The commercial and residential construction industry is weathering the pandemic storm in local cities, though with fewer of the gigantic projects filed in 2019, according to a Reporter review of building permit filings.

Building permit categories and filing methods vary among local cities, but officials agree that the number of filings is a general indicator of developers’ and homeowners’ confidence in growth and investment. And those numbers were broadly similar in 2020 compared to 2019, despite the apocalyptic pandemic and its economic fallout.

Officials say that the lack of severe plunge in permit filings illustrates some of the industry changes in the pandemic. City halls shifted to online permitting and virtual inspections. The construction industry remained an “essential” business immune to shutdown orders. And there was a boost in home renovations as some people who shifted to teleworking found themselves eager to spruce up the four walls they were now staring at all day.

The city of Dunwoody successfully shifted its planning staff to teleworking, says Community Development Director Richard McLeod. “We never really shut down. We closed City Hall for the most part, but we had everyone working at home and we could handle [permits] pretty well,” he said.

In his city, McLeod said, “the commercial permits have dropped a little,” while residential permits “ticked up because so many people were doing home projects.”

While the number of permits were similar, McLeod said, the fee revenue dipped because, especially on the commercial side, 2020’s projects were smaller. Last year, for example, including permitting for one of the new skyscrapers at State Farm’s new complex in Perimeter Center.

A similar drop in large-scale projects is part of the story in Atlanta, the local city that did see a significant dip in permit filings. The city of Atlanta also briefly shut down its permitting and inspections in March.

City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said that new residential and commercial permitting citywide in 2020 is about 70% of what it was last year. But here’s the thing, he says: 2019 was Atlanta’s biggest-ever development year.

“If you consider that we’re in a global pandemic, to be at 70% of the permits we did last year, the busiest year in the city’s history — it’s pretty impressive,” Keane said. Permitting in the last quarter of the year has picked up to about 85% of 2019 numbers, he said.

Permit filings in Buckhead’s main ZIP codes echo the citywide trend, with single-family and commercial permits down about 70%. But 2019 also had a big local spike from the Peachtree Hills Place senior residences on Peachtree Hills Avenue, where each condo was permitted individually.

The city of Sandy Springs had a similar 2019 spike that did not repeat: a phase of the massive Aria residential development along Abernathy Road and Glenridge Drive. Ginger Sottile, the city’s community development director, said the permit mix changes naturally year to year, and in 2020 might be tilted toward renovations rather than new construction.

“I think our overall permit numbers are very consistent over the past few years,” she said.

Building permits are just one window into the state of the construction industry. Not every permit it approved, and many projects that get a permit are never finished. Big projects will have many permits filed over several years.

Time will tell whether the pandemic may have longer-term impacts on what is built and when, noted Burke Brennan, a spokesperson for the city of Brookhaven, which continued its permitting uninterrupted and saw little change in the numbers.

“Building permits are … a step in a process, which is often months, sometimes years, in the making,” Brennan said. “As it pertains to what plans may have been interrupted by this pandemic, those results may have yet to be seen.”

–John Ruch with mapping and analysis by Maggie Lee / maggielee.net

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.