Developers take steps to reinvent suburban office parks

The following article was written by Jay Fitzgerald and appeared in the July 27, 2014 edition of The Boston Globe:

When the exodus to the suburbs got underway more than a half-century ago, employers followed, and the office park was born. But today, as younger workers return to the city, and employers again follow the labor, these isolated campuses of low-slung buildings, parking lots, and company cafeterias face challenges, from new competitors to aging facilities to high vacancy rates.

As a result, owners and developers across Eastern Massachusetts are seeking to reinvent the suburban office park, taking a page from urban revitalization that transformed old mill and factory buildings into mixed-use developments of housing, retail, and office spaces. In communities such as Burlington and Marlborough, developers are adding restaurants, hotels, and other amenities, as well as housing, to compete with the “live, work, play” attraction of the city.

In Marlborough, for example, Atlantic Management Inc. of Framingham purchased the former Hewlett-Packard campus three years ago to launch a more than $200 million rehab of the 110-acre site, which dates back to the 1960s. The project is well underway, with Atlantic refurbishing the two office buildings, while AvalonBay Communities of Virginia, which purchased 26 acres at the site, builds 350 luxury apartments.

Atlantic Management also plans to develop a 153-room hotel and 50,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space that may one day include a farmers market. Already, this redevelopment of the Marlborough Hills office park has attracted a major corporate tenant, Quest Diagnostics of New Jersey, which plans to locate more than 1,000 lab workers there later this year.w

“The number-one challenge for many companies is how to attract talent,” said Joseph Zink, chief executive of Atlantic Management.“Companies need to attract talent and this is one way to do it. I think we’re going to see more of this in Massachusetts.”

Suburban office parks across the nation are trying to respond to tenants insisting on more amenities, said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a real estate trade group. In Massachusetts, there’s no precise figure on how many office parks are undertaking renovations large and small, Begelfer said, but “it’s dozens of them and they’re easily spending billions of dollars.”

“The market is demanding it,” he said.

Commercial real estate specialists say the trend in office park redevelopment is driven by two forces. First, property owners need to renovate aging, outdated buildings, some of which are a half-century old. Second, they must meet increasing competition from Boston, Cambridge, and other nearby urban communities.

Along Interstate 495, the vacancy rate for Class A offices is hovering at nearly 18 percent, compared with 11.5 percent in Boston and less than 6 percent in Cambridge. Commercial rents are depressed. Offices lease for only $20 per square foot in the region, less than half of what similar space fetches in Boston and Cambridge, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm.

The site of the former headquarters of data storage giant EMC Corp. in Hopkinton is an extreme case of a struggling suburban property. The 160,000-square-foot building, just off I-495, has sat empty for 13 years, ever since EMC moved to newer offices elsewhere in town, said Steven Zieff, a partner with Hopkinton’s Crossroads Redevelopment LLC.

Crossroads has an option to buy the 38-acre property, which also includes four one-story buildings, and hopes to redevelop the site into a mixed-use complex of housing, retail stores, restaurants, and office space.

“People are looking for something different,” said Zieff. “It’s the entire ‘live, work, play’ environment that people want. They don’t want to go to just an office park with a cafeteria and parking lots.”

Along Route 128, the situation is not nearly as dire, with the office vacancy rate between Woburn and Needham running at 6.4 percent, below Boston’s. Rents near that stretch of the highway are rising as the economy continues to improve, averaging about $34 per square foot, about $20 less than office space in Boston and Cambridge.

But office park owners still feel pressure from intensifying competition with cities. In recent years, a number of suburban companies have moved to Boston or Cambridge, including ad firm Allen & Gerritsen, which moved to the Seaport District from Watertown. Biogen Idec soon will move from a Weston office campus to a new headquarters under construction in Kendall Square.

At the 13-building New England Executive Park in Burlington, the vacancy rate is 10 percent, with tenants that include tech firms BAE Systems, Charles River Systems, and Black Duck Software. Still, National Development, the park’s owner, is convinced it needs improvements to stay competitive.

