominently the Boston Globe’s former headquarters building on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester being sold and redeveloped.
The Globe left its 700,000-square-foot complex in 2018 after nearly 60 years at that location, and took up residence on Washington Street — not far from where it had operated starting in 1870. It sold the Dorchester property to developer Nordblom, which is reshaping it into something called BEAT (Boston Exchange for Accelerated Technology). Plans call for 360,000 square feet of office and 300,000 square feet of flex, light industrial, and lab space that will likely include a craft brewery.
“It’s a massive project; the site is being totally redeveloped,” said Dill, who attended Boston College High School across the street. “That’s an example of what’s happening in cities across the country.”
And the Republican almost had a success story to top all these others. That’s almost.
“The solution for each market has been different. And at the end of the day, all real estate is local, as Tip O’Neill said about politics, and you have to find solutions that are available and practical and economical in the place that you happen to be located.”
Flash back to 2013 when there were briefly three Springfield casino proposals vying for the coveted Western Mass. license. In addition to the South End blocks now occupied by MGM Springfield and a short-lived proposal to build where CRRC is now assembling subway cars, Penn National, which now operates the slots casino in Plainville, wanted to build a casino on a large parcel that included both the Peter Pan bus terminal (now home to the Way Finders headquarters under construction) and the entire Republican parcel, including the massive printing operation.
“Somewhere, I have an option to buy that’s this thick from Penn National,” said Arwady, placing his thumb and index finger roughly two inches apart. “They were going to take the whole shooting match and build me a new production facility — the city was trying to get me to go into the industrial park; we were going to move all the office people downtown. And they were going to pay for the whole thing.”
Since the MGM plan got the nod in Springfield and then with the Gaming Commission, Arwady has essentially been trying to forge a successful plan B, and he acknowledged that doing so will be somewhat challenging because the market remains soft in Springfield. But he nonetheless remains optimistic that the property can regain the vibrancy it had 30 and even 20 years ago.
This optimism is based on a number of factors, starting with that prime ingredient in commercial real estate — location. Indeed, the property is visible from — and lies almost underneath — I-91, and also just off 291. Meanwhile, the bus and train stations are right across the street.
Beyond location, the building, described by Arwady as a “concrete fortress,” has abundant free parking (a rarity in the downtown area) and flexibility in that he believes it can accommodate everything from retail to professional offices to a variety of different cannabis-related businesses.
“We even have a large vault,” said Arwady. “And a vault is the most attractive thing you can have, from a commercial real-estate perspective, for a cannabis company, because it’s still an all-cash business and they can’t use the banks.”
Dill told BusinessWest that he can envision a number of different potential redevelopment opportunities at the site, including office space, education-related uses, and perhaps co-working space. And flexibility — meaning the ability to respond to a market’s needs — is an important quality when redeveloping such structures, because each real-estate market is unique.
“The solution for each market has been different,” he explained. “And at the end of the day, all real estate is local, as Tip O’Neill said about politics, and you have to find solutions that are available and practical and economical in the place that you happen to be located.”
Over the past several years, a number of entities, from law firms to education-related facilities, have toured the property, said Arwardy, adding that he believes this interest will eventually translate into a transformation of the property into other uses — perhaps several of them.
This has been the trend — or the story — when it comes to newspapers and commercial real estate, and the story is ongoing. u
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Changing the Landscape
Ken Vincunas says he started getting into drone photography years ago — well before most practitioners.
There was a lengthy learning curve, and in some ways it’s still ongoing, he acknowledged, but overall it’s been a fun, intriguing experience as the technology has improved and its capabilities have grown. Meanwhile, it’s become a very practical — and much-needed — work tool for Vincunas, president of Development Associates, the Agawam-based commercial real-estate management firm and developer.
Indeed, he uses drone shots to help market the myriad properties in the company’s portfolio from Greenfield to East Granby, Conn.; shots from above often provide a unique perspective.
Shots like the one on this page, which Vincunas took last fall — probably in the early morning, by the looks of the parking lot and the lack of traffic on nearby I-91. Perhaps better than any thousand words could — even these — the picture tells how the development on Atwood Drive in Northampton, known officially as the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center, has changed the landscape in that area, once home to the Clarion Inn and Conference Center (Vincunas told BusinessWest he has some powerful drone shots capturing the demolition of that facility).
Today, the site has become home to a wide range of businesses and institutions, including the Massachusetts Trial Court, now a major tenant in the third building to be developed on the property, known as 15 Atwood, the large one in the center of the picture.
But Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH) is the dominant tenant on the property, with facilities in all three buildings and a presence summed up with the collective ‘Atwood Health Center.’
The hospital, a Massachusetts General Hospital affiliate, has its name on 22 Atwood (Cooley Dickinson Health Care), which houses a number of facilities, from Atwood Internal Medicine to Hampshire Cardiovascular Associates; from integrated behavioral-health services to women’s health. Meanwhile, at 8 Atwood, the first building developed, CDH has located its occupational-therapy, physical-therapy, and speech-language facilities, and in 15 Atwood, opened last spring, CDH has placed general surgical care and infectious-diseases facilities and Oxbow Primary Care.
