COVID-19 Update: Governor Baker Announces Phase 3 Start Date, Amends E.O. Tolling State Permits; SJC Releases Updated Operations Order; DPU Begins Energy Relief Plan for C&I Customers; MBTA Announces Flex Pass Pilot

Governor Baker Announces Phase 3 Start Date

Today Governor Baker announced that Phase 3 will begin on Monday, July 6. While Phase 3 is anticipated to be in place until there is an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, Governor Baker indicated that Phase 3 will be implemented in two steps.

Businesses allowed to reopen at this point in Phase 3 include but are not limited to:

  • Fitness Centers and Health Clubs
  • Museums and Aquariums
  • Movie Theaters and Performance Halls (at limited capacity)
  • Casinos (with additional minimum protocols set by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission)

Additionally, the Baker-Polito Administration has updated the guidance related to gatherings. The new guidance related to indoor gatherings will allow eight people per 1000SF, with a maximum of 25 people. Outdoor enclosed gatherings will be limited to 25% of the capacity, with a maximum of 100 people. This updated guidance will be effective Monday, July 6, except for the City of Boston, where it will be implemented Monday, July 13. For all guidance, orders and updates related to the Commonwealth’s reopening plan please visit: www.mass.gov/reopening

Governor Baker Amends State Permit Tolling Order

This morning, Governor Baker signed an Executive Order rescinding and replacing his March 26 Order to suspend relevant permitting deadlines and extend out the validity of state permits.

Importantly, this updated order addressed NAIOP’s significant concerns with the previous order’s appeals language. In the updated order, any individual whose right to appeal would have expired between March 10, 2020 and July 1, 2020 shall have until August 10, 2020 to proceed with their appeal. Any person whose right to appeal expires after July 1, 2020 will be held to the regular or statutory deadline, or by August 10, 2020, whichever is later.

NAIOP advocated strongly for this Executive Order given the extraordinary impact of the previous order on projects throughout the Commonwealth, and we were pleased to see our concerns addressed in the final language. A huge thank you to the NAIOP members who provided their expertise and insight throughout this process.

SJC Releases Updated Order Regarding Court Operations

On June 24, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued an order further staying certain hearings and trials and limiting court house access until at least July 13, 2020. In addition, the order affirmed that there will be no further extensions of deadlines or civil statutes of limitations beyond June 30, 2020, “unless there is a new surge in COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth and the SJC determines a new or extended tolling period is needed) and that appeal periods on local permits will begin to run on July 1, 2020.

DPU Begins Energy Relief Plan for Commercial and Industrial Customers

On June 26, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) approved the commencement of a program designed to assist companies that have fallen into arrears on gas or electricity payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Full implementation of the program will begin after the March 10 State of Emergency is lifted and current customer protections expire. The Customer Outreach Plan will consist of four phases. You can read the full order by clicking here. Any company having trouble paying their electric or gas bills due to COVID-19 should contact their distribution company for further information.

MBTA Announces Five-Day Flex Pass Pilot for Commuter Rail mTicket

Yesterday, July 1, the MBTA began the new Five-day Flex Pass on mTicket pilot, a program designed to allow greater flexibility for commuter rail passengers as employers and employees explore staggered schedules and telework policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pilot will take place from July 1 – September 30, 2020 and is only available within the mTicket app. Once purchased, the Flex Pass provides five one-day passes that can be used at any time in a 30-day period. This pass, available for all zones and interzones, is a 10% discount when compared to five round-trip tickets.

COVID-19 Update: Boston Announces Office Reopening Framework

Today, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a new framework for all office spaces located within Boston. Starting June 1, office spaces located within the City of Boston will be required to limit capacity to no more than 25 percent of the maximum occupancy level during phase 1. This framework is in place as an operational recommendation to be used as a reference in line with Federal and State-wide mandates.

These operational recommendations apply to operations during Phase 1 of the Commonwealth’s phased reopening plan, and are subject to revision and modification during subsequent phases or as necessitated by public health considerations. The City’s operational recommendations include, but are not limited to:

  • Identify and clearly communicate a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 and the impact to the workplace.
  • Providing personal protective gear for any employee whose job functions requires it, as identified in the hazard assessment, including training on how to put on and remove equipment safely.
  • Limiting the number of people in an elevator at a time to no more than four. All individuals must wear face coverings in elevators, except where unsafe due to medical condition or disability.
  • Stair usage should be limited to one direction (down) except in cases of emergency.
  • Regular sanitization of handrails, buttons, door handles and other high-touch frequency areas.
  • Establish accommodation and leave policies for employees that are consistent with federal standards.

