What’s Driving Industrial Development in the Southwest U.S.

The post-COVID-19 pandemic pipeline, supply imbalances, investment and construction challenges: these are just a few of the topics address by a powerhouse panel of executives in industrial real estate this week at NAIOP’s I.CON West in Long Beach, California. Led by Dawn McCombs, principal and Denver lead industrial specialist for Avison Young, the panel tackled some of the biggest issues facing the sector in the Western U.S. 

Starting with the pandemic in 2020 and continuing through 2022, McCombs said, the industrial sector experienced a huge surge in demand, resulting in historic vacancies, rent growth and record deliveries. Operating fundamentals began to normalize in 2023 and construction starts declined, certainly impacting vacancy and absorption moving forward.  

“Development starts dropped by 65% year-over-year across the U.S. last year. In Q4, we were down 25% from pre-COVID norms,” began Megan Creecy-Herman, president, U.S. West Region, Prologis, noting that all of that is setting us up to see an improvement of fundamentals in the market. “U.S. vacancy ended 2023 at about 5%, which is very healthy.” 

Vacancies are expected to grow in Q1 and Q2, peaking mid-year at around 7%. Creecy-Herman expects to see an increase in absorption as customers begin to have confidence in the economy, and everyone gets some certainty on what the Fed does with interest rates. 

“It’s an interesting dynamic to see such a great increase in rents, which have almost doubled in some markets,” said Reon Roski, CEO, Majestic Realty Co. “It’s healthy to see a slowing down… before [rents] go back up.” 

Pre-pandemic, a lot of markets were used to 4-5% vacancy, said Brooke Birtcher Gustafson, fifth-generation president of Birtcher Development. “Everyone was a little tepid about where things are headed with a mediocre outlook for 2024, but much of this is normalizing in the Southwest markets.”  

McCombs asked the panel where their companies found themselves in the construction pipeline when the Fed raised rates in 2022.   

In Salt Lake City, said Angela Eldredge, chief operations officer at Price Real Estate, there is a typical 12-18-month lead time on construction materials. “As rates started to rise in 2022, lots of permits had already been pulled and construction starts were beginning, so those project deliveries were in fall 2023. [The slowdown] was good for our market because it kept rates high, vacancies lower and helped normalize the market to a healthy pace.” 

A supply imbalance can stress any market, and Gustafson joked that the current imbalance reminded her of a favorite quote from the movie Super Troopers: “Desperation is a stinky cologne.” “We’re all still a little crazed where this imbalance has put us, but for the patient investor and owner, there will be a rebalancing and opportunity for the good quality real estate to pass the sniff test,” she said.  

At Bircher, Gustafson said that mid-pandemic, there were predictions that one billion square feet of new product would be required to meet tenant demand, e-commerce growth and safety stock. That transition opened a great opportunity for investors to run at the goal. “In California, the entitlement process is lengthy, around 24-36 months to get from the start of an acquisition to the completion of a building,” she said. Fast forward to 2023-2024, a lot of what is being delivered in 2024 is the result of that chase.  

“Being an optimistic developer, there is good news. The supply imbalance helped normalize what was an unsustainable surge in rents and land values,” she said. “It allowed corporate heads of real estate to proactively evaluate growth opportunities, opened the door for contrarian investors to land bank as values drop, and provided tenants with options as there is more product. Investment goals and strategies have shifted, and that’s created opportunity for buyers.” 

“Developers only know how to run and develop as much as we can,” said Roski. “There are certain times in cycles that we are forced to slow down, which is a good thing. In the last few years, Majestic has delivered 12-14 million square feet, and this year we are developing 6-8 million square feet. It’s all part of the cycle.”  

Creecy-Herman noted that compared to the other asset classes and opportunities out there, including office and multifamily, industrial remains much more attractive for investment. “That was absolutely one of the things that underpinned the amount of investment we saw in a relatively short time period,” she said.  

Market rent growth across Los Angeles, Inland Empire and Orange County moved up more than 100% in a 24-month period. That created opportunities for landlords to flexible as they’re filling up their buildings. “Normalizing can be uncomfortable especially after that kind of historic high, but at the same time it’s setting us up for strong years ahead,” she said. 