Thus, the facility has become a true healthcare destination, similar to the Brightwood section of Springfield’s North End, although, as Vincunas noted, it is home to a wide variety of tenants, including an engineering firm and an accounting firm slated to move into 15 Atwood later this year (buildout on the latter is much further along than the former).
Which means the parking lot generally doesn’t look anything like it does here. And it’s likely to become even more full in the coming months as Vincunas looks to fill the remaining spaces in 15 Atwood, roughly 8,000 square feet in total.
“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space,” he said while sitting at a table in one section if it. “We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”
But he’s already looking beyond those spaces — both literally and figuratively — to the undeveloped property at the back of this parcel, adjacent to the highway. There is room for additional development there, he said, and already a search is underway for the anchor tenant or tenants needed to greenlight new construction.
“We have site-plan approval for another building, which is a significant milestone,” he said, adding that the permit will allow something between 40,000 and 50,000 square feet, somewhat smaller than the 66,000-square-foot 15 Atwood. “We’ll need someone there to be the anchor, as it was with these other buildings.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Atwood Drive complex and how it remains an important work in progress.
A Vision Comes into Focus
Despite how it might look to some, Vincunas stressed repeatedly that this venture was certainly not an overnight success.
Indeed, it’s been more than a decade in the making, he said, and the story really begins when the Clarion property, located on the north side of Atwood Drive, was acquired at auction by the O’Leary and Shumway families in the early ’90s. Other sites on both sides of the street were acquired over the ensuing years, and eventually a vision developed for a professional office complex, said Vincunas, one that would be built in stages as need — and anchor tenants — emerged.
“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space. We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”
Redevelopment of the south side of the property, undertaken by a partnership of the O’Leary and Shumway families, with Development Associates as leasing agent and construction property manager, began with 8 Atwood, with construction commencing in 2011. It is now home to Clinical & Support Options, several CDH facilities, as noted, and New England Dermatology. The building known as 22 Atwood was built in 2012. It is now home to 17 different CDH services, including the diabetes center, fertility services, geriatrics, podiatry, radiology and imaging, rheumatology, and spine medicine.
Construction on 15 Atwood — led by the O’Leary family as managing partner, again in partnership with Development Associates — began in 2017, with the trial court as the anchor tenant; the facility had been located in cramped quarters in downtown Northampton and needed an upgrade.
The court, now occupying roughly 22,000 square feet, moved in last February, and since then, a number of additional tenants have signed on, including Cooley Dickinson, which moved in last fall; the state Department of Developmental Services; Assurance Behavioral Health; Staffier Associates, a mental-health clinic; OnaWay, LLC, an accounting firm relocating from Holyoke; and BluRoc, a construction firm now located in Hadley.
This diverse mix of tenants was drawn to the Atwood Drive complex by a number of factors, but especially accessibility (the site is just off exit 19 of the highway), parking, the large footprints available, and the ability to shape these spaces to fit specific needs.
“One of the big draws is the parking — it’s very hard to find a very large space with this kind of parking in Northampton,” Vincunas explained. “And it’s very accessible, which makes it attractive to a wide range of businesses and facilities like the courthouse.”
And also BluRoc, which will soon be occupying more than 6,000 square feet of space on the third floor of 15 Atwood.
“They have three offices in three different buildings in one little area, and they needed a consolidated office; they’re going to have 30 people here,” he said, adding that buildout of the space should be completed by late spring.
With the third and first floors fully leased, there are now just those two spaces remaining on the second floor, he said, adding, again, that there has been a good amount of interest expressed in those footprints.
Looking ahead to the last remaining parcel and development of that space, Vincunas said there is no definitive timeline on construction, but he believes there is solid demand.
Shutter to Think
The accounting firm OnaWay has its own aerial shot of 15 Atwood on its website, accompanied by the words “our new home in 2020 is underway, and we’re stoked to live and work where we call home.”
There’s a growing list of companies saying similar things about this location, which has been completely transformed over the past decade — from unused property and a tired hotel and conference center into a state-of-the-art professional complex and healthcare destination.
As Vincinas said, it wasn’t an overnight success, certainly, but it has developed — yes, that’s a photography term — into one of the better development stories in the region.
As that drone shot clearly demonstrates.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
A Tale of Two Cities
Evan Plotkin was talking about how “something has to give.”
With that one phrase, he was talking about the commercial real-estate markets in the central business districts of Boston and Springfield.
In the Hub, said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, rents are sky-high and continue to climb — to more than $100 per square foot in some locations and to roughly $63 per square foot on average, with more space being built to accommodate soaring demand. Meanwhile, traffic, congestion, and problems with mass transit are strangling businesses, he said, to the point where meetings can’t start until 10 a.m. and overall productivity is impacted.
Meanwhile, in Springfield, rents are low — less than one-third the average in Boston — and they are flat, as in consistently flat. “They really haven’t gone up at all in maybe 25 years,” said Plotkin, who noted that there are several reasons for this, but especially the fact that there is, by his estimate, roughly 600,000 square feet of vacant class A space in Springfield’s downtown.