Later this year the firm plans to start a major overhaul that includes demolishing an office building — all 13 buildings were built between 1969 and 1986 — and constructing 300,000 square feet of new development. The new additions will include a 170-room hotel, three full-service restaurants, and new retail and office space.

“We’re seeing this great rush to the city [by tenants],” said Ted Tye, managing partner at the Newton-based National Development. “What that’s doing is forcing suburban properties to stay on their toes. And we’re responding to that.”

National Development, however, won’t add housing to its New England Executive Park mix. Tye said he’s not convinced that housing within office parks is a smart idea. Some towns might end up getting financially hurt because commercial and industrial properties are usually taxed at higher levels than residential properties, he said.

He added that it’s also hard to duplicate urban settings within suburban parks if they’re not near public transit and don’t have easy pedestrian access to offices. “This is a source of some disagreement within the industry,” he said of housing’s role in office park redevelopment.

In contrast, Nordblom Co., owner of Northwest Park in Burlington, is a firm believer in “live, work, play.” Three years ago, it launched a massive $500 million project to redevelop about half the 285-acre office park to include 600,000 square feet of retail space, 300 new apartments, a 225-room hotel, and 3.5 million square feet of new or refurbished offices.

Todd Fremont-Smith, senior vice president of Nordblom, said the redevelopment, which could take another 10 years to complete, has already attracted new office tenants, a steakhouse restaurant called The Bancroft, and a new Wegman’s supermarket, which opens in October.

“By mixing the uses, you have a more dynamic environment — and it’s more rentable,” Fremont-Smith said. “People are seeking urban-like amenities where they work. I think we’re going to see more of this at both office and industrial parks. People want it.”

View the original article here.

Boston Still Riding the Wave for Growth

Although recent article in The Boston Globe, “Rents soaring in city’s Innovation District”, gives the impression that the Seaport is competing head-on with Back Bay, one needs to look closely at the two markets. The majority of the increases in rents from Class A, high-rise space are from existing properties in the Back Bay, while it is the newly constructed buildings in the Seaport that are contributing to its high rental rates.

Obviously, any tenant committing to newly built office space will be paying a premium to occupy the space, due to the high costs of land and construction.  More telling is the solid rental increases within the existing office building environment occurring in the Back Bay with renewals and new leases.

There is no question that the Innovation District is now on the map and is a credible locational choice for growing businesses.  However, the Back Bay is the established work/play/live neighborhood that will continue to be attractive to a full range of businesses. As time goes on, demand for space (and rents) will be more similar in those districts as well as in the “new” downtown market (formerly referred to as the Financial District).

The good news is that Boston is still riding a wave of growth and construction, setting it apart from most other CBD’s in the country.

Patience for a 1,000 Foot Tower

In a recent BBJ article by Thomas Grillo, there seems to be some interest from the BRA to renew its search for a developer of the city-owned Winthrop Street Garage site on Devonshire Street between Winthrop Square and Federal Street. The previous proposal was to build a 1,000-foot tower with 1.3 million square feet of office space on the approximately one acre parcel.

It’s always exciting for a city to talk about the prospects of having the tallest tower in the city built. However, historically, this city sometimes lacks the patience to allow the marketplace to support the new venture.  It is difficult enough to build an office building a quarter of the size of this dream project without substantial pre-leasing at rents that justify the expense of constructing a tower. A delay in development does not equate with a lack of expertise or, even, capital. It just means that there are economic cycles that affect these decisions. To ignore market demand would be at the owner’s financial peril.

If we want to attract serious interest from developers in this site, the BRA and the new Mayor will have to understand that giving a permit to build a project of this magnitude will require the patience of Job!

Grim Optimism for Real Estate and the Economy

Goodwin Procter’s Real Estate Capital Markets Conference was recently held in New York City in partnership with Columbia Business School.  GP-REConferenceAn exceptional group of speakers discussed the real estate markets, investments, and the economy.

