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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

City's Property Market, at Least, Defies Curse

The American Commerce CenterSome sports fans in Philadelphia feel their teams are victim of a real-estate curse.

That is because none of the city's major professional teams -- the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and 76ers -- have won a championship since before 1987, when Malvern, Pa.-based Liberty Property Trust's One Liberty Place rose above a statue of William Penn that tops City Hall. Mr. Penn's hat previously set the bar for the city's skyline.

The American Commerce Center, shown in renderings, would change the look of Philadelphia's skyline.

Fortunately, Mr. Penn doesn't seem to have focused his chagrin on the real-estate market.

So far the Philadelphia area's commercial real-estate leasing market has held steady in the midst of the growing economic carnage. The city's office market, more than the suburbs', has benefited from "steady, unspectacular growth married with little supply," says John Gattuso, senior vice president and regional director of Liberty's urban development group.

While the metropolitan area's office vacancies rose to 14.5% in the second quarter (and rents are expected to decline slightly in the second half of the year), they are still below the national average of 15.6%, according to Boston-based Property & Portfolio Research, a real-estate research firm. Apartment, retail and warehouse vacancies rose in the second quarter but held at or below averages for the 54 major metro areas surveyed by PPR, while rents were still rising in all but the retail sector.

To be sure, the geographic proximity of the region to the crisis on Wall Street -- with Philadelphia about two hours south of Manhattan, give or take -- is a concern among the area's real-estate professionals. As with most markets globally, sales of office, retail and apartment buildings have slowed since the credit crunch began in the summer of 2007, although sales of office buildings valued at $5 million or more this year through August fell just 14% compared with last year's period. That is better than a 77% drop nationwide over the period, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based research firm.

The Philadelphia metro area, home to about 5.1 million people, saw continued growth in its education and health-services sector. And so far overall job growth has remained in the positive territory as of July compared with the year-earlier period, albeit just barely at 0.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For now, the new 975-foot-tall glass-encased Comcast Center tower that officially opened this year seems to reflect the market's strengths. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the building has created a buzz with a 25-foot tall high-definition video screen in its lobby.

The building also has leased all of its roughly 1.2 million square feet of office space, much of it as the new headquarters of cable giant Comcast Corp., says Liberty Property's Mr. Gattuso. It has also done so despite skepticism early on from some brokers who said asking rents in the $40-per-square-foot range were too rich for the City of Brotherly Love, Mr. Gattuso said.

That success may be encouraging other developers. One project planned near the Comcast Center is the American Commerce Center. If built, it would rise about 1,500 feet high and include office, hotel and retail space, according to Peter Kelsen, an attorney for Philadelphia-based Hill International Real Estate Partners LP, which is developing the project.

Citing Hill's joint-venture relationship with a large pension fund, Mr. Kelsen said he's confident the group will have the financing. Developers also need some preleasing commitments and for the city to remove a height limit on the property, he says.

The scale is just one of the project's striking elements. New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates' design includes a glass facade and futuristic-looking cutouts as well as a lower section that abuts a higher tower that together look something like a chair. "It's not going to be very colonial," Mr. Kelsen says, referencing the city's past architectural leanings.

There's even hope that the tall-building curse may soon vanish. The new Comcast Center gave a nod to Mr. Penn by welding a small statue of the city's founder to one of its beams.

By: Maura Webber Sadovi
Wall Street Journal; September 24, 2008

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