February 13, 2023

Tales from a downtown Portland office tower: before, during and after the pandemic

If you’ve been bored over the last three years, you haven’t been paying attention. The collective roller-coaster ride we’ve shared has jostled the world of commercial real estate, just like virtually every aspect of life and business. We’re all sorting out what’s new, what’s real and what will stick.

Downtown Portland has been the epicenter of change, including shifting perceptions of its role in the greater three-county commercial real estate universe. We recently gathered staff who work at the 1000 Broadway Building in downtown Portland and asked them about the arc of the past three years. The NAI Elliott team has worked in this iconic building through the entire pandemic cycle, gaining invaluable knowledge along with a keen sense of the current market.

Our conversation included the on-site management and engineering team, consisting of Liz Killpack, Real Estate Manager; Susan Foley, Assistant Building Manager; Tony Seymour, Chief Building Engineer; and Andrew Moffatt, Assistant Building Engineer.

How would you describe life in the building in early 2020?

Liz: It felt like normal, safe Portland. We had tenant improvement projects, ongoing tenant relations efforts… I love working downtown; it’s a world-class city with a small-town feel.

Susan: We had tons of tenant events, and frequent interactions–I’ve always loved that about this building. We hosted in-person tenant events all year round.

Liz: A high-rise has a cohesive feeling–the day-to-day friendly relationships, seeing people you know when you’re out for coffee or lunch.

And then…things changed. What were the immediate differences you noticed?

Susan: When things hit in 2020, people were told to go home. The building was a surreal ghost town. Only about 25% of the regular building population was here. Like Liz touched on, we’re like a big family. We became very protective of each other.

Tony: We had to change so many things. You had to become an expert in COVID, to know what to do.

Liz: It was stressful. We had to create a new budget for building changes; the tenants were rightfully asking how we would keep the space safe. The tenant companies could close or remain open, but the building remains open no matter what. We had to gather information from the news, the CDC, OHA, other building managers, anywhere, to make sure we were informed. We had to develop protocols: notifications of any Covid cases, an on-demand sanitizing team for any positive cases, signage for mask requirements, social distancing cues and elevator rider limits.

We researched new technologies to clean the air in buildings – and then the 2020 fire season came, and we couldn’t get fresh air.

Tony: What a year. It was a triple whammy: the pandemic, then the riots and then the wildfires.

Liz: When the riots started, we also had to become security experts. Some protests were planned events, so we’d hear from police, but otherwise, we had to monitor social media to know what might happen and what we needed to do.

Susan: We wanted to construct a barrier wall for the lobby – but would the fire codes allow that? We ended up with an 8-foot wall around three sides of the building, with doors cut into it. We had to evolve as everything went along.

What about some positive outcomes? What kind of safety, process or tenant-relations improvements did you make over this time?

Tony: We installed permanent ionizers – a plus for the whole building. We upgraded to MERV-13 filters. The knowledge we gained from dealing with COVID – we’re not going to lose that. All that knowledge is beneficial for tenants.

Liz: We removed outdated public drinking fountains, updated restrooms to hands-free fixtures and installed gates to secure the parking garage. We continued capital projects, meeting virtually, and we modernized elevators, upgraded HVAC controls, made improvements for new tenants, and remodeled elevator lobbies, corridors, and the amenity center’s conference room and workout facilities.

COVID was actually a positive thing for the work community in some ways. The pre-pandemic work culture valued long hours, working when you’re sick; that shifted to a culture that values work/life balance, and health and wellness.

The pandemic stress was a platform to improve things. Working more efficiently actually makes meetings easier – you don’t have to all be in one place. And tenant relationships are even more personable when you’re having a virtual meeting with someone who’s at home in their kitchen with their dog; it shows you more of the person, not just their job.

Let’s talk specifically about those tenant relationships. How have interactions changed overall during this time?

Susan: We hit a new level of tenant relations. We communicated more frequently. We researched and reported – we became safe-building experts, and we educated tenants so they’re more informed.

Liz: You always put yourself in the tenant’s shoes. We had to consider more potential outcomes, because they did, too. We wanted tenants back in the building, but there were considerations for this new work world. We asked tenants directly for feedback: What will make you feel more safe?

Tony: One thing that didn’t change: We were still here, in person, hands-on. The equipment – old and new – is still here, and still must be maintained. The tenants may be working from home, but our jobs are still here.

Liz: Here’s an example of safety changes. The parking garage in the building used to be open all the time. Now we have automatic roll-up doors tenants can activate with a card, anytime. The public can only use the garage in designated hours. We’re also researching technology where tenants can provide a QR code to access elevators and even individual floors. We’re focused on what technology can do to make tenants more secure.

Andrew: There was kind of a work culture shock for me when I started at 1000 Broadway in spring 2022. Things were more cautious. I could see how some COVID measures were being loosened, but others were going to be long-term. In general, there were lots of sanitation and safety improvements that make things better for everyone.

How have the last three years impacted the leasing market, and what’s your general feeling about what’s ahead for the downtown core?

Susan: We’re one of the very few buildings that brought in new tenants during the pandemic. We’re really excited for Northwest Children’s Theater to move into our space, for example.

Liz: We worked to employ a smart strategy. We offered attractive lease terms and enhanced tenant improvements. Tenants love this area – the access to everything. And moving forward, all the positives of downtown play out.

Susan: You see more tenants coming back into the building with food, more people going to events… the desire to meet people, go to activities, eat out – that doesn’t go away.

Liz: Yes, there’s a sense of a special event when you come to downtown. People are excited to be here – go out to lunch, meet up with friends or colleagues, change their routines of the last few years.

Tony: It’s the same in the building engineering world: Things are going to change, but people will always come back to downtown.

Susan: Perception catches up to reality. The smart investors and companies will see the future rebound that’s going to happen here.

Liz: There’s been a noticeable change in the energy downtown, in the last year especially. Companies have figured out their long-term plan and people aren’t in limbo. Once you know what it’s going to be like, you can embrace it. Portlanders are tough and resilient. They have that sense of wanting Portland to be the best place to live. Downtown Portland will be back.

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