The keynote presentation was delivered by Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, and now a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Goolsbee spoke with “grim optimism” about the US economy.  The US has the most productive work force in the world and low energy and new-energy sources will benefit our growth.  Relative to the rest of the world, our fiscal imbalance is manageable. All in all, he believes that the next six to twelve months will be a bumpy ride, but prospects in the long-run look good.

The following are a few interesting observations made during the panel discussions:

  • Demographics are playing a key role internationally, especially in the US. Effects of this will be seen in an increased demand for apartments, senior housing, and retail.
  • With accounting standards likely to change in the future, as relating to corporate leasing and ownership, more businesses will likely choose owning large amounts of their space.
  • Retail sales continue to be impacted by online competition, but retail is still a growing market. The future may move towards more hybrids that have both online and storefront locations.
  • Office space needs are dropping in terms of space requirements per new job. However, there is a sense that over time businesses will start to swing back towards a need for greater space.
  • Multifamily housing rents are back to pre-recession highs and it is likely that rents will experience slower growth going forward.
  • Record amounts of capital were raised both in the public and private markets last year. With less growth worldwide, real estate is very attractive to investors.  Investor interest is focused on yields and risk management. Where in the past, “cash is king”, now, “cash flow is king”.
  • Rates should not be rising in the short term, but that is a big risk for all asset classes. The markets could wake up to a starting spike in rates that, in hindsight, will have seemed inevitable.

Optimism: the way to start your day

This post was written by Kimberly Sherman, and originally appeared on the Nickerson PR blog, CheersLive!

On Thursday November 29, 2012, over 400 attendees gathered at the Seaport Hotel Boston for the NAIOP/SIOR Annual Market Forecast, one of the industry’s leading market forecasts. Nickerson PR was the sponsor of the much-anticipated event. “Being knowledgeable as a peer in the field, helps Nickerson PR to provide a better service to our clients – we want to be a knowledgeable business partner to every client – not just a vendor. It was very important to sponsor such an event,” said Lisa Nickerson, Principal of Nickerson PR and Board Member SIOR New England.

Barry Bluestone NAIOP.jpgBarry Bluestone, Dean, School of Public Policy &
Urban Affairs at Northeastern University

David Begelfer, CEO for NAIOP Massachusetts moderated the program. The Keynote speaker, Barry Bluestone, Dean, School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, offered an optimistic and timely economic snapshot of our local real estate market. Bluestone’s economic overview mostly centered on why we will return to a 0.2% growth rate. He outlined six things we haven’t paid enough attention to.

1. The demographic boon is over
2. The plateau in educational attainment
3. Increase in inequality
4. Globalization and outsourcing
5. Energy and environment
6. Twin deficits

In closing, Bluestone firmly stated that to avoid this path, we would need major innovation and investment for large-scale ideas. He reminded us that the good thing is the US has accomplished this before, so we should have the confidence that we can do it again.

NAIOP Panel.jpg

Some of Greater Boston’s most active real estate professionals presented an analysis of the Massachusetts commercial markets, with a special look at the office, industrial and capital markets. Panelists discussed the drivers and fundamentals behind 2012 statistics, including emerging trends in specific markets, new growth areas and a general outlook for the future. Among these market experts were:

The majority of attendees I spoke to were pleased to leave the event with a feeling of optimism. In the words of market expert panelist Petz, “Boston is hot, we are lucky to both live and work here.”

Some take-aways from NAIOP Forecast attendees:

“It’s always great to hear lots of optimism about the direction of the commercial real estate markets for 2013 and beyond. Absorption rates are increasing significantly throughout the region which bodes well for the CRE market for years to come.” Bud LaRosa, Chief Business Performance Officer, Tocci Building Companies

“It was refreshing to hear Barry Bluestone speak to overcoming the fiscal cliff and offer insight as to why there is plenty of good news ahead for the real estate market.” Merrill H. Diamond, Founding Partner of DIAMOND SINACORI, LLC and IGNITION Residential, LLC

“With 7,500 new multi-family units planned and Boston supporting the effort, it’s nice to be assured that Boston real estate is hot right now.” Markell Blount, Partner, Sparta Consulting Inc.