Exacerbating this relative stagnancy in the City of Homes has been new and seemingly unneeded inventory coming on the market — especially the 60,000 square feet at Union Station and the redeveloped property known as 1550 Main — and movement among a growing number of businesses to reduce their physical footprint by enabling (or in some cases requiring) employees to work from home.
This is where the ‘something has to give’ part comes in, said Plotkin, in a very candid interview with BusinessWest, noting that things need to change in both cities. And both would seemingly benefit if just some of the state offices now based in the Hub, as well as many different types of private businesses, would change their mailing address from Boston to Springfield when their leases expire.
“There’s 70% rent inflation in Boston, so when these businesses’ leases expire, they’re looking at incredibly high turnover rent,” said Plotkin, who co-owns a portion of the office tower known as 1350 Main St. He noted that class A rents in Boston have climbed $12 to $15 per square foot over the past few years. Meanwhile, in Springfield, property owners are charging $15 to $20 per square foot of class A space.
“It’s outrageous what’s going on in Boston — and everyone can do the math,” he said. “If state agencies don’t have to be in Boston, they can be decentralized and relocated to office space in Springfield or perhaps Worcester. They’re looking for creative solutions for Boston, and this could be one of them.”
Besides these opinions, all Plotkin really has at this point are those numbers he mentioned earlier (as well as some other statistics) and what appears to be that sound theory — that businesses and state agencies that don’t really need to be in Boston could and should be incentivized to seek other locations, including the 413 and especially downtown Springfield.
He has meetings planned with other downtown property owners as well as Rick Sullivan, present of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to discuss what can and perhaps should be done to at least raise awareness of what Springfield has to offer and perhaps create some migration west.
Plotkin said he understands there are reasons why state agencies and businesses want to be in Boston — especially because they know there’s a skilled workforce there — and he understands that moving about 90 miles west on the Turnpike is expensive and presents some risks, especially when it comes to workforce issues.
But he says the numbers speak for themselves, and if those paying sky-high rents in Boston could come to understand the numbers in this market, they could become inspired to relocate.
And if high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield becomes a reality, then people could, in theory, live in the Boston area and work in businesses and agencies relocated to the 413 — a decidedly differently spin on how that service might change the business landscape in the Bay State.
That’s a very large number of ‘ifs,’ and Plotkin acknowledges this as well. But as he said at the top, and repeatedly, something has to give in both cities.
As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin continually leafed through the pages on a white legal pad he brought with him.
They contain various notes he’s collected over the past weeks and months on the Boston real-estate market and the overall business climate in New England’s largest city.
There are some statistics he’s collected — such as those regarding average rents in the Hub, the amount of new space under construction (2.5 million square feet was the number he had), and the current vacancy rate in the city — an historically low 6%, according to the New York-based real-estate giant Cushman & Wakefield.
But there were also some general thoughts, observations, and notations from various publications and other sources.
Among them was a quote from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council citing a survey which revealed that 60% of the life-science employees working in Boston would “change their job tomorrow” if they could get a better commute. There was also something he read in another publication (he couldn’t remember which one), noting that many Boston-area residents had simply given up on mass transit because it was so unreliable and were instead driving to work and getting there mid-morning.
“In one report I read, business owners in Boston said they had to add staff to make up for transit delays,” he said, putting a verbal exclamation point behind that comment. “Think about how disruptive that is to your business. We don’t understand that here — there’s no such thing as traffic in Springfield.”
Summing up all he’s read and heard about Boston and possible solutions to its congestion problems — everything from incentivizing employers to let workers telecommute to taxing motorists for using certain roads at certain hours — he said the situation is fast becoming untenable for many living and trying to do business there.
“You have inefficiency, spiraling upward costs, shortages of affordable housing, transportation problems, congestion, and sky-high cost of living there,” he said. “Businesses locate in Boston because they can attract that workforce, which makes sense, but if that workforce can’t afford to live there and can’t deal with the congestion, then what’s the point of being in Boston?”
Which brings him back to Springfield and its downtown. And for this subject, Plotkin didn’t need a legal pad.
He’s been working in, and selling and leasing commercial real estate in, downtown Springfield for more than 40 years. He knows what’s changed and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t, especially when it comes to demand for space in the central business district, and what would be called net gains.
Indeed, Plotkin said that what the region has mostly experienced — there have been some notable exceptions, to be sure — is companies moving from one downtown office building to another.
In this zero-sum real-estate game, one building owner loses a tenant, and another gains one — but the city and its downtown don’t gain much at all, he said.
“There’s been negative absorption in the downtown for many years now, and I don’t see anything really changing,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m seeing people moving from one block to another, one office building to another, but not many new businesses moving in. Meanwhile, everyone’s vying for the same tenants, which drives the rental rates down even lower than they have been historically; it’s a tenant’s market here.”
It’s anything but that in Boston, which has seen a surge of new businesses moving in — everything from tech startups to giant corporations, like GE. The real-estate market is exploding, and traffic woes and mass-transit headaches have been consistent front-page news. All this calls for creative thinking — as in very creative — and perhaps looking west, said Plotkin, who did some simple math to get his point across.
