NAIOP Mourns the Loss of Howard Elkus

elkus

The  real estate industry is mourning the loss of an extraordinary professional, Howard Elkus, who passed away April 1st in Palm Beach, Florida. Howard co-founded the firm Elkus Manfredi Architects in 1988 in Boston, specializing in workplace design, large-scale developments, and urban planning. Under his and David Manfredi’s leadership, the firm has worked on signature projects throughout the United States and around the world.

Probably, no other firm has had such an impact on the cityscape of Boston over the last 10 boom years, while also spearheading major global commissions.

On its website on April 3, the firm released a statement:

“It is with great sadness that we share news of the unexpected passing of Howard Elkus. We grieve the loss of Howard as a co-founder of our firm, as a visionary architect, as a mentor, and as a friend. We extend our condolences to his wife, children, and immediate family. Information regarding conveying condolences and participating in remembrances is forthcoming. Our sincere appreciation for your concern and expressions of sadness.”

Howard was warm, creative, caring, and loved what he did. All of us who had the privilege of working with him will feel his loss on a daily basis, but we will always be reminded of his influence as we walk the city he loved.

A Housing Plan That Works

The business community is generally a bit skeptical when it comes to grand plans to cure critical deficiencies in the marketplace. One of the most pressing problems for Boston, and many other major cities around the country, is the lack of affordable housing and the inflationary pressures on existing housing stock. In 2014, Mayor Marty Walsh commissioned a new housing plan to confront the city’s problem of a population growth outpacing its production of housing.

The plan that resulted set a target of 53,000 new housing units to help rebalance the market and decrease the pressure on rents and housing prices in the city’s older (and more affordable) housing stock.

Through a cross department plan allowing for streamlined and expedited permitting, expanding the offerings of city-owned real estate, promoting innovation in housing production, and adding significant resources to housing production, the city has worked collaboratively with the development community to achieve real, measurable success.

Through December 2016, nearly 20,000 units were either completed or in construction. Over 21,000 units are currently in the permitting process. Housing unit completions have finally outpaced the city’s population growth.

Has the housing plan worked? For the first time in many years, rents in older units decreased or stabilized in the neighborhoods with the most new development in the past 5 years. The sharpest decreases were with studios and one bedrooms, with two bedroom units seeing modest decreases and three bedrooms rents stabilizing.

It is a serious challenge to develop a program to create new affordable, work-force housing without deep subsidies. However, we can now see that producing new market rate units can actually dampen the inflationary trends for the existing older housing stock. As long as the city can continue to work closely with the development community to keep the housing pipeline flowing, we may be able to keep Boston accessible to everyone.

Federal Court Rejects Lawsuit to Force Stormwater Permits in the Charles River Watershed

The following is a guest post by Hamilton Hackney of Greenberg Traurig regarding the recent decision in CLF v. EPA. NAIOP is extremely pleased with the decision in this case, which we had been following closely. NAIOP will continue to monitor stormwater issues at the state and federal levels on behalf of the commercial real estate industry.

Last week, the federal district court dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force USEPA to create a permitting program for stormwater discharges in the Charles River watershed.  Filed by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Charles River Watershed Association, the suit claimed that USEPA had a mandatory duty to require commercial and institutional properties that discharged stormwater to obtain permits to do so.  If successful, this suit would have forced commercial and institutional property owners to obtain permits, develop stormwater control plans and possibly design and install additional stormwater controls on their properties.

The suit invoked USEPA’s so-called Residual Designation Authority in the Clean Water Act. Although this authority has been exercised very infrequently to date, environmental groups are increasingly citing this statutory authorization as a basis for demanding that USEPA expand regulation of stormwater beyond industrial sources, construction sites and municipal stormwater systems.  In this particular case, the environmental groups argued that USEPA’s approval of “pollution budgets” (Total Daily Maximum Loads or TMDLs) for the Charles River obligated USEPA to regulate previously unregulated stormwater discharges to ensure that the TMDLs were achieved.  Given the hundreds of existing or proposed TMDLs in Massachusetts alone, that position could have far-reaching consequences for commercial and institutional real estate in the many watersheds with TMDLs.

The federal district court’s dismissal of this lawsuit follows another federal court decision last December in a similar case in Rhode Island.  Together, these decisions indicate that courts remain reluctant to intrude on USEPA’s discretion to choose when and how it may exercise its Residual Designation Authority.  While that is an encouraging outcome, these decisions are likely to be appealed, so there may be more developments on this issue.

MBTA On Track to a First Class System

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The MBTA has come a long way from the winter of 2015! With the formation of the Fiscal and Management Control Board and the waiver of the Pacheco law (regarding privatization), the T has reduced its operating expenses substantially, allowing more money to go to critical capital improvements. The growth in operating expenses averaged 5% annually over the last 15 years (against a 2% annual increase in revenue during the same period), but, for the first time, showed negative expense growth in 2016, with zero growth projected for 2017!

The reforms are working and consumer ratings are up. Here are some of the changes over the past 18 months that have been implemented to put the MBTA on a fiscally sustainable path:

  • Introduced monthly financial targets and manager accountability
  • Moved MBTA onto statewide contracts and payroll system
  • Streamlined corporate HQ/admin positions with 30% reduction
  • Strengthened and enforced overtime and attendance policies
  • Modernized cash-handling & warehouse through contracting
  • Restructured Carmen’s Union contract work-rules and wage rates
  • Launched Uber/Lyft and Taxi paratransit pilots
  • Restructured and refinanced debt portfolio; locked electricity rates
  • Rebid parking/advertising and raised system-wide fares
  • $100M winter resiliency investments / $140M in capital lock-box

In addition, the MBTA is in the process of privatizing the “cash room” operation and the manual route scheduling system. Both of these are projected to save the T over $12.2 million annually.