“I am happily surprised by the level of optimism expressed today. The last few events have been more doom and gloom, so I’ll take this news any day.” Mark Glasser, Principal, Packard Design

Strategies for Today and Predictions for Tomorrow

The following blog post was submitted by Ally Quinby, Account Executive at Solomon McCown.

NAIOP Massachusetts’ Smart Money in Real Estate event, on September 19, gathered together a distinguished panel of Boston’s real estate professionals to discuss the state of today’s market, as well as their predictions for the future.

To set the table for the event, NAIOP MA disseminated a poll to members regarding their current perceptions and future predictions. Doug Poutasse, Executive Vice President, Head of Strategy and Research at Bentall Kennedy, and moderator of the panel, leveraged the results from the poll during the discussion.

In regards to real estate investment, Jeff Furber, CEO of AEW Capital Management, listed the four qualities investors are seeking currently: Safety, Income, Control and Liquidity. Tier 1 core costal markets like Boston have been a major beneficiary of this fact due to the lack of risk associated with investing in stable regions.

Similarly, Jon Davis, CEO of The Davis Companies, believes there are many value-add opportunities in healthier cities, “Here in Boston, we are transforming neighborhoods. Take Kendall Square and the Fort Point Channel; there is so much vibrancy in these areas.”

According to one panelist, what the Boston area is lacking is supply of retail space. Despite the recent buzz around grocery-anchored retail centers, Tom DeSimone, Executive Vice President of WS Development, believes centers like this are “overplayed” and the increase in food sold outside grocery stores across the country, in retail shops like Wal-Mart, will be a problem in the future. In agreement, Mark Weld, Managing Director of Clarion Partners, said, “Distressed debt is aggregating in grocery-anchored retail centers across the country that people thought were on the path to growth.”

Looking forward, all the panelists agreed the looming effects of sequestration raise many questions for real estate professionals across the country. Despite the increased activity seen in markets like Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., uncertainty of this type has its effects. According to Jon Davis, “cleaning up from sequestration is the single biggest risk” we are facing today. There is no indication of whether or not Congress is going to be able to come together.

General sentiment among the panelists regarding the economic future was mild, noting there will not likely be significant improvement or dramatic decline in the state of the market.  Instead, all panelists agreed success today—and in the future—will rely heavily on partnering with the right people for leverage. Especially in times like these, what matters is one’s character and ability to execute.

The Future of Multifamily

This blog post was submitted by Allyson Quinby, Account Executive at Solomon McCown & Company.

On Wednesday, April 4, industry experts gathered at Boston’s Seaport Hotel to discuss the future of Boston’s apartment market at NAIOP’s Future of Multifamily breakfast program. The panel featured experts in the industry including, Raymond Torto, Chief Global Economist at CBRE; Kent Larson, Principal Research Scientist at MIT Media Lab; Julie Smith, President of The Bozzuto Group; Simon Butler, Executive Vice President at CBRE New England; and James Gray, Principal at ADD Inc,  as moderator. View panelist video.

Torto kicked off the panel and set the table for the discussion by explaining that from 2007 to 2012, there was an influx of graduating students in Boston. That, compounded with the fact that more individuals chose renting over homeownership skyrocketed Boston to the 7th largest multifamily market in the country—and counting.

Butler expanded on the supply side of the multifamily trend. According to Butler, Greater Boston’s supply of multifamily housing will continue to increase over the next three years.  Currently, there are only a handful of residential construction projects underway in Boston and Cambridge metro areas. However, by 2014 these projects will be completed and almost double that number will be in the pipeline.

Smith addressed the demographic of individuals influencing the multifamily boom. Similar to Baltimore, New York and DC, Boston’s market is made up of single people, divorcees, and those in the 25-40 age group moving into the urban area and opting to rent over buying. Additionally, there is a demographic of individuals between the ages of 50 and 60—frequently empty-nesters—who are moving into luxury apartments. While varying in age, these demographics both expect hotel-like lobbies, energy-efficient appliances, common spaces and fitness centers all within a 30-minute commute to work.

