Commercial Real Estate Coronavirus Special Coverage

Questions Cloud Future of Commercial Real-estate Market

A Matter of Speculation

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky is transforming 14,000 square feet of what was retail space into Venture X, a co-working concept, one of many signs of change within the region’s commercial real-estate market.

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.

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square in recent months, with new leases signed for both retail and office space.

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.”

Bottom Line

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]

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