Another example of reforms is the pilot project for “The Ride”, providing access to the disabled community. An average ride has cost the T $46; however, the pilot using Lyft/Uber brought the cost down to $8.98. Along with that, consumer satisfaction shot to 79%. The transit industry standard is 12% and the MBTA, as a whole, has been a -1%.

The next proposal in front of the FMCB will be the privatization of Bus Maintenance.  A privatized machinists staffing is projected to be based on 200K miles per machinist versus 100k miles for the current MBTA staffing (requiring half of the current maintenance staff).

NAIOP has been a strong supporter of MBTA reforms and has been a part of a broad business and municipal “Fix Our T” coalition. We encourage the administration and the control board to continue bringing efficiency and cost savings to the T, while investing in its capital plan, providing the riders and the tax payers with a first class transit system.

With the Boston CPA Approved, How Should the Program be Administered?

Boston residents voted to adopt the Community Preservation Act by an overwhelming majority in November. The CPA is designed to create affordable housing, and preserve open space and historic sites through the creation of a local Community Preservation Fund. A one percent real estate tax surcharge on commercial and residential properties will go into this fund and will be administered by a nine-member Community Preservation Committee appointed by the city. Of the money generated by the CPA, at least 10 percent must be allocated to housing, 10 percent to open spaces, and 10 percent to historic preservation. The remaining 70 percent can be allocated to any one of those three uses at a different rate.

The City Council is responsible for creating the ordinance that will establish the Community Preservation Committee (CPC). The ordinance would establish the CPC’s composition, length of member terms, the method of selecting its members, and outline the responsibilities of the CPC.

NAIOP suggests that the CPC could be tasked with establishing the annual percentage allocations among the three categories of investments. Those budgets could then be provided to the City agencies best positioned, staffed, and experienced to review the proposals submitted through a “Request For Proposals” (RFP) process. The agencies’ recommendations for grants could then be reviewed by the CPC prior to submission to the Mayor and the City Council for final approval. This system would utilize the established expertise within the City agencies, rather than creating a parallel “review process” that might be limited by staffing and funding.

With respect to housing, it would be unusual for a CPC grant to be sufficient to fund new housing, rather than being a gap participant in the more complex financing structure. In that case, the Department of Neighborhood Development would be better suited to determine where these funds could best leverage the most housing (a similar arrangement exists under Somerville’s CPA). Again, their recommendations would still need to be approved by the City Council and the Mayor.

As with any new program, the devil is in the details.  For this to succeed, it is essential for the City to develop a rational, transparent, and cost effective process. Only then will the CPA be of the greatest good to Boston.

Immigration is a major driver of our economy

immigrationOn Friday, President Trump signed an executive order on immigration and refugees. It establishes federal travel restrictions stopping the issuance of visas to Syrian nationals, suspends all immigration from seven Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries for 90 days, and extending the ban to citizens of those countries who hold U.S. visas or green cards.

There has been limited impact of this Executive Order on the real estate industry in Massachusetts. That said, besides the obvious humanitarian crisis that this only exacerbates, our region is dependent on, and benefits greatly from, the diverse immigration into our schools and industries. Our domestic population has never been able to fully meet the demands of our growing businesses, with almost every economic boom fueled by immigration.

Historically, refugees have contributed greatly to our Commonwealth. They are an integral part of our engine of innovation, working for our local companies and, in many cases, starting their own businesses, hiring many of our young, skilled resident talent.

We encourage the Trump administration to reconsider this abrupt change in policy.

My Top Ten Predictions for 2017

2017

2016 has been another great year for the commercial real estate industry.

Can we keep it going through 2017?  Here are my predictions for the coming year:

  1. Cap rates will finally start to rise in the Boston/Cambridge markets.
  2. A new Fortune 500 corporate HQ will relocate to Boston.
  3. Apartment construction starts will drop in downtown Boston.
  4. The Dow Jones Industrials will finish the year down.
  5. Fed interest rates will be raised twice.
  6. Foreign investment will increase as a percentage of total CRE sales in Boston.
  7. There will be a noticeable business migration from 495 to 128, 128 to Boston, and Cambridge to Boston.
  8. Drones will pilot consumer product delivery.
  9. An infrastructure bill will pass Congress and be signed by the President.
  10. No viable candidate will step forward to run against Mayor Walsh.

Bonus prediction:  Patriots will win the Super Bowl (I’ll be right this time!)

Below were my predictions for 2016. Okay, I blew the Patriots, but 2017 is a new year!

  1. Neither casino (Springfield and Everett) will get their final clearances and will certainly not start construction.
  2. The Fed will make another move up in the interest rates.
  3. Foreign investment will dominate investments in commercial properties in the Greater Boston area, but local buyers will still be the major high-end condo buyer.
  4. The Green Line extension will be redesigned at a lower projected cost and will move forward.
  5. Some Boston or Cambridge office leases will hit $90 PSF gross.
  6. The Northern Avenue Bridge will be approved to accommodate vehicular access.
  7. A major office lease will be penned for either of the spec Seaport buildings (Pier 4 or 121 Seaport Boulevard).
  8. A developer will be selected for the Winthrop Square garage site.
  9. Patriots win the Super Bowl!
  10. The Republican presidential convention will not reach consensus on the first 5 ballots.