Technisch.ly Pittsburgh This summer time noticed a sluggish return to the downtown enterprise district. However the delta variant may reverse this progress
Companies may be preparing to bring their employees back to the office, but office occupancy and pedestrian traffic tell a different story.
Last month, Google began publishing and updating a collection of COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports – data for countries and regions around the world showing how much traffic to places like parks, grocery stores, train stations and offices was compared to the first five weeks The basic data recorded has changed in 2020. Almost 18 months after the first plant closure, Google data shows a sustained increase in visits to parks and a sustained decrease in the use of train stations or workplaces.
In the most recent update for Allegheny County, parking traffic increased 21% while transit stations were 40% lower and workplaces were 43% lower than the original baseline.
Pedestrian traffic, along with office occupancy, has become an important indicator of when (if at all) an appropriate time is for a broader return to personal work. Despite widespread access to vaccines in the United States, a significant percentage of the population remains unvaccinated, in part leading to an increase in the Delta variant, which led to renewed business restrictions and masking requirements across the country.
That Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has long focused on similar metrics, even before the pandemic began. While Google’s data shows more general trends, the local organization gathers the information on a much more specific level by looking at measurements of office building occupancy, parking garage use, bus drivers, and visits to cultural centers like the marketplace, to name a few. The partnership collects the data in collaboration with local property owners and managers as well as a pedestrian data company Placer.ai and groups like that Pittsburgh Parking Authority and Allegheny County Port Authority.
The availability of this data from the past few years has helped the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and other business-minded groups gauge when and how a return to personal work might be possible, Director of Economic Development Initiatives Caitlin Fadgen said Technically.
This summer, many of the numbers have shown steady increases, with office occupancy averaging 16% in July – doubling from a low of 8% in December last year. And visitor numbers to Point State Park, the largest green space in downtown, were higher in July 2021 than in July 2019, reaching nearly 75,000 people. However, given the new spread of the virus, Fadgen is not entirely confident that the summer trends will continue into fall.
“June was a yardstick, and then July 4th was another yardstick for bringing more people back, and Labor Day was supposed to be the return last,” she said. “Obviously, we’re not entirely sure how this will play out with concerns about Delta.”
A return to at least some personal work is particularly important for Pittsburgh, Fadgen said. In a July 2021 report from a commercial real estate information company CoStar, Pittsburgh ranked fifth in terms of office space in its central business district, putting the city at greater risk of an economic downturn related to remote working than districts with a greater variety of retail, hotel and residential buildings. While many of the city’s cultural, music, theater and food hubs continue to be a draw for downtown businesspeople, Fadgen admitted that “we are definitely challenged on the property side.”
While unsure of what new Delta-related restrictions might mean for the business, Fadgen said several of the companies Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is affiliated with have plans for a future shift to hybrid work models as opposed to a full one Return to the person. Three of the largest employers in the region – PNC bank, BNY Mellon and Highlight health – Recently postponed plans to bring employees back in late fall. And while Fadgen was unable to provide specific names of companies discussing these plans, she said she had heard of some considerations to reduce office space with the companies’ next rental renewals.
Coupled with the current labor shortage in the service industry, Fadgen finds these trends for restaurants in the city center and similar attractions. For her, the back and forth of planning and projections has become a “chicken before the egg thing,” she said. For example, the fewer people working downtown, the fewer lunchtime offers might start to notice – but more downtown workers would justify keeping more lunchtime places open.
While Pittsburgh has been like some long-term real estate investments lately Hazelnut green and Rockwell Park are starting to open up to new tenants from the technology sector, Fadgen noticed that the downtown landscape has less space available for renovation or conversion.
“We have a lot of office products, but we don’t necessarily have empty lots to build a new office campus or something,” she added.
However, despite the challenges ahead and ongoing setbacks in return dates, Fadgen remains confident that businesses in downtown Pittsburgh will return to personal work at some point: “The physical face-to-face interaction is priceless across the board,” she said. But as long as the prevalence of the delta variant exceeds this value, “we really have trouble understanding what will happen”.