Larson rounded out the panel by wowing the audience with his answer to the growing demand for personalized, high-quality and affordable units. Through the use of robotic walls, smaller apartments can now have multiple functions turning a full dining room into a bedroom with a touch of a button. MIT is providing the technology for these transformable environments that meet the popular need for spaces that can serve as the home and the workplace.

The factors that sustain the multifamily boom are just as interesting as the factors that led to this real estate trend. Rooted in job growth and urbanization, and perpetuated by the growing number of individuals opting to rent over homeownership, the emerging multifamily trend requires architects, developers and marketers to develop new strategies for building and filling these units.

What the Future Holds for Cambridge, MA – The Innovation Capital of the World

This blog post was submitted by Allyson Quinby, Account Executive at Solomon McCown & Company.

NAIOP Massachusetts’ “Cambridge: Ready, Set, Go!” breakfast event on February 15 featured a well-versed panel of real estate executives who spoke on “What’s new and what’s next for this hot market.”  Mary Lentz, McCall & Almy, moderated the expert panel that included Tom Andrews, Alexandria Real Estate Equities; Michael Cantalupa, Boston Properties; Shawn Hurley, Skanska USA Commercial Development; Steven Marsh, MIT Investment Management Company; and Thomas O’Brien, The HYM Investment Group.

View photos and event presentation slides.

Marsh noted how the world is changing every day, and that the U.S. along with many other superpowers such as China and India, continues to look for new ways to compete. For example, the U.S. aggressively leads the way when it comes to innovation, and as Marsh discussed, Cambridge has long been the epicenter of innovation productivity.

Due to Vertex’s move to Boston’s Seaport district, many in the real estate industry worry that the Cambridge market no longer holds the same stature it once did. However, NAIOP’s expert panelists assured us that we are in a natural state in Cambridge, and as stated by Cantalupa, “If you can afford to be next to MIT, you will be.” The lab market is steady, and many developers like Skanska USA Commercial Development are currently taking time to re-evaluate outdated space to create real estate opportunities that will fit all types of tenant needs in the future.

Home to two of the finest institutions of higher education in the world, Harvard and MIT, the panelists argued that Cambridge has gained and will maintain a prominent reputation. Companies in the life-sciences, technology, bio-pharmacology, education and innovation sectors, along with many startups, have found their homes in Cambridge. Due to the competitive advantage that comes with a Cambridge address, real estate firms have experienced a tremendous amount of success leasing space in this market. As the panelists noted, there is still an active demand and we continue to see new development activity in this market today.

Marsh and Andrews also spoke about the importance of proximity for lab space to MIT and other academic buildings. It is crucial that all facilities continue to collaborate, creating an environment that fosters innovation. Hurley also noted how mixed-use space needs to continue to be developed; it is important that we connect lab to retail and public spaces.

O’Brien discussed the next generation workforce and the need to build corporate and residential spaces that attract young professionals. His firm is developing the NorthPoint neighborhood, a mixed-use campus with flexibility – one that allows people to live and work in the same place.

Cantalupa and Hurley spoke on how real estate developers need to build flexible buildings that can adjust to market demands. Hurley noted how Skanska’s plan behind 150 Second Street was to deliver a Class-A, highly flexible property with a sustainable design that had features all tenants could enjoy. The building was also designed to accommodate either one or multiple tenants.

As stated by Marsh (and I agree), “Cambridge is special – it goes well beyond real estate” – and it is here that we want to continue the innovation story.

Note from NAIOP: Learn more about the dynamic Cambridge market by attending our 10th Anniversary Bus Tour, Big & Breaking in Greater Boston. Cambridge, along with Fenway, Longwood, Boston’s Seaport and Allston will be featured during this fast-paced and informative live market update bus tour.