“Using the example of a 20,000-square-foot tenant paying $63 per square foot in Boston … if the same tenant came to Springfield and paid $18 per square foot, we’re talking about millions of dollars,” he explained, adding that these numbers should strike a chord, especially when it comes to businesses and agencies that don’t have to be in Boston.
Many of those who think they do need to be in Boston are focused on workforce issues, he went on, adding that he believes the Greater Springfield area can, in fact, meet the workforce requirements of many companies.
And over the past several years, the city has become more vibrant with the addition of MGM Springfield, said Plotkin, adding that there are certainly other selling points, like a high quality of life and a cost of living that those residing in and around Boston might find difficult to comprehend.
As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin all but acknowledged that getting businesses and agencies to trade Boston for Springfield will be difficult, for all the reasons stated above.
But the situation in the Hub could be reaching a tipping point when it comes to affordability, traffic, congestion, and quality of life.
And these converging factors might, that’s might, finally convince some decision makers to seek a very creative alternative.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
A New Anchor
Tower Square has seen its ups and downs over the years, but its new owners have been aggressive about selling potential clients on the renovated space, convenient parking, downtown amenities, and simply being part of an economic renaissance in Springfield. Wellfleet took that pitch to heart, which is why it agreed to become the tower’s anchor tenant.
Vid Mitta, managing partner of Tower Square, called Wellfleet’s relocation to the downtown Springfield office tower “a big thing.”
It’s even bigger when one considers how far the company has come, said Drew DiGiorgio, Wellfleet’s president and CEO.
“When we started, it was five employees,” DiGiorgio said. “My office was not an office — it was a desk and a chair located at the bottom of the stairs at a barbershop in Wilbraham. We would open up envelopes, and I would lick them because didn’t even have the little spongy thing. We answered the phones when they rang; we did everything. To go from that to this is pretty humbling, and I appreciate everyone’s support to get us here.”
“If this was five years ago, the issue might have been safety in the downtown. But the dynamic has changed. The downtown is attractive, there are all kinds of venues and attractions nearby, and security doesn’t appear to be an issue any longer.”
Wellfleet, a Berkshire Hathaway company providing accident and health-insurance products, recently staged a press conference to announce the relocation of its national corporate headquarters — and 150 of its employees — to the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors of Tower Square in August.
Wellfleet — which has built a national niche insuring college students, handling more than 100,000 students at more than 200 colleges and universities — has outgrown its current office space on Roosevelt Avenue in Springfield. The new offices at Tower Square will give employees up to 80,000 square feet of class-A office space and provide ample room for Wellfleet’s new and growing Workplace Benefits division.
“To me, Wellfleet is a home-grown, small, Springfield-based company which has grown to this size today, and we should applaud their success,” said Mitta, who announced that Wellfleet’s name will be placed on the tower as its anchor tenant.
Rethinking the City
Demetrios Panteleakis, principal of Macmillan Group, the real-estate firm that represents Tower Square, said his team was in discussions with Wellfleet for about a year as Wellfleet searched the suburban market for a home.
“We were the alternative. They were kind of weighing it against what the suburbs had to offer,” he said, adding that he was able to pitch a downtown headquarters as much more than a fallback. In fact, the more Wellfleet’s leaders considered Tower Square, the more it made sense.
“If this was five years ago, the issue might have been safety in the downtown,” Panteleakis told BusinessWest. “But the dynamic has changed. The downtown is attractive, there are all kinds of venues and attractions nearby, and security doesn’t appear to be an issue any longer.”
In short, a thriving urban center is simply more attractive than the suburbs to many companies. But that shift in perception didn’t happen overnight.
“I think it’s a culmination of everything the folks at City Hall, the Business Improvement District, and all the economic-development folks have been working on, rowing in the same direction, for the last four or five years,” he said. “The result is not only attracting new tenants, but bringing tenants from Westfield, West Springfield, Northampton, Agawam … these are folks saying, ‘Springfield is the heart of the economic engine in Western Mass., and that’s where we need to be; that’s where our employees need to be.’”
DiGiorgio said Wellfleet employees, when asked what’s appealing about Tower Square, cited the modern, renovated space itself, with its natural light, city views, and covered parking, as well as the food options downtown and the fact that the district has been emerging economically in recent years.
“In New England, it’s not a lot of fun when the snow and rain come, so having a secure garage, and having the ease of a building that kind of provides you everything you need over the course of the day, that’s highly attractive,” Panteleakis added.
Formerly known as Consolidated Health Plans, Wellfleet branded under its current name in January, uniting its insurance carriers and claims-administration organizations under one marketing name. It boasts approximately 175 employees, 150 of whom work in Springfield; others work remotely or from satellite offices in Florence, S.C. and San Rafael, Calif.
“We believe being part of Springfield is important,” DiGiorgio said, noting that the company has long been involved in efforts like the Memorial Spring Cleanup, Link to Libraries, Friends of the Homeless, Rays of Hope, and Open Pantry. “We are active in the community. Our name is not well-known, but we think that will change in the future.”
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that Tower Square’s owners have been aggressive and creative in bringing an eclectic mix of businesses to the facility, from Wellfleet to the YMCA of Greater Springfield to White Lion Brewing Co.
