The Silver Lining for Center City Tenants

In the early 2000’s Center City was a tenant’s dream. There was close to four million square feet of vacancy in the trophy market alone and landlords were bending over backwards to entice tenants to come to (or remain in) their buildings.  Things have changed.  Rental rates in Center City’s top buildings are now at historic highs with some buildings commanding $40+ rents.  For those tenants whose leases are now expiring, they may experience sticker shock as compared to the deals they struck 10 to 15 years ago. While, from a real estate perspective, the timing isn’t great for these tenants, they may find solace by looking at the bigger picture.

During a recent lease negotiation, a client was pushing for a shorter-term lease while the landlord wanted something longer term.  The landlord said to the tenant “I guess you’re betting that the real estate market will be a lot more tenant friendly in 10 years so you can get a better deal.”  The client’s response surprised me at first, but he was spot on.  Instead of confirming the landlord’s assessment, the client responded: “Actually, I’ll be thrilled if rental rates in Philadelphia are higher in 10 years.  Rents are a reflection of the health of the local economy and, if rents have gone up, our business is probably booming too.”

We sometimes forget that the reason we have down real estate markets is because we’re in a recession or at least a stagnant economy.  If rents in Center City are down or lagging, it’s probably because businesses in Philadelphia are not faring well.  Do you want cheap rents and flat or declining revenues or higher rents and a thriving business climate? 

Sure, in the ideal world, tenants would make long term lease commitments when the office market is weak and then benefit from improving economic conditions over the lease term; the best of both worlds.  The fact is that tenants in Philadelphia had the benefit of stagnant rents for almost 20 years.  However, our weak real estate market was reflective of a stagnant local economy where we weren’t creating many new jobs.  Rents—which are a function of supply and demand– were flat because, even as office inventory shrunk with the conversion of Class B office buildings to apartments, condos and other uses, employers weren’t hiring new office workers and few new companies were moving to the City or starting here.  In sum, demand wasn’t outstripping supply.

Things have been changing over the past several years.  Today, Comcast is exploding, our Universities and healthcare systems are thriving, emerging companies like Spark Therapeutics are choosing to make Philadelphia their home and companies like Entercom are deciding that its better to be in the City than the suburbs. As these companies grow and thrive, it creates more business opportunities for our regionally based accounting, consulting and law firms as well as for other service providers, manufacturers and distributers.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

Higher rental rates are an indication that the business environment in Philadelphia is improving and that should benefit everyone.  But higher rental rates are also a reflection of something else that benefits tenants.

In many cases, the building you are paying a higher rent for today is not the same building you rented 10 years ago.   As buildings have changed hands over the past few years, the new building owners have heavily invested in new building systems, lobbies, common area bathrooms and new amenity floors with lounges, gyms and conference centers.  These investments have been critical for upgrading our aging building stock; especially since new construction is still not economically viable in most cases.  We needed to upgrade what we had and that was only possible if landlords could get a return on their investment by commanding higher rents.


There is no way to sugar coat the reality that most tenants today are going to be paying more for their space (on a per square foot basis) than they were before.  We’re not used to that new reality.  For years, things went the other way for tenants.  However, that old reality came with a price.  Look at the markets with rental rates that are much higher than ours like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.  Would most of us trade our local economy for theirs?  Yes.  In a heartbeat.  The good news is that Philadelphia is moving up in the world.  That’s good for area businesses even if it makes the real estate negotiation process a bit frustrating.

What does the future hold? Certainly, businesses will continue to shrink their footprints and get more efficient in their use of space. The explosive growth in coworking space – which has soaked up nearly 1,000,000sf of space in the City–will not continue and several of these operators will likely fail.  This will all curtail demand. There’s not much Class B office inventory remaining that can be converted to other uses so existing supply won’t continue to shrink at the rate it has over the past 20 years.  And finally, the economy cannot continue its historic period of expansion.  We will hit another downturn or recession soon.  To offset these inevitabilities, Philadelphia must continue to recruit new companies and add new jobs.  If Philadelphia can figure out a way to continue this positive business momentum, we’ll all be happy to pay the higher rents.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal, September 20, 2019.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld

Posted in Leases | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How To Know If You Got a Good Lease Deal

Everyone likes to get a great deal whether it’s on a new home, a new car or a new office lease.  There’s pride in knowing that you got better terms than other people or that you were able to move the needle on the seller’s initial offer in a material way. But how do you really know if you got a good deal?  The answer may be more complicated than you think.

The “Market Comp” Measure.  When it comes to leasing, many brokers measure the merits of a deal as compared to the “market”.  For example, the pitch listing agents give to landlords is that they will get them “above market” rents if they are given the building assignment.  But what does that mean?

