Dayna Sarver, Development Specialist
As restrictions on social interactions are lifted and our personal bubbles are no less than six feet apart rather than the previous two to three feet, how will our physical spaces be impacted? Undoubtedly, there will be implications felt in every sector: office spaces, concert venues, arenas, dressing rooms, theme parks, college campuses, the DMV, the Post Office, town hall, and others. Well, maybe not town hall. No one shows up to those anyway. But will there be a more permanent shift of public meetings to online platforms? Many communities have transitioned in this direction in the interim. (As a former municipal employee, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to those spaces.)
The point is that real estate development, urban planning and employee retention are not likely to return to the pre-COVID era. This article explores questions to consider as practitioners prepare for the new normal.
I went to the post-office today for the first time since the Wisconsin Safer-At-Home Order. There are now markings on the floor to help facilitate social distancing by patrons waiting their turn in line. Plexi-glass now hangs in front of each “window.” The normally friendly P.O. clerk is now wearing a mask that hides his brilliant smile. He huffs under the hot covering and I’m reminded that this is not normal.
I also received a survey from our school district this morning on how I as a parent would like to see educational instruction commence this fall. Our options are online, in school, or some hybrid of both. This was not a part of the plan in 2017 when the largest referendum in state history passed to build a new high school and athletic facilities which are set to open this fall.
What about event spaces? Will spectators entering sporting arenas and concert venues be required to have their temperature taken with a touch-less thermometer before they cozy up next to one another? Security guards are already checking bags for potential threats. Will travel sized hand sanitizer be distributed to patrons as an entry “gift”? Will everyone required to sanitize going in and out? Or will peer pressure create a social norm such that this practice becomes a habit? Gyms have reduced the number of machines and spaced them out to help facilitate social distancing. They’ve reduced the capacity of class sizes, and are using various cleaning methods including a fog system with a cleaning solution three times per day.
How will our favorites adapt?
The Dane County Farmer’s Market is well known among farmer’s market peeps not only for the collection of vendors available around the beautiful Madison Capitol Square, but also the vibrancy of the downtown district, and proximity to two large lakes as well as the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Musicians play to the crowd and political ideas are exchanged as visitors mingle with one another. At least once a summer, I manage to coerce my husband and four teenagers to shuffle along next to me as I find the most beautiful bunch of flowers, local honey, and maybe some herbs for dinner to take home with the promise that we’ll walk along the lake to Memorial Terrace for Babcock Ice Cream. This is my place. These are my people. This is my campus.
While I can purchase items from the market online using www.sourcewhatsgood.com and drive-thru pick up my items from 10:15-11:00 am on Saturday, then walk the empty square and campus, the experience isn’t quite the same. How will my beloved farmer’s market adapt to a new normal? Will visitors be able sign up for an hour to make the rounds to the various vendors with a cap on how many visitors at any one time? Will they adopt the trampoline park or laser tag business model of giving color coded bracelets to visitors by the hour?
As business models pivot to accommodate changes in social interaction, what potential workforce challenges will there be in attracting employees to industries deemed non-essential like tourism, hospitality, and retail? In the short term, my best educated guess since investment will be hesitant to invest in new hotels, conference centers, brick and mortar retail shopping centers, etc. the issue won’t be in attraction to these industries, but retention.
Employees will look at how they can retool themselves for changes in the job market. Captains of industry will look for ways they can automate processes to the greatest extent possible. Who knows, maybe one day there will be a charming humanoid hospitality robot to greet you at the hotel reception desk like Arthur in the movie “Passengers.” Or maybe they’ll just replace the front desk entirely with self-check-in kiosks. Also, those who have received unemployment may not be readily available when their former employer needs them. They may still be dealing with childcare issues, school closings, competing employers, etc.
Real Estate Challenges
Real estate models and space design will need to be equally innovative and adaptive. Office space may be available in abundance. Smaller communities may see an uptick in former city-dwellers seeking more space to spread out from their neighbors. Communities should analyze the real estate development agreements that they have in place. There may be potential impacts should the assessed value of those properties dramatically decrease due to changes in the market. They will need strategies to employ to mitigate the risks of default. In the long term, building and zoning codes will be altered to reflect our new reality as well. These ethereal inklings will become more concrete in time. For right now, it is important to be aware of what may be coming around the corner.