“A lot of people, years ago, said, ‘what can you expect? It’s Springfield.’ More and more people are saying now, ‘why not Springfield?’” the mayor said. “I won’t say the downtown is re-emerging as much as it is reinventing itself. Springfield is getting on the map. And my administration continues to be business-friendly because it brings jobs.”
At the end of the day, Panteleakis said, Tower Square is becoming an easier sell.
“When you walk people through the space and they consider the economics of it — for a few dollars more, they can have parking at their leisure, then the level of security and the amenities a class-A building has to offer — it sells itself.”
That’s why he enjoys those tours of the building with prospective tenants, and hopes more companies and organizations request them.
“What they need to understand is what Wellfleet understands — the level of the buildouts of the existing spaces in Tower Square rival anything you’d see in Boston or New York City,” he told BusinessWest. “These are class-A, high-tech buildouts, and there’s a difference between being in a class-B or suburban market and being in a state-of-the-art, class-A office space with spectacular views of the Pioneer Valley.”
At the press conference, Panteleakis said welcoming Wellfleet was “a special day” for the city and the office tower.
“It’s quite remarkable to have another insurance company that’s growing at the rate this company is growing, and it’s only fitting it makes its home in the marquee building in the center of the city, bringing its people, its energy, and its vitality to the downtown,” he noted. “It’s just a great day to see it happen to our city. I think it’s going to be one of many great announcements Tower Square has for you over the coming months.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]
Painting the Town
Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.
After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.
Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.
“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.
Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.
Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.
“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”
He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.
The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.
“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”
“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”
Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.
Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.
But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.
“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.
While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.
“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”
Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.
Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.
“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”
In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.
Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.
“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”
As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.
“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”
Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.
“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”
Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]
A confluence of factors — from the opening of MGM Springfield to the dawn of the cannabis era in Massachusetts — have fueled heightened interest in real estate in downtown Springfield. Brokers report that the level of activity — inquiries, showings, leases, and sales — is the highest they’ve seen in recent memory.
Freddy Lopez Jr. says there’s a rather complex algorithm, as he called it, when it comes to locating a cannabis dispensary in Springfield.
Such a facility can’t be within 500 feet of a school, he noted. Or within 300 of another dispensary. Or within 50 feet of a Class A residence. And there are many other restrictions, as well as a host of hurdles to clear locally and with the state, just to get the doors open.
But this rather high degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be stopping many people from trying to get in the game in downtown Springfield — and at other locations within the city, said Lopez, a broker with Springfield-based NAI Plotkin.
He said he’s lost count when it comes to how many properties he’s shown to various parties, and noted that the interest is constant and only increasing, as desire to be part of the cannabis wave, if you will, intensifies.
“There’s a lot of interest across the area, but the hot spots are downtown, and especially locations near the casino,” said Lopez, who recently brokered the sale of 1665 Main St., once the headquarters of Hampden Bank, to a party (RLTY Development Springfield LLC) interested in converting it into a dispensary. “There’s a lot of competition for good sites.”
The Main Street property, located across from the Hippodrome and a block from Union Station, was most recently assessed at $127,600, but sold for $285,000, a clear sign of the times and an indicator of how hot the race to secure locations for cannabis facilities can, and probably will, become.
“People are jockeying for position right now,” said Lopez, adding that some parties are securing options, some are leasing, and others, like RLTY, are going ahead and buying properties in anticipation of winning a coveted license.
But the cannabis industry is only part of the story when it comes to growing interest in Springfield and especially its downtown, said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Colebook Realty, based in the heart of downtown.
MGM Springfield has certainly had an impact as well, spurring interest in various forms of development, from retail to housing. But there have been many other positive developments as well, from the relocation of the Community Foundation of Western Mass. to a location on Bridge Street, to the renovation of Stearns Square, to an improved outlook on the part of many when it comes to public safety.
“There are a number of factors driving this,” said Bolotin late on a Friday afternoon after a day of showing various properties, referring to a surge in interest and activity in Springfield and its downtown. “I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now, and this is the strongest I’ve ever seen it.”
Demetrius Panteleakis expressed similar sentiments. The president of Macmillan Group LLC, now based in Tower Square, said the last quarter of this year has been extremely busy, and he expects that pattern to continue.
“I haven’t seen an October-November-December period as busy as this one — this is usually a slower time,” he noted. “There is a lot of movement; things are very robust right now.”
For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest looks at why things are heating up in the downtown market and what this warming trend means for 2019 and beyond.
Where There’s Smoke…
Lopez said he has a number of anecdotes that capture the soaring level of interest in Springfield and its impact on the real-estate market.
One of his favorites concerns a party calling to inquire about securing a luxury apartment in downtown Springfield. Lopez explained that the city doesn’t really have any of those, much to the disappointment of the caller.
“This person was looking to do some investing in Springfield, and I think he wanted to use this apartment as a base — he could meet people there,” Lopez explained, adding that this phone call, all by itself, speaks volumes about how the commercial real-estate market is heating up in the city, and also how widespread the interest is.
Indeed, while there are many local parties interested in investment and/or development opportunities, the callers and visitors are also coming from well outside the 413.
