By Tamara Small
This column first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on Apr 5, 2020
Uncharted territory. Those are the two words that seem to be used when anyone tries to describe our current COVID-19 world. Children are out of school, entire economic sectors have been decimated, the global and local economy is in freefall – and the end is unknown.
As the unemployment numbers skyrocket and the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow, it is difficult to find any positive news. However, here at NAIOP we’ve seen several local examples that we should all acknowledge and applaud.
Public– and Private–Sector Collaboration
In Massachusetts, this pandemic is exposing the grace of who we are, as residents and businesses stand strong in the fight to save lives. We see this with the establishment of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub. As it quickly became clear that demand was outpacing supply at many healthcare institutions, the private sector stepped up.
The Massachusetts Biotech Council, Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals and Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council came together, launching the Supply Hub to bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they could continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19 safely.
In response to the call for donations, hundreds of companies from a wide range of sectors including janitorial companies, colleges, and construction firms stepped up to donate everything from masks and goggles to swabs and tubes. While we still have not caught up with demand, this effort made a dramatic impact and provided a streamlined way for businesses throughout the commonwealth to supplement the local and national supply chain.
In another extraordinary example of community solidarity, the Boston Society of Architects has begun soliciting nominations for buildings, facilities or infrastructure that may be adapted to become alternative hospital sites. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has issued guidance to permit the use of alternative, acute inpatient care spaces to care for patients during this public health emergency. Working with cross disciple teams, the architecture, engineering and construction community is working with property owners to assist state government officials with identifying, evaluating, documenting, and retrofitting buildings or other facilities identified as viable hospital facilities. Preparing for the worst is an essential part of crisis planning – this work will save lives.
The closure of non-essential businesses and the shutdown of most aspects of society have resulted in the need for executive orders and emergency legislation on a wide range of issues. Municipal governments have been particularly challenged since town halls are shuttered, Town Meetings are delayed, and annual budgets are uncertain at best. For real estate developers, navigating the permitting maze at the local level became more challenging as the permit application process, deadlines, and hearings became unclear.
Responding to this new challenge, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA and NAIOP Massachusetts – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, worked together, drafting language that gave predictability and protections to municipalities and developers. As of this writing, the language, which is included in An Act to Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19, was passed by the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together.
This legislation provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are struggling to process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, the bill balances the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that current permits are not impaired by the emergency declaration. No town or developer wants to see a project that has received local approvals become a blighted, abandoned site, and this language ensures that projects can get up and going as soon as this crisis ends.
Examples of Leadership
Finally, Gov. Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, legislators and all the hardworking staff who support them must be recognized. They have focused on protecting the most at-risk residents, addressed business, health and public safety challenges and provided comfort during this unprecedented time.
Throughout the commonwealth, we have seen local community leaders follow this example. From local food banks to neighborhood groups, we have seen unprecedented kindness and grace as everyone works together to flatten the curve and save lives. Restaurants are providing free meals for students in need, essential grocery store workers are keeping our food systems open and, last but certainly not least, every person working in the health care sector is working tirelessly to save lives.
Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As a former governor of Massachusetts once said, let our first instinct be kindness – and as Mayor Walsh said during his address to the city, there’s nothing we can’t do when we stand together.