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Report: Office landlords hurry to renovate buildings amid workers’ return

It might be unclear how many New York City workers will return to their offices full-time following the COVID-19 pandemic, but commercial real estate owners are preparing as if everyone’s coming back, Bisnow reports. Major renovation permits in New York City were issued at a rate approximately 16% higher than the quarterly average data for the past 10 years, according to Bisnow’s analysis of NYC Department of Buildings Data.

Many of the renovations are focused on New York’s large office districts. Landlords are hurrying to update their buildings before employees come back. The hope is the properties will be attractive to tenants as they adjust to how the workplace has changed since COVID-19 hit the United States.

“Having people in the building makes (renovations) much more complicated — not impossible, but complicated,” Katherine Bojsza, an associate partner at architectural firm Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners told Bisnow. “A landlord wants to at least have these things in place, or in the works, so that they can be used by tenants as part of incentivizing their employees to come back.”

Businesses are basing their renovations on what they’ve seen during office tours as they decide what they want from their office spaces in this new environment. Any renovations landlords make must meet local regulations as well. This means as building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are fixed to meet new energy requirements, landlords are also working to improve filtration and reduce emissions, Bisnow reports.

A major jump in permit requests

If the first quarter of 2021 is any indication, office building renovations will greatly outnumber new buildings. Only 407 new building filings were made during the first quarter of the year, according to the Real Estate Board of New York. Meanwhile, more than 32,000 total “Alternation 2 permits” were issued during that time period. These permits are for jobs where the work won’t affect the building’s “use, egress or occupancy.” The quarterly average during the last decade was closer to 28,000, per DOB permit data.

“You’re really seeing a lot of momentum in the market right now,” Rudin Management Co. Vice President for Government and External Affairs Nick Martin told Bisnow. “Companies are definitely out there planning what their return to the office is going to look like, they’re planning their future space needs.”

Changes office tenants can expect to see

Additional separate workspaces and offices, more conference rooms, rooftop terraces, new HVAC systems and amenity spaces are among the renovations workers can expect to see when they return to the office, according to landlords and office designers. It’s outdoor spaces that are currently the most popular design improvement however, Bojsza told Bisnow. Outdoor spaces such as terraces, plazas and rooftops are all getting refreshed. Improvements include adding greenery and providing access to retail and restaurants.

“There’s a lot of people looking at what used to be empty rooftops about how they can use them as an amenity space,” Bojsza said. “At the pedestrian level, there might be some more action there with regard to making a space that you cannot just transverse through, but actually occupy.”

Brookfield in one of the NYC landlords looking to improve its properties’ outdoor spaces, Bisnow reports. The company recently renovated the outside of its 1100 Sixth Avenue property by adding seating in front of restaurants and greenery throughout the public plaza. Brookfield also added a rooftop terrace during the 1100 Sixth Avenue renovations, upgraded the 30,000 square foot outdoor plaza at the neighboring Grace Building and is now updating four outdoor terraces at 660 Fifth Avenue, according to a company spokesperson.

“There’s a lot of redesigns going on in terms of redesigning the open office, densified office workspace to more separated or segregated layout whilst keeping the light airy feel in the buildings,” Elemint Consulting principal Minto Bose, a UK native who advises construction and real estate companies around the city, told Bisnow.

Office building renovations invite collaboration

Collaboration is one reason businesses are looking forward to their workers returning to the office, according to GFP Real Estate co-CEO and Principal Brian Steinwurtzel. With that in mind, landlords are adding more conference rooms to their office properties. GFP received alteration permits at a number of its New York buildings, which Steinwurtzel noted are partly for routine upgrades, but also to create space for tenants that the company brought on during the pandemic.

“I think when employers are anticipating coming into the office, it’s because they have meetings, or need to collaborate and that they’ll need more meeting spaces — small, medium or large — to actually do that collaboration,” Steinwurtzel told Bisnow. “We’re leaving a very flexible layout right now, we’re not sure what the future holds for whatever companies are leasing. It’s very, very interesting to see what happens in the industry over the next couple of years, as companies figure out how they want to use space.”

Joe Dyton can be reached at

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