Just two months ago, builders were inundating Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections with plans, eager to construct and renovate apartments, rowhouses, and office buildings that would transform some neighborhoods and add density to others.
Then suddenly, the coronavirus upended the industry, which had capitalized on Philadelphia’s growing appeal and a demand for newer higher-end construction. Neighborhood changes — welcome and not — spurred growing civic participation in public meetings involving project proposals.
Now, industry professionals said Thursday, even after Pennsylvania gradually reopens (with the Philadelphia region being among the last), the future of local construction will remain in flux.
“The major question is what will things look like six to 12 months from now," said Jayne Spector, director of design at Langan, a Center City engineering and environmental consulting firm.
Speaking at a virtual conference sponsored by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, experts in construction and design said they expected some practices, such as limited staff on worksites as a safety precaution, would eventually return to normal, although protocols could be refined and made more efficient as demanded by the pandemic. Other practices, such as public accessibility to meetings that determine the future of a neighborhood, could change, imprinted with the fallout of an unprecedented global public health emergency.
Gov. Tom Wolf allowed construction sites that had been shut down to reopen last Friday. But some projects have been stalled as they grapple with a shortage of surveyors, Spector said.
Others have been allowed to accelerate their work, particularly for subsidized housing or rebuilding projects, but at a cost that Spector said could yield trouble.
“Accelerating is generating concerns about depleting the pipeline," she said on the call, hosted by the 930-member Philadelphia chapter of the institute, which focuses on responsible land use. “Projects are dependent on public funding moving forward.”
On either public or private projects, onsite work has slowed substantially as the state has ordered skeleton crews to comply with a raft of strict safety directives that range from washing their tools to opting out of the coworker carpool.
“The impact is going to be on scheduling with a limited workforce," said Steven Kline, vice president of Wyndmoor-based Regan Construction. “Project schedules are going to get extended.... The longer the project, the longer some of the overhead costs will accelerate or get larger.”
Builders and their clients should expect to revise project timelines because of the new rules, smaller work crews, or limited availability of supplies, Kline said. Unexpected costs could arise.
“Everyone’s still kind of feeling their way through this," Spector said. “Be patient with each other.”
There is — to some extent — good news.
In what appears to be an apparent pursuit of hyper-efficiency, communication between some of Philadelphia’s agencies and construction industry professionals has improved substantially during the pandemic, so much that Spector said she was able to quickly schedule meetings that once would have taken months.
ECLIPSE, the online license application website that replaced Philadelphia’s bemoaned paper system, was serendipitously released by L&I shortly before the commonwealth announced stay-at-home orders that barred physical access to municipal buildings. It has — to much relief — worked well, said David M. Gest, counsel at the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr, where he focuses on matters of zoning and land use.
L&I has expedited its work, helped by a decrease in applications that John Mondlak, the city’s deputy director for development services, estimated to be at 30% of its normal volume.
Public officials have moved zoning, planning, and council or commission meetings online in accordance with Act 15, a new Pennsylvania law that among other measures allows public meetings to be held online.
The transition into such virtual meetings in theory expanded access for people who previously wouldn’t have been able to attend meetings, but challenges remain with notifying the public of meeting schedules, as well as reaching populations without access to computers.
“There is a huge digital divide, and we are very concerned about it in the city," Mondlak said. “People who are very, very low-income don’t use a computer on a daily basis," with many relying almost exclusively on smartphones instead.
But “when we’re doing these meetings...," Mondlak said, "I think the ability to reach people will be significantly enhanced going forward. And I don’t think that aspect will go away.”