“We’re getting calls from developers and investors in Boston, Rhode Island, New York City, and beyond,” he said, noting that many of these calls involve potential housing developments. “People who have never set foot in Springfield now have an interest in the city, and that’s very encouraging.”
That interest comes in many flavors, said those we spoke with, adding that the cannabis industry, and a strong desire to join it, are sparking many of the inquiries.
But these robust times are manifesting themselves in many ways.
Bolotin noted that he recently secured a lease for a new food-service business on Bridge Street. He couldn’t give specifics, but said the deal involved one of the vacant storefronts on that street, damaged first by the natural-gas blast and later by explosions triggered by a water-main break.
It’s an example of the strong interest in the market that he noted earlier, arguably the most activity he’s seen in recent memory.
“We’re seeing a lot of positive signs in the marketplace in terms of activity and interest, leases, and sales,” he said, adding that this vibrancy is reflected in everything from higher occupancy rates in the buildings managed by Colebrook — and there are many in the downtown, including the TD Bank Center and the Fuller Block — to how many showings of properties he’s conducted in recent months.
Overall, Bolotin, like others we spoke with about this, said there is considerably more positive energy concerning the downtown than there has been in some time. MGM deserves some credit for this, he noted, but there are many other factors as well, from the developments on and around Bridge Street to the renovation of the Fuller Block, to less apprehension about public safety. “The attitude is much more positive than it’s ever been.”
He noted that Patricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, who moved her business onto Bridge Street, Katie Alan Zobel, who relocated the Community Foundation to that same area, Tom Dennis, owner of the Dennis Group, who purchased and renovated the Fuller Block, among other buildings downtown, and Martin Miller, general manager of WFCR, who moved his operation from Amherst into the Fuller Block, are all examples of people investing in the downtown, and through, their actions, inspiring others to do so.
Panteleakis has also seen considerable optimism and less apprehension about public safety. “You don’t hear as many concerns about safety,” he said. “Before, safety was a real issue — it kept some people from coming downtown. But you don’t hear that much anymore.”
Meanwhile, housing has become a huge area of interest, in part because of MGM and the needs of its huge workforce, but also because of rising activity levels in general and growing anticipation that the city will soon become, if it isn’t already, a landing spot for younger people and empty-nesters alike.
Evan Plotkin, a principal with NAI Plotkin and long-time champion of downtown Springfield, noted the purchase of the former Willys-Overland building in the so-called ‘blast zone’ by Boston-based Davenport Advisors LLC, and that company’s acquisition of the old Registry of Motor Vehicles site, possibly for the same use, as harbingers of things to come.
“I’m seeing a lot of developers coming in looking to develop residential,” he said. “I see tremendous potential for new developments in parts of our city that have been stagnant for a long time, including areas on the fringes of downtown and in the downtown itself.”
While interest in potential housing development grows, the cannabis industry is the source of much of the activity downtown.
The brokers we spoke with said they’ve been showing multiple sites to groups interested in all facets of this business, from cultivation to retail. And while sites across the city are being explored — as many as 15 sites might become licensed in Springfield — the downtown is becoming the focal point.
“Things have been crazy for the past two years when it comes to this business,” he said, adding that he’s brokered the sale of sites for marijuana-related businesses in Holyoke and Easthampton. “Now, the focus is shifting to Springfield and the downtown area; people are trying to line up sites.”
Lopez concurred, noting that there is a broad mix of local, national, and even international companies looking to start a cannabis dispensary or cultivation site in this region, with many focused on Springfield and an initiative known as the Opportunity Zone Program.
Created as part of the U.S. Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, the program provides incentives for investment in low-income communities, like Springfield. Individuals and groups looking to develop in these designated geographic areas can gain favorable tax treatment on their capital gains, said Lopez, adding that he has worked with several owners and investors in the city’s Opportunity Zone.
The purchase of 1665 Main St. falls into this category, he said, noting that the acquisition is a good example of investors jockeying for position through options, leases, or outright purchases.
And the race for cannabis locations should provide a substantial boost for owners of properties downtown, said Plotkin, noting that prices are moving higher as interest grows, in a movement that echoes what happened when MGM Springfield and other casino-industry players jockeyed to enter this market.
“When you were dealing with a casino developer, like MGM or the other parties interested in Springfield, there was what we all referred to as the ‘casino rate,’” he explained. “They’ll pay more for real estate than the average buyer will.
“In the case of a marijuana dispensary, because the business is so lucrative, they will pay a lot more rent per square foot,” he went on, noting that a ‘marijuana rate’ is taking shape. “Rents that may have been $15 a square foot a year ago … for a marijuana shop, we’re taking about $20 to $25 per square foot, and in some cases more, depending on where it is.”
As for what the cannabis industry might mean for Springfield, Plotkin, who has traveled extensively, expressed some hope that the city might someday become somewhat like Amsterdam, a city famous for its culture, nightlife, and countless shops selling marijuana, other drugs, and related paraphernalia.
“I think Amsterdam is a great example of just how the very liberal nature of that city has led to incredible street life in that town that’s very safe,” he said. “Amsterdam is a great city, one of the most vibrant cities in the world, and maybe we can learn from its example.”