If the last tenant in the building did a five-year lease at $33/sf with no free rent and $10 of cash, would your deal be a great deal if you did a five-year deal at $32/sf with three months of free rent and $20 of cash?  What if it turns out that the other deal was a renewal where the tenant waited until the last minute to strike its deal and never competed its requirement in the market?  What if the other tenant was only 2,000sf and you are 40,000sf?  What if you are a blue-chip credit and the other tenant is struggling to stay afloat?

Comparing your deal to other tenant deals is not always a fair comparison because it ignores the relative bargaining strengths and weaknesses of each tenant as well as that of the landlords.  A great deal for one tenant given their situation might be a very bad deal for another different given their unique alternatives. While brokers would like you to believe that there is a “market” rent that applies to all tenants and landlords, that is not the case.  A landlord with 5% vacancy in its building who has done its last two deals for $35/sf rent might anchor its expectations on that number for the next tenant. However, the landlord next door in a similar building who has 20% vacancy might settle for a lot less.

The Deal Improvement Measure. Deal improvement is often measured by the difference between the landlord’s initial offer and the final deal terms.  Landlords understand the psychology of negotiations and so in many cases they lead with very rich proposals because it gives them room to come down and make the tenant feel good about the final terms.  With respect to lease renewals, some landlords have a policy that their first proposal to the tenant will always be at a rental rate at least equal to what they are currently paying.  The rate bears no relation necessarily to what the landlord believes it can get in the open market at that time.  They are simply trying to test the expectations and resolve of the tenant.  These situations often provide opportunities to significantly move the needle on the initial offer.

We also find that tenants tend to assess the merits of their current deal relative to their prior lease; especially in the context of renewals.  For example, if a tenant obtains a rent reduction in their lease renewal or gets the landlord to provide modest cash concession to help pay for some needed improvements, they necessarily think they’ve secured a great deal.

We met with one tenant who told us they got a great deal on their recent lease renewal.  We asked them why they thought it was a great deal. They told us “We got $1,000,000 from the landlord, the landlord fixed some issues with the mechanical systems of the building AND they didn’t increase our rent.”  While all of these deal terms exceeded the low expectations of this 250,000sf tenant based on their prior deal, they clearly left a lot on the table in their negotiations.

Comparing your final deal to the landlord’s initial offer or your last deal may indicate relative improvement; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean the deal is a good one.

The “Tenant’s Alternatives” Measure.   A better way to determine if you are getting a good deal is to compare your final deal to all of the other options you were considering.  This measure takes into account your unique facts and circumstances as well as the facts and circumstances of the various landlords whose buildings fit your needs.  If, taken as a whole, one outcome is significantly better than all of the others you considered, it’s a good deal for you. 

Only by conducting a competitive procurement process can the tenant truly discover the value of its tenancy in the open market.  It can pressure test this value against landlords who desperately want its requirement and those who are less motivated.  And the best deal isn’t always the cheapest one or no one would ever rent space in trophy buildings.  In fact, we don’t usually choose the cheapest options when it comes to our purchasing decisions.  We do, however, make relative value judgments about different choices taking into account both price and benefits. The following example will illustrate how this happens.

Let’s say you’re looking to buy a car.  You look at a $60,000 Porsche, a $45,000 Lexus and a $30,000 Chevy. You decide that the Porsche is your favorite car, but the Lexus is pretty nice too.  You determine that you’d pay a premium for the Porsche over the BMW but only about $10,000, not $15,000.  Thus, even if the last three buyers paid $60,000 for the same Porsche, $57,000 still wouldn’t be a good deal for you; paying $45,000 for the Lexus would be a better deal for you. If you could get the Porsche for $55,000, however, that would be a good deal relative to your other options. 

When tenants don’t compete their deal in the open market or they allow their brokers to focus in on only one or two choices to the exclusion of all others, they never truly know what their tenancy is worth, nor do they have any context for assessing the relative merits of their deal.   A deal is a good one when it is the best option for you given your unique facts and circumstances.  The merits of your deal should not be measured in relation to the value judgments of other tenants that went before you.

The “Landlord’s Alternatives” Measure. Another way of assessing the merits of your deal is to compare the landlord’s profit on your deal to what their alternatives are.  If they are making a lot more on your deal than they would otherwise have made, there was probably more room for improvement in your deal.  While it’s true that a rich deal for the landlord may still be the cheapest and best option for the tenant, that doesn’t mean the deal couldn’t be improved.  A tenant should be able to capture some of the landlord’s deal premium if it runs a competitive procurement process and creates other viable alternatives.  Ultimately landlords act in an economically rational manner and they will not let their best outcome go away if they can save it by sweetening their offer. 