We encourage all of our members and member-organizations to review the City’s framework. These operational recommendations incorporate the Commonwealth’s Sector Specific Workplace Safety Standards for Office Spaces and supplement them with recommendations based on guidance from the CDC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and industry associations to offer best practices for preparing and returning to the physical workplace, preparing your workforce, and ensuring continuity of operations. NAIOP presented to the City regarding Industry Best Practices and we are pleased to see that many of our recommendations have been incorporated into this guidance.

The Mayor has made it very clear that the City hope’s employees who can work from home continue to do so throughout this recovery in order to limit potential exposure and allow for a successful and resilient reopening.

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.

COVID-19 Update: Governor Announces Reopening Plan – Construction Restarts and Office Space Reopening Standards Released

Today, the Baker-Polito Administration released its plan for reopening the Massachusetts Economy. Please visit mass.gov/reopening to review the full report, general business guidance, sector guidance, mandatory employer and worker posters, and FAQs on the 4-Phase Reopening Plan. In order to reopen, all businesses must develop a written COVID-19 Control Plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Phase One will allow the following (with restrictions, some capacity limitations, staggered start):

  • On May 18: Essential businesses; Manufacturing; Construction
  • On May 25: Lab space; Office space (outside of Boston); Limited Personal Services (hair; pet grooming; car washes); Retail (remote fulfillment; curbside pick-up)
  • On June 1: Office space in Boston

Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer depending upon public-health data.

All Construction Included in Phase 1 Reopening Announcement

Governor Baker announced that effective today all construction (including office, retail, etc.) will be allowed to proceed if the appropriate documentation and safety standards and guidance are in place (in addition to any local requirements or restrictions). 

In addition to the mandatory safety standards for all industries announced on May 11 regarding social distancing, hygiene, staffing and operations, and sanitization, the Baker-Polito Administration today released construction-specific mandatory safety standards and guidance. The requirements must be in place before reopening a site, and include but are not limited to:

  • Keeping all crews a minimum of six feet apart at all times to eliminate the potential of cross-contamination
  • No in-person meetings of more than 10 people
  • Where social distancing is impossible, employers will be required to supply PPE including, as appropriate, a standard face covering, gloves and eye protection.
  • The elimination of large gathering places on site such as shacks and break areas, allowing instead for small break areas with limited seating available to ensure social distancing.
  • The designation of a site-specific COVID-19 Officer (who may also be the Health and Safety Officer) for every site except for construction and remodeling work in one to three family residences. This Officer shall certify that the contractor and all subcontractors are in full compliance with the COVID-19 safety requirements for construction.

The construction-specific requirements and guidance allows cities and towns to require additional site-specific risk analysis and safety plans.

Construction in the City of Boston

Also starting today, May 18, the City of Boston will allow a subset of construction projects on sites that meet specific criteria to commence (hospitals, public schools, 1-3 unit residential buildings, road and utility work or other outdoor/open-air work such as steel erection). On May 26, all construction projects in Boston may re-commence construction, if the construction site has submitted a COVID-19 Safety Plan and a COVID-19 Safety Affidavit in accordance with the City’s Temporary Guidance for Construction

Office Space Reopening

Starting May 25, the Administration will allow office space to reopen at 25% of capacity, except in the City of Boston, which will allow office space to reopen on June 1. NAIOP has been in talks with the City and we will keep members posted if any additional standards for offices are released. The Baker-Polito Administration has released guidance for office spaces ahead of the May 25 date so that companies are able to review and plan for reopening. The guidance released includes a COVID-19 checklist and mandatory sector-specific safety standards.

The Administration has made it very clear that they hope employees who can work from home continue to do so throughout this recovery in order to limit potential exposure and allow for a successful and resilient reopening.

Plan for Public Transit Released

The MBTA has remained open throughout this public health crisis, and will continue to provide service as adjusted to prioritize essential travel for healthcare and emergency workers. All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding public transit. Stations and vehicles will continue to be cleaned and sanitized with increased frequency, and customers should board at the rear doors of buses and street-level trolley stops. Seniors and individuals with disabilities may still board at the front door if needed. 

