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A Civil Engineering CEO On Our Changing Cityscapes

BKF CEO Greg Hurd

Just four months after taking on the role of president and CEO of engineering and land surveying consulting firm BKF, Greg Hurd faced the greatest challenge of his career. Like so many C-suite executives, Hurd never saw the coronavirus coming, nor could he predict the impact it would have on the global economy and on the 106-year-old business he now helmed.

But the pandemic has also provided the public and private sectors a chance to rethink how we occupy and use our spaces. Cityscapes are shifting as office space is reinvented to suit a more remote workforce. The surge in online shopping has e-commerce companies looking to expand their facilities into city centers. With more restaurants using outdoor dining space, downtown neighborhoods look remarkably different, and many neighborhoods now have an eye to permanently becoming more pedestrian-centric.

BKF has a bird’s-eye view of the transformation of these central business districts, which changes will be temporary and which could change cities forever.

Bisnow spoke to Hurd to hear what he expects from the commercial real estate industry of tomorrow.

Bisnow: How do you see cities, their residents and their corporate occupants changing?

Hurd: We’re seeing a transformation in what asset classes need space within and outside of population centers. Because of the boom in online shopping, big distribution centers and data centers need to be expanded, and more of these facilities also need to be developed. We’ve seen a huge uptick in requests from developers who want to develop these sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

The large facilities are located where real estate costs are lower. But more small satellite facilities closer to downtowns may come under development so that delivery and distribution is in proximity to the general public.

Commercial real estate development has slowed down and the way that workers return to the office is constantly evolving. As a result, there’s likely going to be a surplus of available office space which creates opportunities for new and alternative uses. BKF is accustomed to repurposing these types of projects due to our history and longevity in the Bay Area. 

A BKF office scan

Bisnow: Large-scale repurposing is an arduous process. How have BKF’s clients’ needs changed when it comes to those projects?

Hurd: Our clients’ needs have changed as the concept of office functionality has shifted dramatically over the past year. With some employees preparing to return to the office, others continuing to work from home and some planning to shift into a hybrid format, repurposing existing spaces is a complex issue. One of the challenges our clients have faced due to the pandemic is the need to create appropriate distance between employee workstations, just as we are experiencing internally with our BKF offices. Accurate floor plans and existing conditions documentation are rarely available. By using 3D scanning and BIM modeling, we have helped create accurate floor plans that included HVAC ceiling systems, structural components, and electrical/communication cable trays and receptacles that aid in the design of safe spaces and system upgrades needed for employees to return to work.

Additionally, we have seen an uptick on adaptive reuse of both historic and modern buildings.  This includes the Stanford Medicine Outpatient Center at Midpoint Technology Park in Redwood City that was originally constructed for Exite@Home during the dot-com era. At Alameda Point, historic Navy buildings 9 and 91 were repurposed into Admiral Malting and an Almanac Beer taproom, winning an award through the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society. 


Bisnow: How are downtowns going to change?

Hurd: Improving foot traffic and the pedestrian experience within the downtown core has involved both small and large investments. During the past year, restaurants in downtown areas have had to operate outdoors and have opened public dining on the street. We’ve seen a lot of these downtown restaurants and marketplaces petition their local city to permanently accommodate these outdoor pedestrian spaces.

BKF’s work to design and implement complete streets and sidewalk projects have improved pedestrian and bicycle circulation, calmed vehicle traffic and created a walkable environment.  

In Castro Valley, Alameda County worked with property owners to consolidate parking, which also eliminated the need for some commercial driveways. These driveway areas were then repurposed and converted into public paseos. With a little ingenuity and engineering, these once utilitarian driveways meant solely for cars are now converted into open spaces providing fully accessible opportunities for the entire community. These paseos are used jointly by adjacent businesses for outdoor dining and as passageways to access parking and other businesses within the downtown core.  

The transformation wasn’t the result of any one business but a joint public agency and private owners’ effort. Making a locale more conducive to exterior living requires a unified approach both at the micro and macro levels.

Bisnow: How is transportation involved in the evolution of cities?

Hurd: Autonomous vehicles and drones are also a hot topic right now. As they are used more and more for deliveries, there is a need for additional technology and more power to drive urban change. Civil engineers can determine the space required for sending and receiving those drones. Because this still hasn’t been done on a mass scale, the technology and consequently the planning involved are still evolving.

On the San Francisco peninsula, we’re working on facilities like a racetrack that can be used to test these vehicles on mock streets so that future vehicles are designed to respect existing infrastructure. The technology is already there, it’s just being refined.


Bisnow: Do you see climate change affecting the real estate sector?

Hurd: We were involved in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County and also the 2020 wildfires in Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties. While property lines and topography needed to be re-established, the approach to residential rebuilding changed significantly.

Owners and investors began incorporating different construction materials, fire prevention techniques, fire breaks, fire lines, public announcement systems and emergency alert systems. They also started looking to develop on land that has less chance of being compromised in the future.

These aren’t just considerations for developers of individual residential homes. Developers of multifamily and affordable housing are also gravitating to safer, more sustainable projects. That also includes innovations to water quality, wider fire lanes and resilient power systems that may include solar energy or generators that may offer better outcomes than reliance on public utilities. 

Bisnow: Has BKF worked on any projects this past year that you feel signal long-term future changes for any of the sectors that you service?

Hurd: We do a lot of healthcare work and I believe that a lot of large, traditional hospitals and other healthcare businesses will start opening smaller satellite locations like urgent care clinics. We’re already seeing commercial space in strip malls being redeveloped as behavior health clinics and urgent care facilities that can shift some of the burden away from hospitals. Smaller medical facilities can assist in treating less extensive health issues that don’t require a hospital visit.

We’re also seeing more being done with solar and wind energy. Open spaces are increasingly looked to as potential locations for solar arrays and wind generation. But the energy isn’t necessarily going directly into the grid, leaving more opportunity for energy storage centers. Unused roofs on commercial buildings represent potential space for solar arrays. Other vacant commercial real estate space could be repurposed as energy storage facilities in order to generate revenue for property owners and investors. There is a capital expense to consider, but the Biden administration has made it clear that there’s going to be more focus on sustainable energy

Bisnow: How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed civil engineering, particularly as it relates to CRE?

Hurd: Currently, there’s a lot of commercial real estate that may never be used as it was originally intended. BKF is facilitating synergies between land developers and commercial real estate clients that are looking for more collaborative opportunities. We can connect clients who, together, can repurpose developments.

The bottom line is that we’re all in this together. No single industry is going to solve the issues. The more we collaborate with like-minded businesses, the better we’ll get through this.

This article was produced in collaboration between BKF and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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