Lease renewals offer a unique opportunity to secure more aggressive terms than most tenants realize.  Landlords make two to three times as much profit on lease renewal than they do on new leases because there is no rent interruption and they generally don’t require as much capital.  Nevertheless, many tenants allow their landlords to retain all of the economic benefits of their renewal because they don’t understand the landlord’s alternatives. 

Before accepting any lease deal, ask your broker to analyze what the landlord’s other alternatives were.  If you’re paying a premium, you should at least know what it is and see if it can be minimized.


Most people want to know that they got a good deal on their lease.  Unfortunately, the benchmarks most brokers rely on for justifying final deal terms — market comparables and deal improvement — can be misleading and fail to account for the tenant’s unique situation and leverage.  Instead, a good deal should be measured in relation both to your alternatives and those of your landlord.

Posted in Leases, Negotiating, Strategies | Leave a comment

How the City Is Already Undermining the Real Estate Tax Abatements

In 1997, the City of Philadelphia created a real estate tax abatement program to stimulate new residential and commercial development and invigorate the economy.  With 26% of our City living in poverty and many others needing to be subsidized by other tax payers in order to provide essential services (including a projected five year, $630 million funding gap in our public schools), it made a lot of sense to create incentives that would attract more corporate tenants and wealthy homeowners to the City and expand the tax base.  And guess what?  It has worked. Incredibly well. “

So, what does Philadelphia do with this chicken that is laying golden eggs?  In typical fashion, some members of City Council are trying to kill it.  Rather than focusing on all the new tax dollars that will be streaming into City coffers in perpetuity as the abatement periods begin to expire, some Council members are instead fixated on the fact that wealthy corporations and individuals are getting favorable treatment in the very short term (but at no real cost to the City).  They want to stop the abatements or cut them back significantly even though, by any rational economic analysis, it’s clear that the program is a home run for the City and perhaps the answer to our long-term tax problems.

Those in City Council who oppose the tax abatements, and who probably cheered their compatriots in Long Island City who drove away Amazon and its 25,000 new jobs, fail to see the forest through the trees.  They also continue to be the biggest obstacle to our City’s growth.  Their attitude towards business and progress is killing our ability to attract and retain corporations. Philadelphia is not lucky enough to be a New York, Washington, D.C. or Boston where companies must locate in order to attract unique talent and/or compete effectively within their industry. Very few businesses MUST be here to survive. Likewise, we aren’t lucky enough to be located by the ocean, in the mountains or in a place where temperatures allow year-round outdoor lifestyles.  Thus, we’re not a natural attraction for individuals who don’t already have strong ties here.  However, once we get people to come here, they love it.  That’s why the tax abatements are so important. They provide an economic incentive to give us a try.

The talk about killing or cutting back the tax abatements continues to send a message to the world that we don’t want people to come and give Philadelphia a chance. Or perhaps it sends the naïve message that “If you want to come here, that’s fine but come here despite the fact that our taxes are really high. We’re not going to bend over backwards to attract you even though our peer cities are.”

Even when we do something right, we seem to go out of our way to screw things up.  The successful tax abatement program is now being administered in a way that frustrates the original intent of the program.  In effect, the City is already violating the spirit of the tax abatement program by taking away 10-15% of its intended benefits. Here’s how they are doing it.

Remember, the intent of the abatement program was to provide a 10-year tax hiatus on the value created by any new improvements made to a property.  The real estate taxes on the property’s pre-improved value were to remain unaffected by the abatement and the City is free to continue taxing the owner on the value of the underlying land as market conditions change.

Let’s look at an example to see how things are supposed to work.  Assume we have a piece of land worth $100,000, a developer buys it and constructs a new home which raises the property’s total value to $1,000,000. Under the abatement program (and assuming no inflation in general real estate values), the tax payer would continue during the 10-year abatement period to pay real estate taxes of $1,400 per year (i.e., 1.4% of the $100,000 original value).  After 10 years and for all years thereafter, the City would start to receive $14,000 (i.e., 1.4% of $1,000,000) in real estate taxes based on the higher improved value.  That’s a 1000% increase for the City’s tax coffers.  During the 10- year abatement period, the City is no worse off than it was before the improvements were made because it continues to receive the $1,400 per year in real estate taxes.  It’s a home run arrangement for the City because it costs Philadelphia nothing in the short term and, in the long term, it creates a much higher revenue stream in perpetuity.  What reasonable investor would turn this offer down?  Apparently, Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, this fantastic deal wasn’t good enough for the City, so they are once again sending a loud and clear signal to developers and new residents that “We’re gonna tax you.”