COVID-19 Update: Boston Announces Incremental Start to Construction

On May 5, City of Boston announced it will be taking an incremental approach to broadening the allowable categories of construction. Effective May 5, all essential construction projects (as defined by the state, which currently means residential, hospitals, public schools, mixed use with residential, public works and construction related to COVID-19) with approved safety plans and signed affidavits as required under the COVID-19 Safety Policy for Construction will be authorized to prepare the site with project specific COVID-19 safety measures.

As of May 18, the City of Boston will allow a subset of essential construction projects on sites that meet specific criteria to commence (hospitals, public schools, 1-3 unit residential buildings, road and utility work or other outdoor/open-air work such as steel erection). On May 26, all essential construction projects as defined by the state may re-commence construction in adherence to safety plans.

At no time will the City of Boston permit any construction beyond what is allowed by the Commonwealth. DPW and ISD will continue to monitor and enforce the COVID-19 Safety Plans for Construction. In accordance with the signed affidavit, contractors acknowledge and agree that non-compliance with any requirements may result in suspension of termination of work in progress of revocation of the City’s permit for such work.

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.

COVID 19 Update: Eviction Legislation Before Senate, Clarity on Construction Moratoriums and Other Issues Affecting CRE

Construction Moratoriums and Guidance

In recent days, there has been a great deal of confusion over construction moratoriums at the state and local level. We hope the following summary, which reflects the latest information, provides some clarity.

State: On Tuesday, March 31, the Baker-Polito Administration updated the construction related guidance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new guidance limits “essential” construction to housing and critical infrastructure activities. Under the revised list, private nonresidential construction is not considered essential (unless it falls within one of the specified exemptions). As of noon, April 1, only housing projects (including mixed use with housing, infrastructure projects and construction related to COVID-19 can proceed. On April 2, the state updated the FAQ page to answer questions on this issue. The state also issued supplemental guidelines to limit COVID-19 exposures on construction sites and additional guidance outlining the enforcement of COVID-19 safety guidelines. It specifically states that “for all private projects the primary enforcement responsibility rests with the city or town.”

Local: Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and numerous other cities and towns have issued a halt to all construction until further notice. Companies should maintain the crews necessary to make sure sites are “safe and secure.”  On April 5, Mayor Walsh asked that even if a job is one of the few that is allowed to move forward under current guidelines, companies should consider shutting down. In addition, effective April 2, Cambridge issued its own construction guidance

Commercial and Residential Eviction Moratorium Legislation

On Thursday, April 2, the House passed H. 4615, An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency. The bill provides eviction moratoriums for both commercial and residential tenants. The bill is now before the Senate, where a vote is expected on April 9.

Property Tax Update

As part of Chapter 53 of the Acts of 2020, the municipal relief bill signed by Governor Baker on April 3, municipalities are allowed to extend the due date of quarterly taxes to June 1st.  
 
The City of Cambridge announced it is extending the due date for Second Half Real Estate and Property Tax bills until June 1, 2020. In addition, interest and other penalties on late payments made on Excise Tax and water/sewer bills with due dates after March 10, 2020 will be waived if payments are made before June 30, 2020. It is our understanding that this applies to both residential and commercial.
 
The City of Boston has extended the due date for property tax bills in Boston until June 1st to give residents more flexibility during the ongoing public health crisis caused by COVID-19. It is our understanding this only applies to residential.

BPDA Covid-19 Response

The BPDA is postponing all BPDA-hosted public meetings regarding Article 80 development projects and planning studies until further notice. While projects will continue to be reviewed internally by BPDA staff, the public review process for both Article 80 development projects and the BPDA’s planning studies is on hold until public meetings can be resumed. If you are a landlord or tenant of the BPDA’s housing program, please visit the BPDA’s housing page for information and resources. As the BPDA’s response to Covid-19 continues to evolve, please check this page or follow @bostonplans on Twitter for updated guidance.

COVID-19 Massachusetts Relief Fund

On April 6, Governor Charlie Baker and First Lady Lauren Baker announced the launch of the COVID-19 Massachusetts Relief Fund. It is designed to support organizations assisting Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents, frontline health care workers, and other essential service providers.  Donations are needed and encouraged.
 

COVID 19 Update: Governor Signs Bill Tolling Local Permits and Other Issues Affecting CRE

Governor Signs Bill Tolling Municipal Permits

Today, Governor Baker signed H.4598, An Act to address challenges faced by municipalities and state authorities resulting from COVID-19. This bill addresses many challenges faced by local governments throughout the Commonwealth during this time and includes language that addresses the tolling of local permits and is supported by the Mass Municipal Association, NAIOP MA, and the Home Builders & Remodelers Association. The language, found in Section 17 provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are unable to timely process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, these changes balance the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that their current permits are no impaired by the emergency declaration. 

