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Weekly Market Report - December 20, 2021

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If the Office Is Really a Thing of the Past, These Investors Will Make a Killing


The hedge-fund manager is shorting the Empire State Building’s publicly traded owner, Empire State Realty Trust Inc., according to a person familiar with the matter. He is among a small but growing group of investors who believe the Covid-19 pandemic will drastically reduce demand for office space for years to come, and that markets underestimate the risk. For many years, investors saw office space as a safe and predictable place to put their money. Last year, Mr. Litt, an activist investor known for targeting real-estate companies’ hedge fund, Land and Buildings Investment Management LLC, took short positions in two New York-focused office REITs, SL Green Realty Corp. and Vornado Realty Trust, in addition to its bet against Empire State, according to the person familiar with the matter. But this person says the fund has since given up those short positions in SL Green and Vornado, which own a number of newer buildings, and is shorting only Empire State, which primarily owns old office buildings in Manhattan, nine in all. Mr. Litt said he believes there will be around 15% fewer people in office buildings after the pandemic is over. That, he said, will lead to less demand for office space and lower rents. He expects rising operating expenses and property taxes to eat into profits. “We believe that, all said and done, the office values are going to bottom down 40% from pre-pandemic levels,” Mr. Litt said. Empire State’s chief executive, Anthony Malkin, said the company has modernized its buildings and made them more environmentally friendly, and that he expects to attract tenants moving out of older buildings who can’t afford the newest glass skyscrapers.


*** City Council passes bill banning natural gas in new buildings


The City Council on Wednesday passed a measure that would prevent most new buildings from using natural gas, making New York the largest U.S. city to take such a step toward the electrification of buildings. “We’re in a climate crisis and must take all necessary steps to fight climate change and protect our city,” council Speaker Corey Johnson said. “We people have had to contend with the effects of global warming in the form of record-breaking fatal weather events, year after year,” said Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel of Brooklyn, who introduced the bill. In a joint statement, environmental groups praised the bill’s passage but said they would have liked a quicker time frame. The Regional Plan Association, the Association for Energy Affordability, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Urban Green Council said, “The version of the law adopted today substantially tightens the emissions performance standard for buildings. It ensures new buildings will be all-electric, powered by an increasingly renewable grid, and eliminates renewable natural gas as a compliance strategy for new buildings. While we would have liked to see faster implementation, the law’s phased approach provides a strong but feasible schedule, with more than enough time to design all-electric buildings and address any technical challenges.”


*** Blackstone Nears Deal Valuing Manhattan Office Tower at $2.85 Billion


Blackstone Inc. is in advanced talks to acquire a 49% stake in a new Manhattan office tower in a deal that values the skyscraper at $2.85 billion, providing a shot of confidence for New York during tough times. A venture led by Brookfield Asset Management could reach an agreement to sell the stake in the One Manhattan West property to Blackstone in the next few days, said people familiar with the matter. A deal would be the latest sign that the Covid-19 pandemic and even the spread of the Omicron variant aren’t deterring investors from paying top dollar for the most-modern and highest-quality office buildings. The stake in the office tower would fetch one of the highest prices ever paid for New York office property, according to brokers and real-estate investors. Brookfield and its partner, Qatar Investment Authority, opened the 2.1-million-square-foot building in 2019 with features including a 2.5-acre plaza lined by restaurants and stores. Located across the street from the new Moynihan Train Hall, it is over 90% leased by such tenants as law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, consulting firm Accenture PLC and the National Hockey League. One Manhattan West is part of an 8-acre development by Brookfield and Qatar Investment Authority that includes the Pendry Manhattan West hotel, which opened earlier this year; a luxury rental apartment building that opened in 2017; and what will eventually be 6 million square feet of office space.

*** Working from Work is Harder than it Sounds


Many people returning to offices are starting to wonder how they ever managed to be productive in a place with so many distractions. On top of standard interruptions to the workday that have long existed—say, small talk while making a fresh cup of coffee—there are now new temptations and annoyances (depending on whom you ask) spawned by staggered schedules, hybrid work, and the pandemic-induced realization that socializing can be exhausting. Small talk can easily stretch into a half-hour or more when you’re covering weeks or months of gossip since your last run-in. Some colleagues are taking Zoom meetings on speaker at full volume. Headphones are no defense against shoulder-tapping deskmates with questions, and for the love of God what is that incessant ringing? Ah yes, it’s a landline that you can’t silence! Office signs that attempt to manage distractions have resonated with people on Twitter: One Ph.D. candidate in Oslo implemented a door policy “in order to protect my concentration and my sanity.” The sign instructed people not to knock on the door unless there was urgent business—defined as the building being on fire, an offer of coffee, revolution or a dog. Working from home had its perks, a huge one being that it was easier to keep your concentration without the many distractions of being in the office.

*** Manhattan retail shows signs of recovery, but threats still loom


In nine of the 17 corridors that REBNY examines, rent either increased or stayed flat from the spring to the fall. Retail sales have increased for two consecutive quarters, rising by 1.4%, to $36.9 billion, in the second quarter and by 3.8%, to $38.3 billion, in the third quarter, the report says. But rents are still much lower than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic overall, and they experienced year-over-year declines in 13 of the 17 corridors. The number of ground-level retail spaces with an asking rent of $200 per square foot or less has increased by 132% from the fall of 2019, while the number of spaces with an asking rent of more than $1,000 per square foot has dropped 58%, according to the report. Year over year, the corridor with the biggest increase in the average asking rent per square foot was East 86th Street between Lexington and Second avenues—which rose 11%, from $294 to $327. The corridor with the biggest decrease was Times Square, where rent dropped 39%, from $1,643 to $998; it marked the first time the average asking rent in Times Square fell to less than $1,000 in more than 10 years. The rebound that retail has seen so far is based largely on a surging residential market, and rents in the sector have stabilized more in neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, the report says. Residential sales and leases have been strong in Manhattan this year, whereas tourism and office commuters—two other pillars for the retail sector—are still nowhere near their pre-pandemic levels.