Technically.ly Pittsburgh This summer has seen a slow return to the downtown business districts. But the Delta variant could reverse this progress

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Companies may be gearing up to bring workers back to the office, but the office occupancy and foot traffic figures tell a different story.

Last month, Google started publishing and updating a collection of COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports – data for countries and regions of the world that shows how much traffic to places like parks, grocery stores, transit stations and offices has changed from baseline data collected in the first five weeks of 2020. Almost 18 months after the initial business closures, Google data shows a continued increase in park visits as well as a persistent decrease in the use of transit stations or workplaces.

In the most recent update for Allegheny County, traffic in the park is up 21%, while transit stations are down 40% and workplaces are down. 43% compared to the initial baseline.

Foot traffic, along with office occupancy levels, has become an important indicator of when (if any) is appropriate for a broader return to work in person. Despite widespread access to vaccines in the United States, a significant percentage of the population is still unvaccinated, in part causing an increase in the Delta variant which has led to further commercial limitations and mask mandates across the country. country.

the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership has long focused on similar measures, even before the onset of the pandemic. While Google data shows more general trends, the the local organization collects information at a much more specific level, looking at measures of office building occupancy, parking lot use, bus ridership and visits to cultural centers like Market Square, to name a few. Partnership brings together data in conjunction with local property owners and managers as well as the foot traffic data company Place.ai and groups like the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and Allegheny County Port Authority.

The availability of this data from past years has helped the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and other economically focused groups assess when and how an in-person return to work might be possible, Director of Economic Development Initiatives Caitlin fadgen Recount Technically.

Caitlin Fadgen. (Photo via LinkedIn)

This summer, many numbers have shown a steady increase, with office occupancy rates averaging 16% in July, double the low of 8% in December of last year. And visits to Point State Park, downtown’s largest green space, were higher in July 2021 than they were in July 2019, reaching nearly 75,000 people. But given the new spread of the virus, Fadgen is not entirely convinced that the summer trends will continue into the fall.

“June was a benchmark, then it was after July 4th was going to be another benchmark to bring more people back, and more recently after Labor Day is supposed to be back,” she said. “Of course, we don’t know 100% how this is going to shake off concerns about Delta.”

A return to at least some in-person work is particularly crucial for Pittsburgh, Fadgen said. In one July 2021 Report of the commercial real estate information company CoStar, Pittsburgh ranked fifth for the volume of office space occupying square footage in its central business district, putting the city at greater risk of an economic downturn related to remote working than more diverse neighborhoods with retail, hotels and residential buildings. Although many of the city’s cultural centers in the fields of music, theater and gastronomy remain a draw for downtown business, Fadgen acknowledged that “we are definitely challenged on the real estate side. “.

While unsure of what the new Delta-related restrictions might mean for businesses, Fadgen said several of the companies the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership is in contact with have indicated their intention to switch to hybrid work models in the future. , as opposed to a complete return to the in-person. Three of the largest employers in the region – PNC Bank, BNY Mellon and High health – recently delayed plans to bring employees back in late fall. And while Fadgen was unable to share the specific names of the companies discussing the plans, she said she heard about some considerations to reduce the office footprint in the companies’ upcoming lease renewals.

Coupled with the current labor shortage in the service sector, Fadgen finds these trends worrying for downtown restaurants and similar attractions. For her, the back and forth of planning and screening has started to become a “chicken before the egg,” she said. Fewer people working downtown might start noticing fewer lunch options, for example – but more downtown workers would justify keeping more lunch places open.

While Pittsburgh has recently seen long-term real estate investments like Hazel green and Rockwell Park starting to open up to new tenants from the tech industry, Fadgen noted that the city’s downtown district landscape has less space available for redevelopment or reuse.

“We have a lot of office products, but we don’t necessarily have empty plots of land where you could build a new office campus or something like that,” she added.

Yet despite the challenges ahead and continued setbacks on return dates, Fadgen remains confident that businesses in downtown Pittsburgh will eventually return to work in person: “Having the physical interaction in person is so invaluable to all. the levels, ”she said. But as long as the spread of the Delta variant hangs over this value, “we’re really having a hard time figuring out what’s going to happen.”

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