Whether Springfield can become anything approaching Amsterdam — as a tourist destination or cannabis hotspot — remains to be seen.
For the time being, it is a hotspot when it comes to its commercial real-estate market.
There is interest and activity unlike anything that’s been seen in decades, and the consensus is that this pattern will likely continue and perhaps even intensify.
Springfield and its downtown have become the right place at the right time.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
Making a Big Splash
More than five years after Palmer residents rejected a casino proposal for a huge tract of land just off Turnpike exit 8, the property is back in the news, this time as the planned site of a $650 million water park, resort spa, and sports complex.
It’s the most basic tenet in commercial real estate.
Location, location, location.
Since the Massachusetts Turnpike opened in 1957, the large tract of land sitting atop the hill overlooking the exit 8 ramp in Palmer has always possessed that coveted quality. But over the ensuing 60-plus years, little has been done to capitalize on it.
Indeed, among the more than 20 exits on the Pike, exit 8 is arguably the least developed. There’s a small gas station and attached convenience store just off the exit ramp, but one has to go a half mile left or right to find much commercial development, and even then there isn’t much.
Still, Northeast Development saw the enormous potential in the property more than 20 years ago, and first obtained an option on more than 200 acres owned by the late John Lizak — who owned several properties within the town — and later acquired it outright soon after casino-gambling legislation was passed in the Commonwealth.
An opportunity to place a casino, proposed by the owners of Mohegan Sun, at the site went by the boards in 2013, when Palmer residents rejected a casino referendum, but now the property is the focus of another high-profile initiative — one on almost the same scale as the MGM casino eventually placed in the South End of Springfield.
“I remember being at a meeting with them and hearing them say, ‘this is a hot idea — irrespective of the casino, water parks are hot commodities if they’re done right.’”
And, ironically, it’s a concept that actually became part of the rejected casino proposal — a water park.
Or a water park on a much, much larger scale, to be more specific. This would be a $650 million water park resort and spa, featuring everything from a man-made tubing river (if constructed as planned, it would be the longest in the country) to batting cages to athletic fields.
“As the casino competition started heating up, everyone was putting something new into what they were doing,” said Paul Robbins, president of Paul Robbins Assoc., a Wilbraham-based marketing and public-relations firm and spokesperson for the Palmer Sports Group. His firm has also represented Northeast Development for many years. “Doug Flutie was going to be part of Ameristar [one of the casinos proposed for Springfield], and MGM was touting its entertainment. That’s also when Mohegan introduced the concept of a water park.
“And I remember being at a meeting with them, and hearing them say, ‘this is a hot idea — irrespective of the casino, water parks are hot commodities if they’re done right.’”
Those at Palmer Sports Group obviously feel the same way.
Led by Winthop ‘Trip’ Knox, who has been involved with the design and construction of more than 3,000 water-related facilities for water parks, resorts, and deluxe hotels, and Michael D’Amato, who managed the construction of the later stages of the Foxwoods Resort Casino, including the Grand Pequot Tower, the group is thinking big.
As in very big.
Indeed, the complex will feature indoor and outdoor sports facilities, a resort hotel, and two indoor water parks, as well as an indoor hockey and basketball facility, an indoor sports bubble, a baseball complex, soccer and mixed-use fields, beach-volleyball courts, restaurants, and on-site townhomes.
There is demand for all of the above, said Robbins, adding that there isn’t anything like this in the Northeast, and the developers expect to draw visitors from a 300-mile radius and do so for at least 10 months out of the year; yes, the water in the tubing river will be heated.
“The developers believe there are 25 million people in the catchment area for this facility,” said Robbins, who used the phrases ‘Disney-esque’ and ‘think Orlando’ a number of times as he talked about just what is being proposed for the Palmer site.
Elaborating, he said there will be a large water park attached to the resort complex (again, like the Disney parks) that become part of the package of staying at that facility. There will also be second water park for day trippers, as well as a host of other facilities.
Robbins said the Palmer site, while somewhat remote (which explains the lack of development at and around the exit 8 interchange), lies roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester and is easily accessible to several major population centers. And that has made it a hot property, as they say in this business, for some time.
“When Mohegan signed on, I had a number of meetings with them, and they absolutely loved that site,” said Robbins. “They loved it because [then-Gov.] Deval Patrick said he wasn’t thrilled about casinos going to urban areas; his vision was for a bucolic, ‘drive to the destination, stay a few nights’ type of resort, and that’s what Mohegan is. But the location is also ideal.”
So much so that Northeast pursued a number of different development opportunities for the site, but eventually returned to the concept that grew out of the casino proposal and may eventually replace it as Palmer biggest hope to replace the many manufacturing jobs that were lost there over the past few decades and bring new vibrancy to the community.
Preliminary estimates call for 2,000 jobs, said Robbins, adding that the project might well become a synergistic complement to the recently opened MGM Springfield, offering people from outside the region more reason to come to the Bay State, and specifically Western Mass., for an extended stay.
At present, there is no timetable for the development, said Robbins, adding that the Palmer Sports Group is working with town officials to secure the necessary approvals and make the project a reality.