House Passes Commercial and Residential Eviction Moratorium

On Thursday, April 2, the House passed H. 4615, An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency . The bill enacts eviction moratoriums for both commercial and residential tenants. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Small Business Administration Clarifies Paycheck Protection Program

Late yesterday, the Small Business Administration (SBA) issued an interim final rule that provides additional guidelines and requirements for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aiding small businesses affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The interim rule provides increased clarity on several key issues. It specifies underwriting expectations and allows lenders to rely on borrower documentation for loan forgiveness without verification – if the borrower attests that it has accurately verified the payments for eligible costs. This provides increased protection for lenders should borrowers misrepresent information. Additionally, the guidance states that after seven weeks, lenders may request that SBA purchase the expected forgiveness amount of PPP loans. It also allows banks that are already certified as 7(a) lenders to begin approving loan applications with SBA delegated authority starting today, April 3.

Cambridge Issues Construction Guidance for Still-Active Sites

On the evening of April 2, the City of Cambridge released guidance for currently active construction sites. The guidance does not change the types of construction activities covered by the existing moratorium, issued on March 18. All contractors undertaking construction projects that have received approval from the Inspectional Services Department or the Department of Public Works to work during the Moratorium shall follow the City’s COVID-19 Construction Guidelines, and are strongly urged to review the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 Guidelines and Procedures for all Construction Sites and Workers. Inspectional Services or Public Works Departments may shut down job sites that are found to be in violation of the City’s COVID-19 Construction Guidelines.Additionally, larger construction sites may require more elaborate reports and worker training plans.

COVID 19 Update: Governor Limits Essential Construction to Housing & Infrastructure, Extends Non-Essential Business Closures

Today Governor Charlie Baker extended his emergency order to close non-essential businesses and his stay-at-home advisory until May 4. It requires all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public.  In addition, the Administration also updated the “COVID-19 Essential Services” categories. Of interest to NAIOP members, the list of “essential” construction related activities was modified so that only construction related to housing (including mixed use with housing) and critical infrastructure are now considered “essential.”  

The revised construction-related activities list is as follows:

-Workers performing housing construction related activities, including construction of mixed-use projects that include housing, to ensure additional units can be made available to combat the Commonwealth’s existing housing supply shortage.

Workers supporting the construction of housing, including those supporting government functions related to the building and development process, such as inspections, permitting and plan review services that can be modified to protect the public health, including allowing qualified private third-party inspections accountable to government agencies.

-Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, builders, contractors, HVAC Technicians, landscapers, inspectors and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, businesses and buildings such as hospitals, health care facilities, senior living facilities, and any temporary construction required to support COVID-19 response.

-Workers – including contracted vendors – who support the operation, inspection, maintenance and repair of essential public works facilities and operations, including roads and bridges, water and sewer, laboratories, fleet maintenance personnel, construction of critical or strategic infrastructure, traffic signal maintenance, emergency location services for buried utilities, and maintenance of digital systems infrastructure supporting public works operations. Critical or strategic infrastructure includes public works construction including construction of public schools, colleges and universities and construction of state facilities, including leased space, managed by the Division of Capital Asset Management; airport operations; water and sewer; gas, electrical, nuclear, oil refining and other critical energy services; roads and highways; public transportation; steam; solid waste and recycling collection and removal; and internet and telecommunications systems (including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services).

-Workers who support infrastructure, such as by road and line clearing and utility relocation, to ensure the availability of and access to needed facilities, transportation, energy and communications.   The previous definition of construction workers was as follows: “

Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)”.

Goulston & Storrs Files Amicus Brief on Behalf of NAIOP Massachusetts in Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA

Brief Urges SJC to Reject Appellate Court’s Decision on Standing

BOSTON, MA – Law firm Goulston & Storrs recently filed an amicus brief on behalf of NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, in the case of Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA.  The amicus brief urged the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn the lower court’s decision, which sided with the plaintiffs in the case.

NAIOP chose to pursue this opportunity because of concern that the Appeals Court’s decision in this case will, if allowed to stand, chill the development of commercial, industrial, and residential projects statewide by eliminating a meaningful requirement that plaintiffs in zoning cases must establish their standing with admissible evidence of harm to their interests protected by zoning.

