With key government offices closed, Milwaukee crafting methods to prevent disruption of construction projects

Department that issues permits, inspects buildings shuttered until further notice

Last updated on March 26th, 2020 at 01:44 pm

Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services says it is laying plans that would allow construction activity in the city to continue.

The department sent out email notifications earlier this week that, due to state and city stay-at-home mandates, its offices would be closed “until further notice.” The mandates were issued in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

Even so, construction activity is allowed to continue under these orders, since the industry was among those deemed an essential business. But construction projects can’t commence or continue without DNS services such as plan reviews and building inspections.

DNS Commissioner Erica Lewandowski said that DNS is working out a way to allow construction work to continue. At the same time, she acknowledged that building inspections could be delayed as a result of staff reductions.

“(DNS) recognizes the challenges that the development and building community is experiencing and is working to rapidly create an operations plan to expand our ability to serve the public,” Lewandowski wrote in an email. “DNS is looking at all possible options to facilitate both plan reviews and inspections, while providing appropriate safety measures for staff. A public announcement with details will follow as soon as a plan is in place.”

Jim Villa, chief executive officer of NAIOP Wisconsin, said his organization has reached out to the city and Mayor Tom Barrett’s office requesting that DNS continue offering its services, even if its physical offices are closed.

“NAIOP Wisconsin appreciates and supports your efforts to flatten the curve of this pandemic while working to preserve the viability of our great city’s economic future,” the group stated in a letter to Barrett, which was sent Tuesday. “To this end we ask for your swift leadership in restoring permitting and inspection services within the Department of Neighborhood Services.”

The association said in an email to its members that Barrett would be meeting remotely with officials from DNS, the Department of City Development, Department of Public Works and Health Department to “determine the safest potential way to resume operations as soon as possible.”

The real estate brokerage community is likewise feeling the effects of office closures. Tenants waiting to move into a new commercial space or residential dwelling may have to wait longer periods while waiting for DNS inspections.

“People are still moving forward,” Tracy Johnson, president and CEO of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said. “Real estate is still happening.”

Johnson said brokers have been in constant communication with tenants and landlords during this period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, CARW is working with other groups on drafting new provisions that could be inserted into contracts, which she said would allow for some flexibility for move-in dates.

Construction projects are being impacted in ways beyond office closures.

Jeffrey Beiriger, president of Association/Management Services Inc., which provides services to a number of construction associations, said contractors have had to get creative.

They of course are ramping up protective procedures such as more frequent cleanings, and are working to ensure safe job sites for employees, he said.

Beyond that, some contractors are reconsidering work schedules so that multiple trades aren’t on the job site at the same time. This results in fewer workers, and more space between those that are on-site. Another idea some companies could consider is shift work, which could even further disperse the number of workers on the job site at any given time, said Beiriger.

He added that the coronavirus outbreak has benefited some work, such as school building projects, because the closure of those buildings means crews can get in at times they normally wouldn’t. Meanwhile, projects such as hospital renovations may be tabled for now in order to reduce exposure risk to both workers and building users, he said.

“Everybody has had to evaluate, ‘What is the necessity of our doing this project right now?'” Beiriger said.

Bob Monnat, chief operating officer of Milwaukee-based developer Mandel Group Inc., said contractors are now deciding what projects should be considered “essential.” He argued that almost any project could be considered essential due to potential impacts of not completing work. Buildings that aren’t enclosed could be damaged by inclement weather, for example.

“It’s overly clear to ownership, people who will be harmed by delaying construction … why this work is essential,” he said.

Monnat added that, fortunately, the industry is well-equipped to deal with the outbreak due to the nature of the work and its adherence to safety practices.

“The health and safety standards on construction sites is already pretty substantial,” he said. “If you want to look for an area of the economy where you can continue to support family supporting jobs and continue to keep the economy running, construction is a simple way to do that and not cause a heightened risk to the public in general.”

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.