The City is circumventing the intent of the abatement program by cleverly shifting some of the increased property value that was created by new improvements to the underlying land. By doing this they can start taxing this increased value before the end of the 10-year abatement. 

How is the City getting shifting value?  By using a formulaic approach to how they value land. Every tax bill breaks down the assessed value of a property between the land and the buildings.  In deciding how to allocate a property’s value between the two, they apply a formula.  Land is deemed to represent a certain percentage of the overall property value.  Seems innocuous but it isn’t.

This approach has caused many property owners to receive significant tax increases during their abatement period and has resulted in extremely disparate treatment among similarly situated land owners.  Let’s look at our prior example to show how the City is unfairly (and perhaps improperly) taxing property owners who were supposed to benefit from the abatements. 

Assume that in our prior example, there is an identical piece of land right next to the $100,000 parcel that remains unimproved.  If the City’s position is that land is equal to 25% of a property’s total value, the land parcel that was redeveloped will now have a value of $250,000 (25% of $1,000,000) which is subject to real estate taxes.  However, the identical piece of land sitting right next door is only taxed at a value of $100,000.  The $150,000 difference is 100% attributable to the investment that the developer made in the property and which is supposed to be fully protected under the abatement program.  Of the $900,000 of new value created by the taxpayer, they are only receiving an abatement on $750,000 or 83% because the value of their land has magically increased.  Not only is the developer being denied the full abatement on the value of the improvements that it was supposed to receive, but its land is also being taxed at 2.5 times the amount of the identical piece of land right next door. If the new home were to burn to the ground one day, is that land worth 2.5 times the what the identical parcel next door is worth?  That makes no sense.

What is the point of this grab by the City and what message are we sending to the world by going back on our deal?  The abatement program is a huge success and promises to pay incredible dividends for the indefinite future.  Not only are we going to benefit from increased real estate tax revenues, but we will also receive significant increases in wage taxes and sales taxes from our new residents, not to mention the multiplier effects created by all the spending these people will do in the City.  Tax abatements don’t cost the City anything, but after a short period of time, they create significant dollars that will help pay for the essential services that too many of our citizens cannot afford.

The City needs to start thinking about the message it sends to businesses and individuals when it continues to tax with impunity.  The only way to solve our problems is to expand the base of tax payers that fund our services and, for now, we may need to provide some incentives to get companies and individuals to give us a shot.  There’s nothing wrong with a win-win arrangement.  Let’s not kill the goose that is laying the golden egg simply because it also happens to benefit those we need the most.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal, March 7, 2019.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld

Posted in Leases | Leave a comment

Record Sale Price for BNY Mellon Center Isn’t High Enough

The pending sale of BNY Mellon Center is music to the ears of many Center City building owners.  It wasn’t all that long ago that trophy buildings in the Central Business District could be had for as little as $125/sf.  Now one of our crown jewels is selling for about $350/sf.  That’s progress.  Problem is, we have a long way to go.

Today, given historically high construction costs, a trophy tower costs about $600-$650/sf to develop.  Thus, even as it sets a new sales price record, BNY Mellon will trade at only about 54% of replacement cost.  And that, in a nutshell, explains why no one (other than Comcast) has been building new office towers in Philadelphia outside of tax advantaged zones.  In fact, except for Comcast Tower and Bell Atlantic Tower (which was really a sale/leaseback), no one has made money selling a new office building in Center City in over 30 years.  Why build a new trophy tower when you can buy an existing one for half the price?

Why Are Sales Prices Below Replacement Cost? It’s All About the Rents.

Trophy tower rents in Center City Philadelphia are now in the mid to high $30s/sf gross and, in a few cases, $40/sf gross.  The record setting price for BNY Mellon Center reflects these historically high rents as well as very little vacancy.  Unfortunately, the rents are not nearly high enough to justify new construction.  The Science Center in University City, which is successfully developing Class A office buildings, is seeking (and getting) $40+ NNN rents (close to $50 gross equivalents).   Tenants are paying a premium for proximity to the health systems and academic institutions.  High rise trophy towers, which are considerably more expensive to develop, will require low to mid $50s NNN rents (close to $60 gross rents) to justify development. That’s a far cry from even the high end of the market today.  Thus, until underlying rents reach “replacement cost rents”, sales prices will not reach replacement cost prices.