“We are grateful to the incredible team at Goulston & Storrs for their work,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts. “Meritless appeals of zoning decisions are used all too frequently to delay and kill beneficial development projects. The decision in Murchison v. Sherborn ZBA will have far reaching implications for our industry. Making it easier for plaintiffs who are not injured to pursue zoning appeals will worsen the current housing shortage, hinder economic development projects, and eliminate a critical standing doctrine. For these reasons, we hope the SJC will overturn the Appeals Court decision.”

The Goulston & Storrs team involved in the matter includes Gary Ronan and Alana Rusin. 

Oral arguments will be held Thursday March 5.

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NAIOP Contact: Anastasia Nicolaou / 650-380-9440

About NAIOP

NAIOP Massachusetts, The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, represents the interests of companies involved with the development, ownership, management, and financing of commercial properties.  NAIOP’s 1,700 members are involved with more than 250 million square feet of office, research & development, industrial, mixed use, multifamily, retail and institutional space. In addition to providing education and networking opportunities, NAIOP advances the interests of the industry and advocates for effective public policy. For more information, visit www.naiopma.org.

About Goulston & Storrs

With over 200 lawyers across multiple disciplines, Goulston & Storrs is a real estate powerhouse with leading-edge corporate, litigation, tax, and private client and trust practices. We employ a team approach that values client outcomes first and foremost. The firm’s dedication to providing prompt, practical legal advice, cost-efficiently and tailored to our clients’ business needs, has resulted in Goulston & Storrs being acknowledged for excellence by leading industry, client, and peer rankings including Chambers USA, BTI’s A-Team for Client Service, and U.S. News & World Report Best Lawyers. Goulston & Storrs is an Am Law 200 law firm with offices in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

What Does 2020 Hold for CRE in Massachusetts? Companies Incorporate Real Estate as Recruitment Tool

By: Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts

The following first appeared in Banker & Tradesman on December 29, 2019.

The end of 2019 marks more than 10 years in the current real estate cycle. As we enter a new decade, now is a good time to take stock of current market conditions and make predictions for 2020. 

Experts are predicting continued, moderate, growth for 2020. Nationally, investor appetite for real estate remains strong and active in all sectors – retail, industrial, lab, office and housing. National vacancy rates are not showing signs of oversupply, and banks are remaining disciplined and conservative in their lending practices.  

While slow and steady job growth is expected, trade wars, political uncertainty and a labor shortage pose the biggest threats to continued economic growth. Market fundamentals remain strong, but such threats should be monitored closely given their potential to dramatically impact the market. 

Access to Talent Drives Market  

The Greater Boston market had an exceptionally strong year in 2019 with record rent growth and tenant demand. Boston remains one of the top markets for foreign investment. However, while continued growth in 2020 is expected, threats exist.   

Construction and land costs continue to soar, weakening returns and potentially threatening the feasibility of new projects. In the third quarter of 2019, Massachusetts real gross domestic product declined 0.2 percent according to MassBenchmarks, while U.S. real gross domestic product grew by 1.9 percent. A labor shortage, which is only expected to continue, is viewed as the single largest threat to the Massachusetts economy.  

At the recent NAIOP/SIOR Annual Market Forecast, which featured leading real estate experts who provided an analysis of the 2019 statistics and predictions for 2020, the need for access to a talented workforce – and what this means for real estate – was a major theme.   

Historically, tenant space was viewed as a cost center by employers, but it is now being used to attract and retain talent. While WeWork’s business model may have been flawed, it did have a dramatic impact on tenant expectations. Whether it’s beer on tap, game rooms or state-of-the-art fitness centers, employers are now using their space to gain a competitive edge when it comes to getting the best talent. This can be seen in the suburbs as well as Cambridge, Boston and surrounding markets, and it will continue in 2020. This all translates into a rising need for new or renovated space and an average tenant improvement allowance average of $5 per square foot. 

Looking Ahead to 2020  

As we enter a new decade, the Boston market remains strong with opportunities opening up beyond the urban core. Limited supply and high demand for lab space are fueling growth. With East Cambridge lab vacancy rates now at 0.8 percent, life science projects are moving forward in Watertown, Alewife, Allston/Brighton and Somerville, as well as Dorchester, the Seaport and South Boston. Cambridge’s success will also create opportunities for well-located suburban assets, particularly transit oriented development projects with the right amenity base.   

