What’s Next for Industrial Real Estate?
A deep dive into the sector’s trends, challenges and priorities.
Industrial real estate was a top-performing sector in 2023, with demand near record levels. The sector is likely to remain bright, although growth will happen at a slightly slower pace due to several factors, experts agree.
On the heels of two years of unprecedented growth, the industrial sector has reached a more sustainable, normalized trajectory, Link Logistics Managing Director of Research & Analytics Matthew Rand told Commercial Property Executive.
Going forward, the economy could determine the near-term course of the sector to an extent, but we will also see a continuation of secular tailwinds play out, such as the entrenchment of e-commerce and a shift toward regional models that drive greater demand for smaller infill sites.
Fundamentals will cool off
According to the latest CommercialEdge report, there were 505 million square feet of industrial space under construction as of November nationwide, accounting for 2.7 percent of existing inventory. But with capital becoming more expensive over the past two years, a slowdown of new construction has settled in, with buyers and sellers also tempering their activity.
Trammell Crow Co. Market Leader Andrew Mele expects future industrial development activity to slow down in 2024. Mele noted that we can already see construction starts subsiding—they are down 64 percent since 2022—due to the high costs of capital, both debt and equity. We will likely see the under-construction pipeline continue to fall through the year, he believes.
Completions were at or near historic highs in 2023—up 33 percent year-over-year through the third quarter, according to CBRE data—due to construction starts that occurred before the interest rate hikes and the cooling of capital markets that began mid-2022. Melinda McLaughlin, head of Global Research at Prologis, noticed that the logistics market is in the middle of a supply-driven “mini-cycle,” which is characterized by a temporary influx of new supply that will be followed by a pullback in deliveries in the second half of 2024.
“This means vacancy will peak at a historically low level in mid-2024, before declining again as a cliff in new supply meets accelerating demand, aided by an improved economic growth outlook,” said McLaughlin.
One of the main short-term challenges for industrial developers and operators will be the availability of capital for new projects. “Despite strong fundamentals, equity investors and lenders will continue to be reticent in investing in new projects until there’s clear evidence of where long-term interest rates will settle and whether a recession is in the cards for 2024,” Mele told CPE.
Underwriting will remain generally more conservative across the spectrum of deals, according to Rand, leading to fewer bidders on many properties. Simultaneously, new projects will no longer be as attractive for most developers.
However, opportunities for high-conviction investments will remain, as the situation plays out differently when looking at the regional market level. Senior Managing Director Trent Agnew, who co-leads the industrial platform at JLL Capital Markets, noted that traditional infill markets that have been historically considered underserved in terms of logistics and inventory due to stringent entitlement processes—such as Southern California and New Jersey—will likely remain in this position and will not see an improvement in development. On the other hand, Southeast markets with high population growth—such as Charleston, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.—sit at below the national vacancy rate of 4.9 percent. These are likely to see an upside in development.
“Such population trends lead to increased demand for logistics real estate as companies seek to efficiently move packages to more storefronts and front porches,” Rand agreed.
Markets with lower barriers to new development—typically farther from city centers and inland logistics hubs—will likely experience more deliveries of industrial inventory.
E-commerce, retail will drive demand
Just like in the past decade, retail and e-commerce will both be determining factors in the expansion of distribution networks in 2024. As far as retail is concerned, large providers are experimenting with prototype developments that will fit the new demand models. Agnew thinks that investments at the tenant level for these projects will be much larger than a decade ago due to additional power requirements, climate-controlled space, mezzanine space for robotics, along with many other aspects. For the short term, these will remain in the build-to-suit realm, while in the long term we will probably see them shift into the spec development space, as well.
Retailers will further focus on regionalizing their operations, similar to how major e-commerce companies have done. These regional networks are aimed at improving delivery speeds and reduce last-mile transportation costs. One way to accomplish this will be by aiming for small- and mid-size warehouse leases, closer to regional population and transportation centers, a trend which both Rand and McLaughlin noticed.
McLaughlin also pointed out that future economic growth will require a higher proportion of goods versus services, more resilient inventories and supply chains, and a higher proportion of online sales relative to pre-pandemic levels. All these dynamics will translate into vacancies remaining at record-low levels through 2024.
What will 2024 be like for tenant demands?
One of the biggest evolutions on the tenant side is the ongoing desire for longer-term leases and the need to future-proof the building and its operation as much as possible.
“The cost of preparing a highly sophisticated logistics facility is enormous—often as much as the building itself—and occupiers do not want to leave that infrastructure behind because a building is no longer suitable for any reason,” Mele told CPE.
For developers, this translates into constructing taller buildings, adding more supportive infrastructure such as truck and car parking options, heavier roof loads that are optimized for solar arrays, EV facilities and more.
“Developers usually do a good job of listening to tenant demands, but the math must pencil as well. This will likely necessitate more build-to-suit activity in 2024 as spec construction takes a pause,” Agnew added.
Reshoring, nearshoring will get stronger
Manufacturers made massive investments over the past two years as the U.S. continued reshoring and nearshoring initiatives. Projects such as Intel’s $20 billion chip plant in Ohio, Micron’s $100 billion investment in New York, Honda and LG’s $3.5 billion upcoming factory, Toyota’s $14 billion North Carolina EV plant and Texas Instruments’ $11 billion project in Utah are just a few recent examples.
Despite these substantial investment, there are still lots of factors that limit further growth in the sector: access to skilled labor and access to sufficient energy. In major distribution hubs, land and power are more expensive, which is one of the reasons why these projects are shaping up in more inland markets.
“These markets also typically have lower labor costs, though the labor pool is not as deep and one or two major requirements can tap out the supply,” Mele said. “One could see manufacturers address these skill gaps through further mechanization/automation of the process.”
Locations that can offer economic incentives have a higher percentage of skilled labor and are eager to collaborate with manufacturers—for example, through partnering with technical schools—will benefit economically as these investments continue to proliferate, Agnew expects.
Besides electricity and labor, these facilities also require access to transportation infrastructure and material storage, which is where traditional industrial owners and providers can step in to fulfill these needs.
“This activity is concentrated in the Southeast, Texas and the Midwest, and we expect markets in those regions to continue to capitalize on this trend,” Rand said.
Industrial’s future is tied to sustainability
More manufacturing investment translate to higher energy needs. Manufacturing facilities power requirements are about three to five times higher than logistics or e-commerce, and many regions do not yet have enough capabilities to meet these needs. So, to meet increasing energy demand, the focus on green energy sources will likely grow, as both private and public entities have set ambitious sustainability goals.
According to McLaughlin, the primary focus in sustainability will be in shrinking operational carbon. Innovations at the utilization level include HVAC and efficient lighting systems, which will be coupled with alternative energy sources to both reduce operational carbon and lower costs.
Owners and developers will also need to shift their attention to decreasing embodied carbon. This includes using low-carbon building materials—such as mass timber instead of steel—that have lower emissions due to efficient manufacturing, and using EVs for transportation.
“While the carbon markets are purely voluntary currently, we are seeing the trend in Europe, the U.K. and recently California, to start regulating carbon emissions and penalizing projects that have excessive emissions,” Trammell Crow Co. Director of Sustainability James Murray-Coleman told CPE.
Large developers and providers such as TCC, Prologis and Link, all have various pilot programs in the works that aim to reduce emissions at all levels, from building materials to other resiliency efforts, so that when regulations are finally enacted, they can meet expectations.
These ongoing efforts for a more sustainable economy are a societal-scale effort that requires broad collaboration, Rand points out. In this context, smart partnerships will be a key factor for the future of industrial real estate.