Commercial real estate refuses to cool in New York

Commercial real estate refuses to cool in New York

The Cathedral of Commerce once again is living up to its nickname. The Woolworth Building, a 1913 Gothic masterpiece in downtown Manhattan, was set for conversion to luxury condominiums, but the price of commercial office space has risen so much that the owners changed course.

Instead of becoming one of the coolest places to live in New York City, the building will house luxury office space. In a city where people pay $500,000 for a studio apartment, the owners – led by the developers Steven Witkoff and Ruben Schron – scrapped a seven-year-old residential plan in May in favour of the commercial project.

While the residential real estate market is flat, New York’s commercial property market has been galloping ahead at least since 2003 or 2004.

Experts see few signs of a slowdown, if any. “It’s not driven by one sector. It’s not only law firms, it’s not only financial firms. It’s across the board,” said Steve Eynon, leasing director at the Empire State Building.

Like just about everywhere else in Manhattan, vacancies are down and rents are up at the Empire State Building. Rents rose 18% in the past year and 11% in the second quarter alone, Eynon said.

In the pricier Midtown district, eight blocks further north, monthly rents for Class A space are up 34% in the past year and up 74% from a September 2003 low point, according to brokerage Colliers ABR.

In all of Manhattan, office buildings valued above $5mn are selling for $730 per square foot in 2007, up 18% from last year and up 143% from 2004, according to Real Capital Analytics. Meanwhile apartment prices fell 2.4% in 2006 and are down 18% this year.

In the Financial District, which includes Wall Street and the Woolworth Building, rents are up 25% in the past year and up 62% from a low point in November 2004.

Some 10mn more square feet of office space will open there as four towers are built on the World Trade Center site over the next five years. In addition, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are building headquarters totaling another 3.4mn sq ft of space.

A few blocks away is the Woolworth Building, which at 792ft (241m) was the tallest building in the world when completed in 1913 with Gothic spires, a terra cotta exterior and elaborate lobby. Built with the fortune raised by the Woolworth retail chain, the building was called the Cathedral of Commerce.

“He (owner Witkoff) sees the improvements that are going on next door. Even if he’s going to sell these as condos, it might make sense to lease them out as office space for 10 years first,” said Dan Fasulo, managing director at Real Capital Analytics.

The Woolworth Building’s 60 floors are split between a 30-floor box that is its base, which was never planned for residential use, and a 30-floor tower on top that has been gutted for renovation.

The upper floors have roughly 10,000 sq ft of floor space, high ceilings and 360-degree views.

“It’s for fewer people making large sums of money in a much smaller place. Something like a hedge fund that doesn’t need that large of a staff,” said Roy Suskin, a building spokesman.

Through Suskin, the owners declined to comment on the market factors behind the switch back to a commercial project.

By Daniel Trotta, Gulf Times Newspaper 

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