Unprecedented growth is expected to continue in the industrial sector. According to Rick Schuhwerk, executive managing director at Newmark Knight Frank, every $1 billion in online sales translates to 1.25 million square feet of new warehouse demand. The demand for “last-mile” facilities near high-density urban centers is driving up values. In the last five years, rents in core urban industrial space have more than doubled. In 2020, with online sales only expected to increase, vacancies will drop and rents will continue to rise. Spec developments are expected as well as a western migration of industrial space.  

On the housing front, according to Kelly Whitman, vice president of investment research at PGIM Real Estate, opportunities exist to upgrade and develop larger suburban apartments. Suburban apartment annual rent growth continues to outperform the urban, and, given changing demographics, a shift away from small units in the suburbs is expected. As the housing crunch continues, these areas outside of Boston’s core are vital to easing the pressure and providing middle income housing.  

On Tap on Beacon Hill 

Finally, while national economic and market indicators tell us that continued growth is expected next year, legislative and regulatory proposals at the state and local levels have the potential to significantly impact the market and should be watched closely. 

Housing: More housing production is needed to keep up with increased population growth. H.3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices, is targeted at lowering voting thresholds in key zoning votes, allowing for increased production of housing. If it is not passed before the end of the legislative session, anticipate a continued tightening of the housing market, statewide. 

Transportation: NAIOP believes that a functional, accessible transportation system is key to continued development and investment. As area residents and business owners know, congestion has gotten worse in Greater Boston. The Baker-Polito Administration recently filed the Transportation Bond Bill, (H.4002), outlining a capital plan for addressing gaps in transportation infrastructure statewide. Other legislative proposals to address transportation are expected in 2020.  

Fossil Fuel Bans: A number of communities are considering bans on natural gas connections in all new construction, which will likely halt development entirely. While addressing climate change must be a priority, it is critical that policymakers employ achievable measures that are grounded in the reality of today’s technologies, without blocking housing production.  

Cracking the Climate Code: Battle Raging Over Building Energy Standards

NAIOP Massachusetts remains committed to addressing the serious ramifications of climate change, and we look forward to working with policy makers to move forward practical, feasible initiatives. However NAIOP continues to oppose technologically unattainable and impracticable proposals. The below article, written by Andy Metzger, originally appeared in the online edition of CommonWealth Magazine on December 8, 2019.

An arcane state board, known to few outside the world of design and construction, is the setting of a furious clash the outcome of which could influence the amount of climate-curdling emissions that pour out of chimneys, as well as the future supply of housing in Massachusetts, where affordable homes are already scarce.

The Board of Building Regulation and Standards might seem an odd venue for the drama that has unfolded there. The BBRS adopts and administers the statewide building code and the building energy code, sets of rules that are important but would bore the average reader to tears. It is the domain of professionals who think in cubic feet, seismic loads, and kilowatt hours. Now, the problems of the world are before it.

While much attention has been focused on reducing emissions from power plants and cars, commercial, residential, and industrial buildings in Massachusetts collectively spew more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than either the power or transportation sectors. Commercial and residential buildings in Massachusetts emit about as much harmful gas into the air as the entire transportation sector.

That’s leading activists like Dr. Gaurab Basu, a Somerville physician who says the climate crisis will ultimately produce a public health crisis of increased deaths and hospitalizations, to insert themselves into the byzantine world of building codes. “As a parent of two young children and as a physician, I’m deeply concerned about this. I realize that the crisis forces us to do things that feel uncomfortable, to be pushing at a scale that feels like it’s untenable, but that’s the situation we’re in,” Basu told the board at its November meeting.

Climate activists like Basu, who have paid careful heed to the dire warnings of the world’s scientists, have pressed the BBRS to put out a net-zero energy code. The idea is that under a more stringent code newly constructed and newly renovated buildings would produce virtually no greenhouse gases, notching a small but meaningful victory in the worldwide campaign to avoid a climate catastrophe. That could be accomplished with tighter construction, energy efficient appliances, on-site renewable energy generation such as solar roofs, or under certain circumstances, a financial arrangement to procure renewable power from off-site.

Real estate agents and some builders are strongly opposed to the net-zero campaign, arguing that piling new requirements on top of existing construction costs would grind development to a halt, squeezing home prices, and exacerbating the region’s affordable housing crisis.

“We encourage an energy-efficient code, but we need to go where it makes sense from a cost standpoint and a technology standpoint,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, which represents commercial developers. “We may get there, but we’re not there yet.”

