The Real-Estate Downturn Comes for America’s Premier Office Towers
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The Real-Estate Downturn Comes for America’s Premier Office Towers

Rents at highest-end buildings fall and rate of leasing slows

By PETER GRANT
Wed, Jan 31, 2024 8:57amGrey Clock 3 min

The highest quality office buildings have had much better success navigating the industry’s turmoil. Now, even premier towers are starting to wobble.

Rents at the highest-end buildings have been falling, while the rate of leasing has been slowing. Tenants have become more sensitive to costs in a world of higher interest rates and lingering concerns about a possible economic slowdown, market participants say.

Owners of the most elite buildings escaped this fate for a while by convincing the market they had created a new class of office tower—one that surpassed the traditional Class A building at the top of the pecking order.

These landlords persuaded blue-chip tenants that reluctant workers would return if only their offices sparkled with lush roof decks, fully loaded gyms and food prepared by Michelin-starred chefs. Owners invested heavily in these properties, which were usually new developments with the best locations, views, air quality and modern designs.

But that strategy is losing steam as more companies have accepted the reality of hybrid work schedules and, for the most part, have given up on compelling workers to be in five days a week.

“The ship has sailed on full return to the office for most companies,” said Rob Sadow, chief executive of Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index that tracks workplace strategies. “They’re not going to go from three days a week to five days a week by making their space nicer.”

That is one reason why few office developers are considering new ground breakings. Current rents don’t pencil out for building expensive space. The U.S. had only 31 million square feet in office construction starts last year, the lowest level since 2010. New buildings will represent only 1% of inventory by 2027, the lowest in at least 25 years, according to CoStar.

“New starts have essentially ground to a halt,” said Dylan Burzinski, analyst at real-estate analytics firm Green Street.

Premium, amenity-rich office space has outperformed in terms of rent and occupancy throughout the pandemic. In New York, SL Green Realty opened a new office tower called One Vanderbilt across the street from Grand Central Terminal in the fall of 2020. It boasted a 4,000-square-foot terrace and cafe and a menu overseen by star chef Daniel Boulud. The 93-story building quickly filled up even though its top asking rents were near record levels at more than $300 a square foot.

That sort of exceptionalism is beginning to wane. Asking rents for prime space in 16 U.S. markets declined in the third quarter after increasing on average from about $61 a square foot in mid-2021 to close to about $70 in the second quarter of last year, according to CBRE Econometric Advisors. They were just under $69 in the fourth quarter, CBRE said.

The share of leasing activity is also falling among the premier towers. The office properties that data firm CoStar Group defines as five-star buildings accounted for 8% of the market in 2022 and 2023, down from 10% in 2019. Meanwhile, new leases in five-star buildings were on average 43% smaller than 2019, CoStar said, reflecting how companies are becoming more efficient in their space use and tolerating some degree of work from home.

In the fourth quarter, 62% of companies offered some form of remote work, up from 51% one year ago, according to Scoop. On average, those companies with hybrid strategies required workers in the office 2.5 days a week in October, Scoop said. In 2021 and 2022, many companies still expected to bring workers back five days a week and were leasing space with that in mind.

Office buildings that have opened recently have done well, but not by One Vanderbilt’s standards. In Boston, for example, Millennium Partners has leased about 60% of the 812,000 square feet of office space that hit the market last year in the new Winthrop Center project with such tenants as Cambridge Associates and consulting giant McKinsey. But rents are about 10% less than what Millennium originally forecast, said Joe Larkin, principal of MP Boston, the developer’s local arm.

Larkin said that Millennium expects to achieve its goal of taking three years to lease the building. “What we lost in the last couple of years is the hope to exceed how we planned this building,” he said.

High interest rates and concerns about a possible recession are also giving companies second thoughts about trading up to higher quality spaces. Moves are expensive especially when borrowing costs are higher than they’ve been in decades.

Cost-conscious companies are noticing that the gap between asking rents in top buildings and lower quality buildings is widening. The result: Renewals were 42% of the leasing volume last year, compared with 31% in 2018 and 2019 combined, according to CBRE.

“If companies aren’t going to have people in the office full time, maybe taking the lower-grade space might be a better economic decision,” Sadow said.



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They Were About to Move In When the Ocean Almost Washed Away Their New Home

Gail and Ron Fink’s property in Jupiter Inlet Colony sustained major damage during an unusually windy day. ‘The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone.’

By E.B. SOLOMONT
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Gail and Ron Fink weren’t home the day the ocean swallowed their backyard.

