Top US Managers, Owners Share Reopening Strategies

What will operations look like in the new normal? Hines, JLL, Transwestern, Cushman & Wakefield and other heavyweights offer a deep dive into best practices.

As states, counties and cities prepare to reopen businesses after closing them to stifle COVID-19, property owners and managers are crafting and implementing plans to help consumers and workers feel comfortable in the “new normal.” Or as Paul Bedborough, chief executive for Cushman & Wakefield’s facilities management arm puts it, the new “abnormal.”

“There is no normal,” said Bedborough. “Whether it’s a retail or office environment, people will be returning in a heightened state of fear of getting infected, and they’re going to look for signs that property owners are taking the right measures to protect them.”

States and other jurisdictions are moving at different speeds. Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas are among the first to push ahead with plans to reopen, and others will follow in mid-May or later. First of all, property owners and managers must keep a close eye on state, county and city rules, but at the minimum they are focused on implementing social distancing, occupancy limitations, deeper and more frequent cleaning, one-way traffic patterns, robust signage and communication strategies, and other common-sense measures, most of which are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Cushman & Wakefield formed a workplace readiness task force a few weeks ago and has produced a six-step plan that calls for numerous protocols, from cleaning to communication. Other procedures that Cushman & Wakefield and others are considering include upgrading HVAC filters, bringing fresh air into buildings, providing outdoor spaces and maintaining high humidity.

Crocker Partners, which owns 11 million square feet of office space in Florida and Atlanta, is requiring its property management teams to don masks and gloves and building visitors to wear masks in common areas, among other measures, said Angelo Bianco, managing partner for the landlord. Same as other office owners and property managers, Crocker Partners has designated stairwells as either ascending or descending and is encouraging their use given occupancy restrictions of two to three people per elevator. The landlord is also considering replacing stainless steel hardware with copper alloy because copper tends to kill viruses more quickly.

“When people walk into our buildings, I want them to sigh with relief that they have made it,” Bianco said. “It’s not like they’re going to war, but people are fearful, and we want them to know that these buildings are going to be safe.”

Many office buildings have remained open under stay-at-home orders but have seen occupancy drop to 5 to 10 percent, observers say. Officials don’t anticipate full occupancy returning anytime soon. Unless compelled for certain reasons, companies are going to take a cautious re-entry approach, said Michael Kaiser, senior vice president of operations with Hines.

Regional differences

Following a pandemic plan it created 15 years ago, Hines began taking mitigation steps in early February, including cleaning high-touch surfaces more frequently and stocking up on personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other cleaners. The real estate investment firm has been building on the initial plan to prepare for an escalation in occupancy, but it is also aware that solutions are going to differ among regions, said Kaiser, who oversees property and engineering management of assets in the Southeast, Midwest and Canada.

“What’s going to work in New York or Chicago may be different than what will work in suburban Cincinnati,” he added. “But we want people to feel comfortable coming back to work and to feel as safe as possible.”

Katie Sakach, managing director of asset services for Transwestern, a commercial real estate firm managing some 220 million square feet, is also anticipating some regional differences. The company has provided property management teams with workbooks that can be updated and customizable as conditions change, she explained.

Reopening retail, mixed-use

Retail centers and mixed-use projects are preparing similarly. In late April, developer North American Properties launched the “Better Together” program at its Avalon mixed-use community in Alpharetta, Ga., to reprogram its common areas and enforce social distancing and cleanliness rules. While some restaurants have been providing curbside service, stores have begun to open and more restaurants are expected to open in the coming days, said Tim Perry, managing partner for the company.

Among other steps, North American Properties is creating one-way traffic patterns on Avalon’s sidewalks and a grid system in its outdoor plaza. It is also working with tenants to ensure that customers feel safe going into shops, he added. “Nobody is going into your store if it’s crowded or creates an uncomfortable environment,” Perry said.

Enclosed malls will require a more hands-on style than open-air centers, noted Fred Meno, president & CEO of asset services for Woodmont, a real estate firm that manages more than 19 million square feet of retail assets. It has put together a mall plan that, along with emphasizing cleanliness and social distancing, reduces public seating areas and food court tables, keeps play areas closed, implements one-way traffic patterns, and restricts access to restrooms, to name a few procedures. Woodmont is also working with tenants to control the amount traffic in their stores, but it ultimately may restrict entry into malls while further tailoring its plan to local regulations, he said.

JLL’s property management division is incorporating similar protocols. In particular, it is preparing tenants for larger crowds than anticipated, said Greg Maloney, president & CEO of retail for the real estate service provider. Opinions within JLL’s property management team vary on how busy shopping centers will be upon reopening, he acknowledged.

“But we all agree people have been cooped up for a long time. And every time we’ve seen a little loosening, like the beaches opening in Florida, there has been an explosion of people,” Maloney said. “I think people are ready to go out and start living their lives.”

Sandy Sigal, president & CEO of NewMark Merrill, an owner and manager of some 70 open-air shopping centers in California, Colorado and Illinois, sees that eagerness from tenants, too. But as far as opening beyond essential stores and services, he’s willing to error on the side of caution.

“With very few exceptions, everybody is champing at the bit to open back up,” he said. “But nobody wants to open for business only to have to close down three weeks later.”

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