Because of the schedule for adopting new building codes in Massachusetts, which statutorily follows the issuance of the International Energy Conservation Code, the big decision over whether to include a net zero code in that update won’t come to a head for another couple years – probably 2021 at the earliest. But environmentalists and business interests have already begun to skirmish and jockey for position.

Click here to read the sidebar.

Meanwhile, activists are making other plays at the local level to try to cut down on climate pollutants. In late November, Brookline’s town meeting adopted a bylaw to prohibit the installation of oil and gas pipes in new construction and renovations, which would give the market a big shove toward electrical appliances and home-heating systems. It was the first municipality to take that step. All town bylaws must undergo a review by the attorney general’s office to see whether they align with state laws and the constitution, so opponents still have a chance to kill the policy. Arlington town manager Adam Chapdelaine said on Twitter that depending on how the attorney general rules, he would be interested in trying the same sort of thing in his town.

From a global perspective, environmental initiatives undertaken so far have failed to slow – much less reverse – the output of greenhouse gas emissions into earth’s atmosphere. For the past decade, emissions have grown 1.5 percent annually, and emissions must drop sharply over the next decade to avoid the worst ravages of climate change, according to the latest United Nations report. The blight, disease and flooding that unchecked climate change will unleash is all the more reason, according to advocates, to take the necessary steps in Massachusetts to significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that seeps out of our homes and workplaces.

BOARD MEETING SHOWDOWN

The Board of Building Regulation and Standards is nestled under several layers of government bureaucracy. It is contained within the Division of Professional Licensure, which is an agency of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, which is itself a component of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, whose secretary, Mike Kennealy, serves at the pleasure of Gov. Charlie Baker.

The 11-member board is presided over by John Couture, who doubles as the town of Sutton’s building inspector. Couture, who decline an interview and said he doesn’t talk to any news reporters, will see his term come to an end December 31. Couture will remain on the board, which will elect its next chairperson, according to a spokesperson.

The BBRS holds its monthly meetings all over the state. When in Boston, it generally uses a conference room in a non-descript state office building across the Massachusetts Turnpike from Chinatown. That is where the board convened on a Tuesday in early November for a session where net-zero proponents and opponents each warned of a calamitous future.

Over the course of several hours, members of the public alternately pressed the board for stricter environmental standards to avoid a complete environmental collapse, or cautioned against rash action that could further balloon housing costs or threaten the chimney and fireplace industry. Couture and other board members listened respectfully to some of the testimony, but they were at times dismissive or skeptical of environmentalists pitching the net-zero idea.

Jacob Knowles, director of sustainable design at BR+A, a national engineering firm, told the board that net-zero building makes for cheaper and healthier living spaces, and his firm found that making buildings net-zero adds less than 1 percent to the construction costs. To buttress his case, Knowles unfurled a letter signed by roughly 1,500 people and 80 companies, including prominent architecture firms, calling for the development and adoption of a net-zero code.

“Take that with you,” Couture replied curtly, after Knowles displayed the letter on the table. “We don’t want your prop.”

Board members also occasionally debated with commenters, questioning the philosophical underpinnings of their advocacy.

“There are a lot of developers that will do the code minimum, period. Period. So we need to raise all boats,” argued Jim Stanislaski, an architect for the international firm Gensler, who supports creating a net-zero code. “And incentives are great; carrots are great. But we need to move out of the voluntary into the compulsory.”

To Michael McDowell, a board member and homebuilder, that sounded like an indictment of people’s intelligence.

“The more we regulate, the less we give citizens of Massachusetts an opportunity to make a choice,” McDowell said. “In other words, you’re almost saying to the citizens, ‘You’re too stupid to make the right choice so we’re going to make it for you. Congratulations.’”

Stanislaski protested that he wasn’t calling people stupid. Then Couture jumped in to question what would happen if the highest standards were used for structural integrity and fire protection requirements – as opposed to energy efficiency.

“If we started saying, you know what, ‘We think that we should have 200-pound roof-loads, just because it’s good,’” said Couture. “There are ramifications for that.”

To deal with these knotty issues, the board had tasked its Energy Advisory Committee – which is made up of other building professionals and engineers – to “show us what net-zero looks like,” according to Couture. But around the same time, the board changed the composition of that committee so that it tilts more toward the views of the construction industry. In October, the board decided to add three contractors to the advisory committee and remove spots designated for a utility representative, an indoor air quality expert, and an appliance expert.

