Steady As She Goes: Market Uncertainties Have NYC Playing It Safe
Saying 2016 has been a chaotic year would be like calling a subway station during the summer "a bit humid." With a looming election, an expired 421-a and a seceding UK, it’s a miracle that the world—and NYC’s commercial real estate market—has been able to keep itself together.
Panelists for Bisnow’s NYC State of the Market—which will be held at 11 Times Square on Sept. 27—were surprised to see the market exceed their expectations, but they’re not sure where it stands. With so much uncertainty in the air, the industry’s playing it safe.
Many admitted they’ve given up trying to explain where the market is going. SJP leasing and marketing EVP Jeff Schotz (pictured) was content to say we’re in a long, positive cycle, pointing to the strong office leasing market. While buildings bought with overly high expectations and leverage could receive a shock, he says, new, high-quality product in good locations is “downturn-proof.”
“The average building in Manhattan is 50 years old, which doesn’t fit the needs or standards of today’s tenant,” he says.
11 Times Square, for example, boasts a deep, varied tenancy, and Jeff says it's because the mixed-use tower has efficient space, strong infrastructure, numerous travel options and a location that has all the benefits and amenities of Times Square within walking distance, but sits on the relatively quiet, uncluttered 41st Street.
The only things giving him any pause were WeWork and Brooklyn. While the co-working giant has absorbed a ton of space, more are questioning whether it has the sustainability to deal with the market’s ups and downs. Brooklyn, while going strong, may not have the demand to meet the supply and attention coming its way.
HAKS SVP Paul Hoffman (pictured) was more optimistic, not only echoing Jeff’s sentiment about the office market, but praising the increasing number and efficiency of public-private partnerships. And, with revitalizations gaining popularity, he sees more opportunity than ever before.
“The only thing that concerns me is how hard it's becoming to get qualified workers and the lack of resolution with the 421-a,” he tells Bisnow. “I’ve had one client just cancel a project without the abatement, but I think that’s a bit dramatic.”
Cushman & Wakefield chairman Bob Knakal was more grave. While the investments market was indeed performing above C&W’s expectations, he believes we’re in correction mode. In fact, he thinks we’ve been in a correction for more than year, as seen with the frozen land market and the softening hotel and retail sectors. But this correction—while maddeningly slow—is only natural, especially since 2014 and 2015 were record years.
“You can’t just keep breaking record after record,” he says. “You have to return to the long-term mean, and that could mean trouble for some asset classes.”
Hunton & Williams partner Laurie Grasso (pictured) agreed with Bob, but didn’t believe the correction was as deep as some were claiming.
Arent Fox real estate partner Mark Fawer described the market’s health as “mixed.” While low interest rates have investment and capital flowing in, for example, 421-a's uncertain status and EB-5’s upcoming renewal debate could throw a wrench into the development and investment gears.
But do all these uncertainties shake NYC’s role as a safe haven for investments? Jeff confidently said no, but Bob believed a decreasing supply of available properties and the increasing challenge of transactions was making fear the marketplace’s main motivation.
Bob said the biggest landmine was the election, noting that neither candidate has detailed a tax reform plan when it comes to capital interest rates, carried interest rates or changing depreciation schedules. Laurie says any governmental change is going to cause some unease. Mark (pictured) says he's keeping a sharp eye on the election—as it could shake Asian and Middle Eastern investors’ confidence—but is also focused on next year’s mayoral race.
Another major concern is increasingly conservative banks, which are making acquiring construction loans and becoming a sponsor much harder.
"While bank will fare well in an economic downturn," Bob says, "they’ve tightened the lending market and made it nearly impossible to finance hotel construction."
Mark says the strict regulations are why—"out of necessity”—many of his debt fund clients have benefited from the increased demand for unconventional mezzanine loans and preferred equity financing to fill the equity gap, and Laurie said she and many of her clients are in “watch and learn” mode.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work in fund formation,” she says. “There’s a lot of capital that needs to be in place to quickly take up any opportunity, so those with a ton of capital are getting prepared.”
She often recommends that her clients just take the leap and not get hung up on small details, saying getting the deal done now could save even bigger headaches down the line. So it seems the only way to overcome uncertainty is to act with certainty.
If you'd like to hear more from these panelists—as well as Meridian Capital CEO Ralph Herzka and Mack Real Estate Group co-founder Richard Mack—register for Bisnow's NYC State of the Market.