— George O’Brien
Lots of Potential
Valet parking isn’t exactly a novel concept; banquet halls, restaurants, and hospitals have been offering that service for years, if not decades. But it is when it comes to downtown Springfield’s office towers. One Financial Plaza recently introduced the concept, and in a few weeks, it is living up the promise first foreseen a decade ago.
Evan Plotkin says he first conceived of the idea of instituting valet parking at 1350 Main St. in downtown Springfield — the office tower he co-owns — almost 10 years ago.
Then, as now, he thought the service would bring a needed, higher level of convenience to people visiting professionals and other tenants in the tower, take some off the rough edge off Springfield when it comes to the issues of parking and enforcement of same — matters that can keep some from even venturing into the city to do business — and be another selling point when it comes to attracting new tenants and prompting existing tenants to re-up.
So why did it take a decade for the concept to become reality and, according to early projections, fulfill all that promise?
“I couldn’t really afford it back then,” said Plotkin, who laughed as he said that but was nonetheless quite serious with his tone. But there were other reasons as well, ranging from the economy — that was the height of the recession — to some logistics (getting all the needed approvals from the city), to a vibrancy level that needed to still come up a notch for this to really work. Or two notches. Or three.
All of those issues, including the notches of vibrancy, are now being referred to with the past tense, or certainly will be when MGM Springfield opens its doors in a month. So Plotkin and the other owners of 1350 Main have made that dream from a decade ago a reality, and they’re off to a fast start, by Plotkin’s estimates, with this valet parking venture, which also serves visitors of neighboring City Hall, the county courthouse a block or so away, and other nearby facilities, at the start of this month.
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That was the Fourth of July week, as you’ll recall, so the numbers have to be kept in perspective, said Plotkin, adding that those first few days, the attendants were parking 25 to 30 cars a day. By early the next week, the numbers had doubled, and on July 12, a Thursday, they parked 73 cars.
“And I think those numbers will just continue to grow as more people become aware of the service,” said Plotkin, adding that roughly half of the customers thus far have been visitors to City Hall, more than a third have ventured to 1350 Main, and the rest have had other destinations in mind.
The service, managed by Valet Park of America, is roughly as expensive as traditional parking, said Plotkin, noting that the cost is $2 for 20 minutes or less (enough time for a quick visit to tenants at 1350 Main or offices in City Hall), $4 for visits ranging from 20 minutes to two hours (enough time to go the gym on the building’s ninth floor), and $2 for each additional hour after that. Several tenants at 1350 Main already provide vouchers to visitors to cover the cost of the service, just as they would with normal parking.
The service, operated on what’s known as City Hall Place, has a few spaces right outside City Hall, roughly two dozen more in the Civic Center Parking Garage, and more in the lots under I-91, said Plotkin, adding that, with the way the concept is catching on, more may be needed.
This isn’t exactly a novel idea — valet parking has been used by banquet facilities, restaurants, and hospitals for years now. But it is for an office tower, at least in this market, said Plotkin, adding that, as he surveyed a changing landscape downtown and pending changes, especially MGM, he decided it was time to execute that plan he first conceived all those years ago.
“We looked at what was happening downtown, and the construction for MGM and the [I-91] viaduct creates a lot of conversation about parking, and it’s always pretty negative,” he explained. “I really wanted to get ahead of all that with our building.”
Elaborating, he said 1350 Main St. doesn’t have any structured parking (an attached garage or lot) and has historically been challenged by having to rely on nearly facilities. And with MGM set to open, that challenge, and the perception of parking issues, would only grow.
“Visitors there will utilize that garage, but they’ll also be looking for other places to park,” he noted. “And what happens is that regular people who just want to do business downtown will have this fear that it’s going to be challenging to find a space. People will say, ‘it’s a hassle; I don’t want to feed a meter all day.’”
Thus far, the service is doing just what he thought it would. It’s providing that layer of convenience for visitors, his tenants seem to like the service and consider it added value, and, in Plotkin’s mind, it’s helping to put a friendlier face on downtown Springfield.
Or at least a strong counter to the parking patrol that polices the central business district. Those individuals are just doing their jobs, he said, but they put visitors to the downtown area and his building on edge — and sometimes dent their wallet.
Valet service is “putting a positive face on parking in Springfield,” said Plotkin, who has been a tireless promoter and supporter of Springfield and especially and its downtown, and was recognized by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2018 for those efforts. “There’s a negative connotation with those meter maids. People don’t like to get $50 tickets; they see those people coming, and they run out of the middle of a meeting or a lunch to put quarters in the meter.”
He said the arrival of MGM Springfield will certainly drive the numbers at the valet service higher and bring the business venture closer to and eventually past the break-even point he knew he couldn’t reach a decade ago.
Damien Denesha, recently named manager of this site by his employer, Valley Park of America, agreed.
“Once MGM opens, there will be a lot more people downtown, and parking will become more difficult,” he told BusinessWest. “Demand for this service will certainly grow.”
It took a decade for the concept Plotkin first put on paper to become reality. But thus far, the service seems to have, well, lots of potential, in every sense of that phrase.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]