To those hoping to push the state towards a net-zero code, the committee shakeup seemed part of a strategy to thwart that effort.

“It seems like a big shift to say, ‘Take off some of the energy experts and put on contractors,’” said Knowles in an interview. “At face value, that screams to me of trying to shift the whole dialogue towards a more conservative solution.”

A discussion about the shakeup raised hackles among board members during their November meeting when member Richard Crowley suggested that “people on the ground know more about what’s going on” than architects or engineers who rely on books.

“Just stop. Really stop,” board member Kerry Dietz, an architect, interjected. “It is insulting to those of us who are professionals.”

According to Couture, the shakeup was based on a directive from Division of Professional Licensure commissioner Diane Symonds, who wanted more input from “stakeholders.”

“Just because we added three contractors doesn’t mean we added three villains,” said Couture. “We added people that are actually building this stuff.”

Couture also expressed his irritation at an email circulated about the advisory committee issue that he said was “mean” and attacked the board’s integrity. Couture appeared to have been talking about a missive from the Massachusetts Climate Action Network encouraging people to attend the November meeting. While that email criticized the board’s changes to the advisory committee as a “big step backwards,” it did not suggest ulterior motives or make any overt attacks on the board’s integrity.

Advocates on both sides of the issue will have plenty of time to hone their arguments. Under a 2008 state law dubbed the Green Communities Act – which was one of Deval Patrick’s signature environmental accomplishments as governor – the state must meet or exceed the standards of the International Energy Conservation Code, which is developing an update for 2021. That would present the next obvious opportunity to push for a net-zero code.

WHAT WOULD NET-ZERO MEAN?

Net-zero construction is already happening in Massachusetts, and the principle of a net-zero code is pretty straightforward: eliminate the carbon footprint of buildings by enhancing their efficiency and using renewable energy sources for all power. But advocates are fuzzy on the details. As of November, only the American Institute of Architects had submitted a fleshed out proposal to the BBRS.

The AIA plan would give builders a couple of options to determine a building’s energy needs either through a formula or by measuring the building’s actual energy performance. Then the AIA plan would require a corresponding amount of renewable energy generation either installed on-site or procured off-site. The AIA net-zero plan would apply to new commercial, institutional, and mid-level or high-rise residential buildings.

There is one big complication with applying a net-zero standard to urban development. Residential towers and commercial skyscrapers don’t have enough space on their roofs to provide solar power to all the floors below.

“High rise is extremely challenging,” said Stanislaski, the architect who supports shifting to net-zero.

One irony is that high rise developments can help reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector, especially if they are near transit, because they tend to make neighborhoods denser and more walkable.

It’s not impossible to build a net-zero skyscraper. Solar power and wind energy can be procured off-site, and under the current mix of government incentives, it can even be cheaper than using fossil fuels, according to Knowles, who acknowledged that a renewable energy requirement presents new risks for developers.

“They want to minimize risk, so if there is any potential volatility, they want to avoid that, but I don’t see how that supersedes the need to address climate change and minimize our carbon footprint,” Knowles said.

Small, the NAIOP Massachusetts CEO who represents commercial real estate developers, has a bleaker view on what sort of effects a net-zero standard could exert on the marketplace.

“When you then talk about adding on something that makes a building zero net-energy, it’s going to be cost-prohibitive, so nothing’s going to be built. The numbers simply don’t work. And I don’t think when we have a housing crisis that really is necessarily the best approach,” Small said. “I think we have to proceed with caution because the unintended consequences could literally be no new commercial office space, lab space, retail, multi-family, mixed-use, you name it.”

Other areas with high housing costs have pushed the construction industry towards net-zero standards. California has instituted new requirements and set goals to phase-in net-zero construction for new and existing buildings over the next decade. New York is taking a number of steps to encourage net-zero developments and retrofit existing buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Massachusetts has made significant strides in energy efficiency. For nearly a decade, the Bay State has earned top marks from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy for its policies, including the relatively stringent measures adopted by the BBRS.

But given the scale of threat posed by global warming, many believe more should be done, and Knowles said the changes needed in construction are well within reach.

“This is not pie-in-the-sky. This is not some sort of dream fantasy idea. This is something that we’re doing consistently now on large, complex urban and non-urban projects,” Knowles said. “I have not come across a project that cannot achieve these goals, and in every single case we’ve been able to prove it’s cost-effective.”