If You Build It, They Will Come: Demand Exists for More Multifamily Housing in Greater Boston

A recent article in The Boston Globe talked of the recent surge in apartment construction, identifying 11 developments either under construction or about to receive final approvals. Although not as many, there are also large multifamily projects underway in the suburbs, including John M. Corcoran’s development in SouthField (the former Weymouth Naval Air Base) that Rick High described at NAIOP’s recent lunch program.

Some skeptics believe that the weak economy and high supply will result in an oversupply of multifamily housing. I disagree. There is no doubt we have room in the market for quite a few more projects, both in Boston and the surrounding communities.

Since the recession began in 2009, the vacancy rates for rental housing have plummeted and, not surprisingly,  the rents have pushed upwards.  Boston now has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country. With higher rents and interest rates remaining historically low, new multifamily developments are finally viable.  Though the costs of housing production in Massachusetts are still among the highest in the nation, due in part to labor costs, these projects are profitable (by some rather thin margins, though.)

If you believe the increased demand is only due to the burst of the single family housing bubble and the resulting foreclosures, you need only look at the other drivers in this area. The research firm REIS has reported that the net absorption in this market is the highest on record since it started tracking the data in 1980!

As reported by Cushman & Wakefield, there are a number of factors contributing to the growth of the rental housing market in the Boston area:

  •  Job Growth: With a conservative 35,000 jobs a year projected to be created, there will be an additional 35,000 households over the next 5 years;
  • Change of Ownership: 87,000 rental households are needed to fulfill the demand created by the shift in ownership from single family to rental;
  • Increase of Echo Boomers (ages 21-34): 27,000 rental units are needed to satisfy the demand created by this generation. Approximately 75% of this population are renters and this demographic is expected to grow by 2.2% over 5 years.

Bottom line – that’s a lot of demand!  And even with all of the construction planned, the vacancy rate is still projected to drop.  Certainly good news for developers and the Massachusetts economy!

Commercial Real Estate Bubble?

Is the investment market for core commercial properties cooling a bit? If so, what does this mean for Boston?

According to Pensions and Investments newsletter, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) is considering dropping its real estate allocation to 8% from 10% by year end.

The buying pressure for core “trophy” properties from pension funds, foreign investors, REITs, and private investment pools are pushing acquisition pricing back to the pre-recession highs.  Locally, 33 Arch Street traded at a sub 5 cap rate ($530/sf.)  Earlier, Boston Properties acquired the Hancock Tower at an initial 4.6 cap ($475/sf.) Most recently, Landmark Center was purchased by Samuels for $530.5 million ($558/sf.)

The Blackstone Group told investors it had raised another $4 billion for its latest real estate fund with a target of $10 billion.  It has already invested/committed $4.4 billion to real estate deals during the first six months of this year.  Blackstone believes that the opportunities lie with the relatively low prices and the sluggish global economy.

At some point, investors will need to ask whether these investments have been worth the high prices paid for them.  Will they achieve the projected rental increases and vacancy decreases that the investments were based on, if the economy continues to remain sluggish with nominal job growth?

According to Colliers’ Boston office , although the vacancy rate in Boston only dropped from 16.6% to 16.3% during the second quarter, the Back Bay submarket showed an overall 8.0% vacancy, with class A space at a very low 5.8%.  Rents have improved with Class A asking rents averaging slightly above where they were before the rental spike that occurred in mid-2007. However, Boston Class B space and the suburban markets are another story. Vacancy rates are still high with the Route 128 submarket at 19.3% and Route 495 at 25.6%. With Boston class B space discounted 30% off class A space and suburban rents having dropped 20%, properties in these markets are clearly going to be challenged for some time.

The good news is that Massachusetts is actually doing better than the rest of the nation, but even here there may be fears of another bubble – especially in light of recent market events.  Could we have a “double-dip” downturn in commercial real estate?  If the world economy does not show some initial stabilization followed by real growth, we may see some of these recent property acquisitions reselling at a loss. Only time will tell.