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Industry adapts and evolves as city moves to quell virus spread

Two days after it opened, New York City’s newest skyline icon was forced to close under the full force of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Related Companies had pushed ahead with its previously scheduled opening of its Egde sky deck (pictured top) at 20 Hudson Yards last Wednesday, vowing to operate at reduced capacity until the crisis subsided.

However, by Friday, the company fell into step with city guidelines which restricted social gatherings before ultimately leading to the closure of all schools, restaurants, theaters, bars, cinemas, gyms, nightclubs and entertainment venues.

As Real Estate Weekly went to press, Related Companies confirmed the temporary closure of the spectacular viewing platform as well as reduced operating hours at The Shops at Hudson Yards, limited entry to The Vessel and suspension of events and exhibitions at The Shed.

Meanwhile, brokerage firms across the city have been rapidly rolling out pandemic protocols in an effort to both calm employees and reassure clients.

Cushman & Wakefield has advised its staff to work from home whenever possible while those on site are modifying meeting protocols, touring properties with smaller groups and adhering to public health restrictions and recommendations.

BRETT WHITE

“Our client-facing teams remain in place and continue to deliver services. Those assigned to properties and accounts will continue with their day-to-day work as usual. We are making certain that all of our systems, infrastructure and support functions that your Cushman & Wakefield teams rely on are fully operational just as they would be on any normal day,” said Cushman & Wakefield CEO Brett White in an open letter posted on the company’s website. “In some jurisdictions, we know that business-as-usual simply isn’t possible, and that managing through this disruption is a daily undertaking,” the post continues.

“Right now, in countries like Italy, Spain and France, we’re supporting clients in whatever way local authorities allow. In other parts of the world, we may be working under new protocols. Regardless, business is getting done.”

One of the largest commercial property managers in China, with more than 20,000 people on the ground there, Cushman & Wakefield has also been taking a lead from Asian colleagues who have been battling the virus since early January.

According to White, “I’m very proud of the way our Chinese team came up with creative and effective solutions around so many unexpected challenges. As you might expect, we are now using their experiences as a set of best practices we can employ elsewhere.

BARRY GOSIN

Elsewhere, Newmark Knight Frank hired a nurse to screen visitors after a midtown employee tested positive for coronavirus. CEO Barry Gosin said, “We are clearly living through an unprecedented moment in time, and the situation is evolving rapidly. Newmark is taking every precaution to protect the well-being of our professionals and community, consistently anticipating change and adapting accordingly.

“Our company’s continuity plan is strategically designed to ensure that our service continues uninterrupted, both from the office and remotely. We’re grateful to have the technology and methodology to stay seamlessly connected to our clients and one another.

“We are providing the same level of support as always, advising our clients during these uncertain times and helping them revise their strategies to meet the moment.”

Avison Young asked employees to avoid all non-essential travel, and to confidentially report any employee, friend or relative who may have been exposed to the virus. The Canadian giant is also taking a long-range view on events, cancelling its participation in the annual MIPIM convention already rescheduled from March to June in Cannes, the Urban Land Institute’s May conference as well as the ICSC ReCON in Vegas, which has already been cancelled by the organization itself.

Avison Young has also cancelled its own Annual General Meeting slated for June 2020, noting, “With continued uncertainty around how the coronavirus situation will evolve, we have taken this decision with our people’s wellbeing and the containment objectives of the world’s leading health organizations in mind.”

CBRE also said it is taking similar precautions, having employees work remotely wherever possible.

“For employees who perform essential services on-site at a client property or facility, we engage clients individually to assess their needs and recommend adjustments to our service delivery approach when necessary to ensure the continued safety of our employees,” said CBRE spokesperson, Corey Mirman.

All of Savills North America’s 35+ offices have adopted a remote-work policy. While offices remain open, most employees are working from home.
In a letter to clients , CEO Mitch Steir said, “This doesn’t mean that we can’t be available to you – it just means we have to connect by video conference, phone, text, or email. We realize that you, too, may be on a remote work policy. Because many people don’t have a home office, and even those who do may need to trade this off with a significant other and those who have school and other work commitments, we accept there are going to be video calls where children and/or pets might make guest appearances.
“That’s okay – these are unusual times, and we need to come together to move forward.”

The safety first policy also includes making alternative work arrangements for any employee who is considered high risk by CDC or WHO standards.

The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) has cancelled all in-person member events through end of March.

REBNY members have voluntarily pledged not to execute any warrant of eviction for the next 90 days in response to the ongoing crisis.
The board itself is working with other organizations in New York City to push for a significant expansion of federal, state and local programs to support the economy and help restaurants, retailers and small businesses.

MARTIN HEISTEIN

Industry law firms have also switched to remote working where possible. Martin Heistein, an attorney with Belkin Burden Goldman, said his company’s work policies have been evolving as more information about the virus becomes available.

“We’re taking things week by week because the situation is so unpredictable,” he said. “What we’re doing is staggered hours for this week as well as hopefully next week. (Employees do) two to three days a week in the office so the office is open all the time.”

In the residential sector, business has slowed as sellers are listing less and buyers less interested in going to open houses. Residential brokerages have responded by focusing more on technology and virtual tours.

Sarah Saltzberg, co-founder of the Harlem-based Bohemia Realty Group, said, “We are encouraging agents to create video tours to be posted online and sent to clients. In addition, we are looking into options for 360 VR tours and will likely shoot a large portion of our inventory in VR.

“We are encouraging agents to co-broke deals now more than ever, and that the outside agent can simply send their client and do not need to attend themselves.”

Queens-based brokerage Modern Spaces, which has closed its offices and sales centers, has been relying on Matterport photography and Listing 3D to market developments.

Company spokesperson Cole Calhoun said one agent, Steve Lelekidis, has already received positive feedback for virtual walk-throughs that included VR of multiple levels of a home’s layout.

At Harlem Lofts, president Robb Pair said his agents are exploring options to do showings by appointment only, one customer at a time.

reported by Linda O’Flanagan and Sabina Mollot

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