As part of its Visionary Series, the Fordham Real Estate Institute hosted an April 15 webcast titled “Envisioning the Future: Technology, Innovation, and Obsolescence,” that examined how technology is driving change in real estate for nearly all sectors of the economy, including residential, commercial, and health care. Though not officially billed as a post-pandemic exploration of the industry, the international health crisis loomed large in the conversation. The event was sponsored by the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Continued Growth Amidst Crisis

Michael Dowling, GSS ’74, president and CEO of Northwell Health, was at the epicenter of the pandemic when New York state was hit hard last spring. Dowling said that despite the economic fallout, Northwell continues to occupy nearly 20 million square feet of real estate in the state. He added that the institution expects to continue to expand as it has for the past decade, which is at about $1 billion a year.

“Every month we expand and just to give you an idea, we hire between 150 and 200 employees every single week,” he said. “We have a very, very large footprint.”

Dowling said that regardless of the economic sector, the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already underway, mostly due to advances in technology.

“One of the issues for us right now is to figure out how many of our employees will forever be working remotely, will be part-time, or will be full-time,” he said.

He added that even with so many of its employees on the front line, more than 10,000 Northwell staffers continue to work remotely, which has actually increased productivity.

“Those people seem to be happier and the productivity has been enhanced,” said Dowling, who also served as a professor of social policy and assistant dean at the Graduate School of Social Service after he earned his degree. “That raises the question of what does that mean for the real estate side of my business.”

Manage for Today, Lead for Tomorrow

Dowling said though many employees will continue to work from home, it doesn’t mean he will pull back from constructing or leasing space. Rather, he said, the pandemic has provided him an opportunity to replace existing spaces with other functions, consider infrastructure upgrades, and, “obviously,” technology enhancements.

He said Northwell’s overall vision for new construction projects remains the same.

“It’s a temporary blip. You know, it was difficult and I don’t want to minimize it,” he said of the deadly pandemic. “But we will recover from this, … I don’t think it will be the same exactly. But I do think we will come back strong and I think New York will continue to be the city of dreams.”

He added that he expects to rent in Hudson Yards soon, which he described as temporarily “dormant” due to the crisis, though he predicted the site to be “flush” in three to five years.

“I’m always thinking five years away, seven years away,” he said. “You manage for today which will lead for tomorrow.”

Built-In Health Tech

He also predicted that consumers will come to expect certain technological advances they’ve become accustomed to during the pandemic, such as telemedicine, and new construction must accommodate that. They will also expect to be kept safe.

“We also have to build now to make sure that we’re completely adaptable for infection control, safety mechanisms—and that’s not just hospitals, by the way, that’s for all construction,” he said.

Jeffrey Levin, founder and chairman of Douglaston Development/Levine Builders/Clinton Management, reminded viewers that at the beginning of the pandemic people were concerned about touching contaminated surfaces. This led him to consider building projects with an eye toward utilizing technologies so that residents don’t necessarily have to push buttons or open doors.

“You can use your iPhone to call the elevator or open your apartment,” he said. “We’ve already moved over to electronic latches into apartments because people initially wanted that for the ease, but now it’s more for the concept of hygiene.”

Dowling said housing is part of health care.

“Good housing promotes good health,” he said. “I think you’re going to see more and more of an integration between health care delivery systems and housing development.”

Getting Back to the Office

Jennifer Stewart, global head of real estate for BNY Mellon, said that from a workforce perspective the past year was a major test of at-home technological capacity.

“The biggest beta test ever for the technology was when we all had to leave our offices and go work from home,” she said. “It was a tremendous effort, but you know what? We passed the test … And if there’s anything we’ve learned from using this technology, is that it’s made us all more forward-thinking.”

Yet, Stewart said that with vaccines making headway, she senses “a pent-up demand and energy” to get back to work in person, albeit with caution, “once the kids are back in school,” and safety at the office is assured.

“Being able to work in a hybrid way or virtually is an added bonus, it gives people flexibility, and it adds to wellness,” she said. “But at the same time, we’re social beings, so this idea of you can just work from home forever, well I don’t think that any industry, in any way, shape, or form believes that.”

James Nelson, principal and head of Tri-State Investment Sales Group at Avison Young, moderated the discussion that also included industry experts Chris Mills, president and CEO of Plaza Construction, and Marc Zuluaga, CEO at Steven Winter Associates.