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Our Experts Say Don't Fall For the Suburbs vs. CBD Argument

AT&T's former Hoffman Estates campus is on the brink of foreclosure. McDonald's is leaving Oak Brook for downtown. And everywhere you look, there are reports of companies vacating large suburban footprints for downtown. But nature abhors a vacuum, and these moves provide new opportunities for developers, leasing agents and property managers.

A crowd shot of Bisnow's

200 people made the trek to Bisnow's Flight to the Suburbs event at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center to hear what our panel of experts had to say about the leasing and investment landscape in the burbs. What they learned: the numbers don't tell the true strength of the market.

NAI Hiffman EVP Jim Adler, Choose DuPage CEO John Carpenter, Hamilton Partners Partner Dave Andrews and JLL SVP Norm Murdoch

Our leasing panel (NAI Hiffman EVP Jim Adler, Choose DuPage CEO John Carpenter, Hamilton Partners partner Dave Andrews and JLL SVP Norm Murdoch) agreed there's more to the narrative of companies fleeing the suburbs for downtown Chicago than what you read in the media. In fact, it's stronger than it's been in years and companies like HSBC, Citibank, Paylocity and Zurich North America all recommitted to suburban HQs.

Jim says the suburban office market consists of 126M SF of leasable space, a footprint bigger than Milwaukee and Detroit combined

JLL SVP Norm Murdoch

Norm says overall suburban office vacancy is 18%, and that number is skewed by large tracts of empty office space like AT&T's former Hoffman Estates campus and a glut of outdated Class-B and B-minus assets in the northern suburbs. But the big blocks of empty office space are outliers, Jim says. These are buildings built in the '70s and '80s that are in isolated locations and in need of major upgrades. Norm says that even if these buildings were modernized, they would have a hard time attracting today's tenants. Class-A leasing is on fire, with average rent spread increases in the 15% to 20% range.

Hamilton Partners partner Dave Andrews

Dave says the strong rent spreads will continue trending upward thanks to limited supply. There hasn't been a new spec office building in the burbs in 15 years, and it will be years before we see another. Dave has experience here: he says that after Sara Lee left Hamilton Lakes' Esplanade in Downers Grove, the firm was able to fill that vacant space with multiple solid tenants.

Dave says there's a lot of speculation about what will happen to McDonald's Oak Brook campus once the Golden Arches relocates to the West Loop. His dream scenario for the campus: turn the office space into a school, and the tower into retail, since Oak Brook is a hotbed for retail activity.

Lincoln Property Co VP Peter Kelly

Lincoln Property Midwest VP Peter Kelly says big plans are afoot for Clearwater Center, a 207k SF project in Oak Brook that used to be a John Buck pre-recession property. The Oak Brook market fundamentals are very strong; there's land available for build-to-suit; a 120k SF office building is 50% leased to a company with no renewal rights, providing great cash flow opportunities for Lincoln; and Lincoln's partner in the project is a homebuilder planning condos, since the village doesn't want apartments. Tucker Development CEO Richard Tucker says he considered making a bid for Clearwater, but the no apartments mandate from Oak Brook was a non-starter.

Zeller Realty Group principal and director of acquisitions Bill Rogala

Zeller Realty Group principal and director of acquisitions Bill Rogalla says his firm's re-entry into the suburban market is a sign of things to come. Bill says Zeller is being very selective with its acquisition strategy in the suburbs and across the country, targeting core-plus assets at the right price to get to a value-add model. Bill says there is positive interest from national and international investors, but there is ample concern over Illinois' ongoing budget mess, and Zeller is spending a great deal of time talking to consultants to overcome those concerns.