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Construction activity starts back up – slowly

The sounds of excavators, backhoes, hammers and drills are coming back, and no one could be happier than homebuilder Phil Nanula.

He's been lobbying heavily to get his company's projects back on track.

After almost two months with little to no work being done on houses – many already sold to buyers – Nanula's crews were already ramping up or on the job Tuesday working on mechanicals, framing, exterior grading and other tasks.

"We’re becoming fully engaged on the sites that we had to hold off on," said Nanula, CEO of Essex Homes of Western New York.

With the surprise decision by New York State allowing construction to resume Tuesday in Western New York, others were assembling their workforces and proceeding with caution, caught off-guard after days of hearing local officials predict another two weeks or more of the state's coronavirus shutdown order.

"We’re going to spend this week going through that mobilization process," said Dr. Gregory Daniel, owner of Nidus Development, which is renovating the former Pierce-Arrow Administration Building into apartments. "We’re looking, come next Monday, to really be at full strength and start the process 100%."

The five-county Western New York region slowly began phase one of the state's gradual plan for reopening the local economy, with the resumption of construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fishing, hunting and limited retail activities. All had been suspended since late March under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's New York on Pause executive orders.

But those industries were viewed as the least risky for spreading the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, and therefore the safest to restart first – although under strict new rules and policies for social-distancing, signage, personal protective equipment, cleansing and disinfecting and sharply reduced occupancy.

"It’s a good thing. People are excited to get back to work, and hopefully doing it in a safe manner," said Louis J. Petrucci, Buffalo's deputy commissioner of permits and inspections.

Some construction projects that had been deemed "essential" had continued without interruption during the shutdown – such as Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s affordable-housing project at 201 Ellicott St. But many others had been abruptly halted or at least wound down and secured under directives from state and local authorities.

That's been a major source of frustration and irritation to the developers, builders and contractors, who were eager to resume work after weeks of being idled.

"It’s exciting to see that projects are reopening now in Western New York," said Janne Gallen-Kallela-Siren, director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which was forced to suddenly stop work in March on its $165 million renovation and expansion project on Elmwood Avenue. "And at the same time, as they reopen, we must be mindful that we have to follow the health guidelines provided by the authorities."

The art museum had applied for and received permission from the state last week to restart the project a little early, based on the kind of work being done. Under the direction of construction manager Gilbane Building Co., crews mobilized quickly and already returned to the site to continue the "mass excavation" phase of the project.

That involves digging as much as 16 feet into the ground for the new building and underground parking on both the north and south ends of the museum's property, and then driving piles into the earth for support. And it's relatively safe as far as any risk of spreading the virus, Siren said.

"This is a phase of the project where there’s not hundreds of individuals working on finishes of a building, but rather individuals operating machinery, largely contained in the compartments of the machinery," Siren said. "And Gilbane is known around the nation for their very high safety and health standards."

The digging and pile-driving will likely last another couple of months, before Gilbane turns to pouring foundations and then erecting steel in four to six months, Siren said.

Other large commercial projects are also restarting, such as Ciminelli's $20 million West End townhome project at the Waterfront Village and Cedarland Development Group's The Grid project at 1155 Main St., a $35 million project with 217 apartments.

“The Grid Apartments are back underway as of today, and pushing aggressively the best way we can towards the finish line,” said Cedarland Vice President Kevin Dagher, noting that the project will have 20 to 40 workers at full capacity, but is now at least two months behind schedule. “Our construction team, Buffalo Construction Consultants, has implemented guidelines and procedures to ensure the safety of the workers on site and the community.”

But Daniel – a former emergency medicine doctor – is taking his time before jumping back into his project, which was half-done when it was suspended. He plans to spend this week meeting with his subcontractors to discuss social-distancing, hygiene and other factors.

"I know everyone is in a hurry to get back to work and with good reason," he said. "But we have to recognize that the Covid-19 virus is still around and individuals are still getting infected. People are still dying from this disease. The last thing I would want is for someone at the workplace to be infected from another construction worker at our site."

Nanula said his firm had been working in a limited fashion, with just one person on a job site as required by the state. But he had two homes in Clarence that were framed and had roofs and doors in place when work had to stop on them.

Now crews are resuming installation of the mechanical systems in both. A framer is starting work Wednesday on another site where the foundation was completed. And his company can finish the outside landscaping and other jobs that were left over on homes that were completed during the winter – and are already occupied.

"All the exterior grading that we couldn’t do with one person has resumed, which I’m sure the homeowners are grateful to see because they had no lawn," Nanula said.

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