Issues that owners and landlords are facing with not as much movement in the market is driving a change in strategy, noted Gustafson. “Comps are all over the place,” she said. “You have to dive deep into every single deal that is done to understand it and how investment strategies are changing.” 

Tenants experienced a variety of challenges in the pandemic years, from supply chain to labor shortages on the negative side, to increased demand for products on the positive, McCombs noted.  

“Prologis has about 6,700 customers around the world, from small to large, and the universal lesson [from the pandemic] is taking a more conservative posture on inventories,” Creecy-Herman said. “Customers are beefing up inventories, and that conservatism in the supply chain is a lesson learned that’s going to stick with us for a long time.” She noted that the company has plenty of clients who want to take more space but are waiting on more certainty from the broader economy.  

“E-commerce grew by 8% last year, and we think that’s going to accelerate to 10% this year. This is still less than 25% of all retail sales, so the acceleration we’re going to see in e-commerce… is going to drive the business forward for a long time,” she said. 

Roski noted that customers continually re-evaluate their warehouse locations, expanding during the pandemic and now consolidating but staying within one delivery day of vast consumer bases.  

“This is a generational change,” said Creecy-Herman. “Millions of young consumers have one-day delivery as a baseline for their shopping experience. Think of what this means for our business long term to help our customers meet these expectations.” 

McCombs asked the panelists what kind of leasing activity they are experiencing as a return to normalcy is expected in 2024. 

“During the pandemic, shifts in the ports and supply chain created a build up along the Mexican border,” said Roski, noting border towns’ importance to increased manufacturing in Mexico. A shift of populations out of California and into Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida have resulted in an expansion of warehouses in those markets. 

Eldridge said that Salt Lake City’s “sweet spot” is 100-200 million square feet, noting that the market is best described as a mid-box distribution hub that is close to California and Midwest markets. “Our location opens up the entire U.S. to our market, and it’s continuing to grow,” she said.   

The recent supply chain and West Coast port clogs prompted significant investment in nearshoring and port improvements. “Ports are always changing,” said Roski, listing a looming strike at East Coast ports, challenges with pirates in the Suez Canal, and water issues in the Panama Canal. “Companies used to fix on one port and that’s where they’d bring in their imports, but now see they need to be [bring product] in a couple of places.” 

“Laredo, [Texas,] is one of the largest ports in the U.S., and there’s no water. It’s trucks coming across the border. Companies have learned to be nimble and not focused on one area,” she said. 

“All of the markets in the southwest are becoming more interconnected and interdependent than they were previously,” Creecy-Herman said. “In Southern California, there are 10 markets within 500 miles with over 25 million consumers who spend, on average, 10% more than typical U.S. consumers.” Combined with the port complex, those fundamentals aren’t changing. Creecy-Herman noted that it’s less of a California exodus than it is a complementary strategy where customers are taking space in other markets as they grow. In the last 10 years, she noted there has been significant maturation of markets such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. As they’ve become more diversified, customers want to have a presence there. 

In the last decade, Gustafson said, the consumer base has shifted. Tenants continue to change strategies to adapt, such as hub-and-spoke approaches.  From an investment perspective, she said that strategies change weekly in response to market dynamics that are unprecedented.  

McCombs said that construction challenges and utility constraints have been compounded by increased demand for water and power. 

“Those are big issues from the beginning when we’re deciding on whether to buy the dirt, and another decision during construction,” Roski said. “In some markets, we order transformers more than a year before they are needed. Otherwise, the time comes [to use them] and we can’t get them. It’s a new dynamic of how leases are structured because it’s something that’s out of our control.” She noted that it’s becoming a bigger issue with electrification of cars, trucks and real estate, and the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle it.  

Salt Lake City’s land constraints play a role in site selection, said Eldridge. “Land values of areas near water are skyrocketing.” 

The panelists agreed that a favorable outlook is ahead for 2024, and today’s rebalancing will drive a healthy industry in the future as demand and rates return to normalized levels, creating opportunities for investors, developers and tenants.  

This post is brought to you by JLL, the social media and conference blog sponsor of NAIOP’s I.CON West 2024. Learn more about JLL at www.us.jll.com or www.jll.ca.

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