Just weeks into the brave new world of social distancing, the simple act of eating out, attending a concert, or taking your family to a festival in the woods or by the lake seems like a distant memory and a faraway dream. We simply do not know when we will do these things again. What we do know is that at some point in the future; the global pandemic and our coronavirus quarantine will end and we will appreciate even more the restaurants, venues, and festivals that make Columbia MD such a special place to live, work, and play.
The redevelopment of downtown Columbia and the opening of the next phase of the Merriweather District is a light at the end of this nightmare that we all have to look forward to. How sweet will it be to not just get back out in public, but to get out into some brand new public spaces that are being constructed while we all shelter in place at home. Construction in the Merriweather District continues, but its likely that the first few restaurants won't open as scheduled in July 2020. Allow me to review some key facts and speculate on how long things will be delayed.
First and foremost, it goes without saying that most businesses that will occupy ground-floor retail in The Merriweather District must be closed per Governor Hogan's executive order. While restaurants are allowed to continue to offer carry-out and delivery, new restaurant are not going to open under these conditions.
Per Hogan's executive order, construction is considered an essential business that can continue. Accordingly, the construction of the Merriweather District as well as all other development in and around downtown Columbia and throughout the rest of Maryland can continue, as I have witnessed first-hand that construction is happening while I have been out of my house on a run or bike ride in recent days.
Construction companies are implementing mitigation procedures to keep workers safe. According to an article in Construction Dive, Harkins Builders (which is building in the Merriweather District) is asking all workers to maintain a distance of 6 feet whenever reasonably possible and is cleaning out jobsite trailers daily, arranging for commercial cleaners to clean and disinfect areas of the project as necessary in response to actual or suspected exposure, and supplying projects with additional hand sanitizer.
The number of construction workforce on site is likely reduced as some workers need to miss work due to their own health, to care for loved ones, to quarantine, or because of childcare responsibilities. Less workers means less progress. Likewise, it is possible that there could be delays in the delivery of building materials. There are also a myriad of inspections required throughout construction that need to occur as a project moves forward. Delays in getting inspectors on site could further slow things down.
Commercial construction requires the commercial real estate developers to delivery a "shell" to tenants leasing the space. The aforementioned factors will likely lead to a delay in delivering shells to retail tenants, but given the scale and scope of the nearly completed phase of the Merriweather District; I think the delay in delivering a shell to tenants will be short. If it hasn't happened already, it seems the retail spaces in the Juniper building appear to be nearly complete and ready for delivery, while construction of Busboys & Poets continues.
Once the shell is delivered, it's in the hands of the tenant to take the project over the finish line. The tenant is responsible for transforming the empty space into their place of business. This "fit-in" typically includes constructing the interior including kitchens and bathrooms, installing commercial cooking equipment, interior electrical and plumbing work, adding seating, decor, bars, etc. This process can take 3 to 6 months depending the size and complexity of the space. Certainly, the "fit-in" of a 1300 square foot ice cream shop would require significantly less time than a 10,000 square foot two-story restaurant that can serve 400+ guests.
Restaurateurs are rightfully preoccupied with their existing restaurants at the moment; so completing the fit-in at their newly leased location may not be their highest priority right now, especially considering the uncertainly on when they would be allowed to open once their build out is complete. They too will face the same issues with workers, materials, and inspections. I can't imagine a restaurant rushing to get everything ready to open just to sit there waiting for the coronavirus crisis to end.
It's also worth mentioning that the ground-floor restaurants and retail that I personally am most excited about are just one part of a huge mixed use development that includes significant space devoted to office and residential purposes. Move-ins at the Juniper started earlier this month (I have even seen some outdoor furniture on the balconies of some units!), but residential leasing has likely dramatically slowed down given the circumstances and it's also unknown when office tenants will begin to occupy their new office space. Plus, there is the uncertainty on when concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion or other events in downtown Columbia will be able to resume. So, even once the economy slowly begins to ramp back up and restaurants get the green light to open, there needs to be enough people living, working, and/or playing in Merriweather District to support opening retail components.
As far as leasing goes; given the uncertainty on when economic activity resumes, prospective retail tenants may be hesitant to sign a long-term lease at the moment. This could slow the progress of signing new tenants to occupy the available retail spaces in the Merriweather District and elsewhere in downtown Columbia, so I don't anticipate that many new announcements over the coming months.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the first wave of restaurants (including Matchbox, Dok Khao, Clove & Cardamom, and the Charmery) were tentatively planned to open in mid summer, perhaps July. Busboys & Poets was previously estimated to open in October. At this point, even in the best case scenario in which the conoronavirus were to be contained at some point within the next several months and the shutdown order is lifted, I think it's a safe assumption that the restaurants and retail set to open in The Merriweather District will be delayed by a couple months, and possibly longer. That could translate to opening at the tail end of summer or early fall, but I have my fingers crossed that 2020 is not a complete wash.