The Florida couple, who are in their 70s, were a few miles away on Feb. 6—an unusually blustery day in the Sunshine State—as waves pounded their beachfront property in Jupiter Inlet Colony, sweeping sand, dirt and trees out to sea. When it was all over, the Finks’ newly-built, roughly 10,000-square-foot home was intact; so too was their free-form swimming pool, improbably balanced on exposed concrete-and-steel pilings.

“That’s what saved the whole thing,” said Ron, founder of an air- and-water purification company. “The pilings are holding up the house and pool.”

Gail and Ron Fink recently finished building a roughly 10,000-square-foot home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Drone footage and pictures from local photographers and the Finks’ builder show the severity of the destruction, which left their pool suspended in the air, with pipes protruding from the earth. Town officials said erosion claimed 7 to 10 feet of sand and created steep drop-offs in front of about half-dozen homes, including one belonging to Kid Rock , the rapper-turned-country rocker, who paid $3.2 million for the property in 2012. Conair heiress Babe Rizzuto also sustained damage to her property down the street, which she bought for $6.3 million in 2015 and currently has listed for $22.5 million, according to Zillow.  Neither responded to requests for comment.

But the Finks house, located just past the end of a granite revetment wall—a kind of sea wall—bore the brunt of the heavy wind and waves.

 

“The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone,” said Ron. Also gone are fully matured Palm trees and an ipe-wood deck. “It’s out floating in the ocean someplace.” Ron is self-insured and the repair work will be quite expensive. undefined

A New Jersey native, Ron is an engineer by training who worked at nuclear-testing sites in California and Nevada before moving to Florida in the 1980s. He is the founder of RGF Environmental Group, which makes air- water-and food-purification systems.

For almost 40 years, the Finks—who have three adult children and eight grandchildren—have lived in Admirals Cove, a gated community in Jupiter about 5 miles from their new house. They paid $180,000 for the Admirals Cove lot in 1987 and built a roughly 6,000-square-foot house, Ron said. The Finks also own homes in the Cayman Islands and Bahamas.

Until now, the Finks have lived in Admirals Cove, about 5 miles from their new house. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ron said they began looking for property in Jupiter Inlet Cove years ago. “It’s a neat place, just a closed little colony right on the ocean, low key and quiet,” he said.

About 20 miles north of Palm Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony is at the southern tip of Jupiter Island. The town, founded around 1959, has approximately 240 homes and is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean, Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway. Long a destination for wealthy homeowners, homes in Jupiter Inlet Colony tend to trade for between $2 million and $5 million, although one sold for $18.6 million in January, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Last year, a home on the Intracoastal sold for $21.4 million, a record for the town.

In 2020, the Finks paid $4.9 million for a vacant beachfront lot and subsequently built a coastal-style house with a copper-and shake-style roof, covered loggia, pool and outdoor fire pit. “You know, it’s kind of a dream home,” Ron said. “We have built quite a few homes, but this is the end of the line for us, hopefully the last one.”

He said the property originally belonged to the singer Perry Como, one of the town’s first residents. A prior owner demolished Como’s house, and when the Finks bought it, there were concrete-and-steel pilings sticking out of the ground.

Ron Fink said he never removed about 60 pilings, he simply added roughly 30 more. “Now I’m glad I did,” he said. (Pilings are based on the design of a house, so Ron retained some pilings that he didn’t necessarily need.)

John Melhorn of design-build firm Thomas Melhorn, which built the house, said the Finks were a final review away from obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the backyard was destroyed. “They were right there at the goal line,” he said.

The Finks’ house and pool are standing on about 90 concrete-and-steel pilings. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Melhorn said the erosion began in late October amid unusually high winds and ocean swell. During the first week of February, sand beneath a row of sea grapes that stabilized the dunes between the house and ocean began to wash away. By the evening of Feb. 6, the plantings disappeared. The yard was gone by the next morning.

Melhorn said a pre-existing, low wall between the ocean and house—described as a cinder-block retaining wall on land surveys—also washed away, as did a walkway and steps to the beach. But he said the 2-foot-high wall was less of a retaining wall and more like a curb between the street and sidewalk. In this case, a prior owner used it to hold sea grapes back from encroaching on the property. The Finks replaced the wall with decorative stone, now lost to the ocean. An outdoor fire pit is still there, cantilevered over the ocean. “We tried to pull as many things out as we saw the erosion coming, but we lost a lot,” Melhorn said.

In Florida, erosion is increasing because of more frequent, more severe storms and sea-level rise, said Cheryl Hapke, a research professor at the University of South Florida and the chair of the Florida Coastal Mapping Program. But she said it isn’t just hurricane-level storms that cause major damage. “One thing I have found about barrier islands [like Jupiter Inlet Colony] is that sometimes a series of smaller events can have as big an impact as a major hurricane,” she said. “But people get caught off guard. It’s something they don’t think of.”

