Report from VantageForum 2011 – Real Estate’s View

FORM was media sponsor for the Vantage Forum 2011, an annual day-long symposium put on by UCLA Ziman School and ULI this January 11. It was a series of panel discussions featuring high-powered people from real estate divided roughly into 4 topics: Housing, Office, Retail, and Capital Markets.

I can’t say there was any earth-shattering news. We all suspect that the economy is recovering via some combination of government stimulus, cash too long on the sidelines, and simple recession fatigue. Nevertheless, there were a lot of great take-aways that might be guiding principles for marketing strategies in the design business.

First and foremost, where is the money? It turns out the retailers have it–not retail developers, but retailers like Safeway. Fascinating story: Safeway needed to expand, but the developers that normally build their centers could not get financing. Safeway had regular cash flow and started its own development company. It uses its highly tuned in-house demographics operation to ID compatible partners (eg. Target) to build new centers with.

Retail landlords like Macerich are holding firm on high rents in high demand urban locations. And, Macerich and others are tearing down and/or repositioning well-performing locations with the idea that they can become excellent locations with intelligent redesign and releasing (eg. Santa Monica Place where they estimate sales will go from a respectable $400/sf to $1500/sf in the next few years).

What is hot? Multifamily. There is demand and there is underwriting so it’s happening. Single family cannot be written off right now either. In California builders in both categories have entitled land lined up for 6-7 years of sales at the current mediocre pace. If that pace picks up at all (as they expect it to do), land-sale transactions and entitlement work will skyrocket (until land becomes too expensive and NIMBYs regain traction).

In the office sector work will be driven by mergers and acquisitions. Consolidations and bankruptcies in almost every industry will result in lots of moves and changes. Be ready to provide strategic planning services leading into TIs. No new construction anticipated for a very long time although the good news is that properties underwater are regaining value and might now be breathing with a snorkel instead of gulping air on scuba gear.

Who is hiring? Oaktree Capital, some of the REITs—and Safeway. Macerich has moved their development people into leasing to give you some idea of where the action is. There is room for new graduates to start building their resumes toward the financial firms and into transactional work. Established consultants should figure out ways to recast their client list toward more strategic work, repositioning, remodeling, and innovative ways to help clients do more with less space.  In all sectors, the outlying areas suck and will continue to do so for years. Focus on urban infill.  

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