The Case for Space: Commercial Real Estate in Coastal Virginia
HRACRE President Mary Long Says That Commercial Real Estate in Coastal Virginia Is Doing Well Despite COVID-19
By Melissa M. Stewart
When Mary Long was appointed president of the Hampton Roads Association of Commercial Real Estate (HRACRE) at the beginning of 2020, she had no idea a worldwide pandemic was about to take hold. Thankfully, she says, our region hasn’t experienced the same struggles in the commercial real estate market as the nation as a whole.
As she prepared to finish out her term, we talked with Long, the president of Stewart Title & Settlement Services, about the state of the industry in our area.
CoVaBIZ: Can you give us an overview of the current commercial real estate climate in Coastal Virginia?
Mary Long: I keep hearing from national pundits that commercial real estate transactions will be flat for the foreseeable future, but I have not experienced that locally. We’re having one of the busiest years in recent history. There are many transactions happening, both large and small, and the appetite for development and renovation does not seem to have waned just yet. For many folks I’ve talked to, these last couple of months have been the best of the year.
What are some of the struggles that you and other commercial real estate professionals are facing due to COVID-19?
My involvement in a commercial real estate deal comes at the beginning and again at the end. We initially do the land title search to find all the recorded, public information on a property. Because we have had to deal with limited access to some of the land record rooms and clerk’s offices, we’ve had to become resourceful in gathering the info we need to get our jobs done.
I’m sure it’s harder to schedule site visits and property tours now, but brokers seem to be making it work. My friends in the retail sector are enjoying a surprisingly good year though restaurants are a big question mark. Industrial space is booming. Multi-family has not suffered dire consequences from COVID yet and probably benefits from the lack of houses on the market right now. The moratorium on evictions could be concealing deeper problems though.
Are there any particular segments of the market doing better than others—i.e. multi-family versus retail or office space?
Industrial is very strong, and retail and multifamily are strong too. Office is actually not suffering right now either. That’s probably not true in the big metropolitan cities around the country, but here in Hampton Roads, it’s business as usual. One question that remains is will the need for greater distancing inside office spaces compensate for the trend of working at home. And the biggest question looming on the horizon is will massive deficits force government budget cuts that could harm our region.
Retail space seems to have been particularly hard hit. It was recently announced that the owners of Patrick Henry Mall and Greenbrier Mall have filed for bankruptcy. Will we bounce back any time soon?
The regional malls may be the only segment of commercial real estate being hit hard now, but it’s not really due to COVID as much as to the way we shop now. Sure, some people may want to avoid the large, enclosed spaces, but really we’ve been moving towards online shopping and trips to the local strip mall for a couple of years now. The event of spending a day at the mall shopping is not really the draw it used to be. Those spaces are being considered for all kinds of innovative and interesting uses. It will be exciting to see what they turn into.
What are the unique features of our region that help the commercial real estate market?
We’ve got it all here. Beautiful beaches, rivers and waterways, great weather almost year-round, a strong military presence that shields us from drastic market swings, the shipyards, the port, accredited schools, lots of open spaces and other than the HRBT, a pretty easily traveled area.
Are there certain projects going on right now or planned for the future that energize you and that you feel positive about?
Personally, I appreciate when old buildings are re-envisioned, repurposed and rehabbed. There’s been a lot of that happening in our downtown areas. The revitalization of the St. Paul’s Area in Norfolk is exciting. I’m waiting for The Wave Virginia Beach to be completed. The casinos will make a tremendous mark on our area. And Chesapeake has got the potential to bring Hampton Roads something really special on the Grassfield/Frank T. Williams Farm Tract.
In all, Coastal Virginia has weathered the COVID pandemic pretty well so far. That observation in no way discounts the people who have suffered and the tragedy of deaths caused by the virus. Economically, however, let’s hope it continues until a vaccine is readily available and 2020 is a year in the rearview mirror.
Mary Long is president of Stewart Title & Settlement Services and outgoing president of the Hampton Roads Association of Commercial Real Estate (HRACRE).