In Jupiter Inlet Colony, longtime residents said this month’s erosion is the worst the area has seen in years, possibly ever.

Mayor Ed Hocevar, who has lived there for 17 years, said it has been a particularly cool and challenging winter with an abnormal number of Nor’easters. On Feb. 6, local news channels warned of high winds, with gusts between 40 and 50 miles an hour. (There were also reports of an earthquake off the coast that week, causing high waves.)

Since the 1980s, Jupiter Inlet Colony has had a granite rock revetment wall that extends from the northern end of the community past 11 oceanfront homes. “But we’ve got 28 homes along the beachfront, so it isn’t complete,” Hocevar said. “Where the wall ended is where the significant damage occurred.” Hocevar said he doesn’t know why the wall wasn’t completed, although local lore is that homeowners building the wall ran out of money.

Last week, the town hired a local mining company to bring in 7,000 tons of sand to replace what washed away. Hocevar said it would cost about $500,000, which will come out of the town’s reserve fund. Long term, he said, extending the revetment wall isn’t a strong possibility.

Hapke, the coastal geology expert, said that in recent decades, sea walls and hardened structures have fallen out of favor as scientists discovered they are detrimental to the environment around them. “Storm water wants to flow, so it will redirect water to the area without a sea wall,” she said, adding that the most ideal long-term solution is to move homes away from the coastline.

 

Hocevar, 67, who has been mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony for about a month, said the town is working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection on its response. He said the DEP’s recommendation, should erosion like this occur again, is to bring in more sand. Hocevar emphasised that the community is rallying together. “Think about it as a fortress and your wall has been breached,” he said. “You want to protect your neighbourhood and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Holly Meyer Lucas of Compass, who represented the seller when the Finks purchased their property, said Jupiter Inlet Colony is a “special little enclave” where sales exploded during Covid. “Listings sell after a day or sell off-market,” she said.

Lucas said the consensus among local real-estate agents is that property values will hold, despite the erosion. “I think this is a really rare, weird, fluky event,” she said. “I’ve sold everywhere up and down the coast and I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

The couple were close to getting their certificate of occupancy for the newly-built home. PHOTO: JAMES JACKMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Babe Rizzuto, whose house is two doors down from the Finks, listed her house for $24.5 million in December 2023 and cut the price to $22.5 million on Feb. 6, according to Zillow.

“She’s going to continue to sell,” said Milla Russo of Illustrated Properties, who is marketing the property with her husband, Andrew Russo. “Even though the timing isn’t great, it is what it is.”

Russo said there has been erosion in the past, and during hurricanes residents of Jupiter Inlet Colony are the first in the area to evacuate. But in general, people are not preoccupied with the weather. “Maybe because we live here, when the hurricanes come, we all have hurricane parties. We go to people’s homes and we barbecue and grill. Of course we’re careful and we lock up and all that, but weather is weather,” she said. “We’ve never been terribly scared.”

(The Russos were also involved in selling the Fink property. However, in 2020 the closing agent on the deal, Florida-based Eavenson, Fraser & Lunsford, PLLC, sued Milla Russo and Illustrated Properties as part of a commission dispute. The seller, Michael Cantor’s Range Road Developers, was named as a defendant and cross-plaintiff in the suit, in which a judge ruled in favor of Eavenson, court records show. Milla Russo declined to comment on the suit. Eavenson declined to comment beyond the judge’s findings and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ron was also matter-of-fact about the state of beachfront living. Bring a life jacket, he jokingly told a photographer who inquired last week about taking his picture.

However, the Finks are facing weeks of costly repairs. Although the town is bringing in sand to replace the decimated beachfront, the couple is self-insured and will be on the hook for the cost of rebuilding. Several major home insurers have pulled out of Florida, and Ron said insurance on the house would have cost $100,000 a year. Now, he estimated they could face about $1 million worth of repair work. “We gotta eat it,” he said.

The couple, who was supposed to move into the house this month, has put those plans on hold—for now. An engineer recently inspected the property and deemed the house safe, Ron said. “We’re doing wallpaper today,” he said. “We can put it back together again.” The patio and pool area, meanwhile, are roped off while the area underneath is backfilled with sand.

Ron said being near the ocean makes it worthwhile. “I just love the ocean, we both do. It’s important to us,” he said. “It isn’t easy to look at, but I’ve been through a lot worse.”

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