Given the large disparity between where “market” rents are today and what they need to be to justify new construction, what can be done to bridge the gap? Clearly our office stock is aging and, if we want to be viewed as a Class A city, we need to make sure that our building inventory is competitive with what our peer cities are offering.  Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and San Francisco are all dotted with new office building developments because their existing trophy towers are commanding rents at or above replacement cost rents.   Paying $60-$80 rents for a shiny, new trophy building isn’t that much of a premium (if at all) for tenants in those markets.  So how do we catch up with those other cities?

Perhaps the best way to see a path forward is to review what happened the last time Philadelphia experienced a commercial office building boom.

The Last Building Boom in Center City.

Almost all our trophy towers were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Market rents at that time weren’t at replacement cost levels either. So how were these buildings justified? 

First, there was a tremendous gap between the quality of the existing buildings (i.e., Center Square, 123 South Broad Street etc.) and what the new trophy towers offered (One Liberty Place, Mellon Bank Center and Bell Atlantic Tower).  Many of the existing office buildings were getting low to mid $20 rents. The new trophy towers required low to mid $30 rents back then.  While that was a meaningful premium, tenants felt it was justified by the huge upgrade in building quality.    Today, however, the quality spread between existing office product and new trophy towers has been lessened as many of the Class A- and Class A buildings have recently invested millions of dollars in their lobbies and building systems, and added major tenant amenity spaces like outdoor decks, conference and fitness centers and lounges.  To justify a $20 premium today, Tenants will need to be convinced that what is being offered in the new trophy towers is materially better than what is otherwise available.

A second factor that helped spawn the development boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the law firm phenomenon.  By far, the largest users of office space back then were law firms.  The good news for developers was that our largest law firms were natural anchors for new buildings AND they were very competitive with each other. Thus, when Morgan Lewis committed to moving to One Logan, that set off a stampede of other top law firms looking to keep up.  Ballard and Dilworth signed up for Mellon Bank Center, Dechert moved to Bell Atlantic Tower (now Three Logan), Duane Morris went to One Liberty, and Pepper Hamilton went to Two Logan.  Today most of our largest law firms are taking a lot less space than they were 30 years ago.  In addition, many of these are Am Law 100 and 200 firms who are keenly focused on profits per partner.  As a result, they will be hard pressed to justify significant rent premiums unless they come with the required return on investment.

Finally, the developers during the last big building boom benefitted from a less stringent lending environment and, as a result, they could get very creative with their deal structures.  “Hockey stick” rent structures enabled the older law firm partners (who were typically driving the real estate decisions) to secure artificially low starting rents with significant rent bumps occurring down the road.  Because law firms operate on a cash basis and do not “straight line” or “GAAP” their rents, these structures helped smooth the cost of transitioning into the more expensive buildings. Today, however, these creative structures wouldn’t work for many lenders or for corporate tenants under today’s accounting rules. 

What Needs to Happen?

Given that we cannot rely on the factors that made our last office boom possible, what can we do to stimulate the new construction we so desperately need?  Our savior may be necessity. The fact is, there are not many places to put a large, high-end tenant today.  A tenant looking for 200,000 sf of high-end space now has limited choices.  If they really want something nice and more modern, they may need someone to build it for them.  Another catalyst for development may be the Keystone Opportunity Zones and the federal Opportunity Zones created by the new Tax Act. The tax incentives created by these zones can help defray and, in some cases, more than offset the cost premiums of new construction. Unfortunately, this won’t help our Central Business District as the most viable zones are in University City, the Navy Yard and North Broad Street. 

Ultimately our best hope is probably to attract companies from other cities who are used to paying $60 rents.  Once well recognized companies show that it’s okay to pay these rents in Philadelphia, other companies may feel more comfortable paying them too.  Attracting new companies to the City and increasing demand for office buildings is the key to creating a truly healthy real estate market that can justify and sustain new development.  Ideally, we will attract more corporate headquarters here like Comcast.  When large corporations establish their headquarters, they are often more willing to pay a premium to make a statement and enhance their brand than when they are simply opening an outpost or regional office.  The Conrails, Cignas, Mellon Banks and Bell Atlantics who helped anchor our last building boom are now gone or much reduced in size. If we want to build the next generation of office towers, we need to replace these players with some new faces.


The pending sale of BNY Mellon Center is good news for Philadelphia and surely a sign that things are looking up.  However, the sale also highlights that we have a long way to go if we want to change our skyline and keep up with our peer cities.  We cannot rely on the factors that catalyzed our last office building boom 30 years ago.  To get where we want to go today, we’ll need to get creative.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 11, 2019

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld

Posted in Leases, Markets, Negotiating, Strategies | Leave a comment

Is Your Office Space a $5 Latte?

This past weekend, I had a conversation with an old friend who– to put it lightly – is a big fan of lattes. He told me that he starts every day with a latte.  He loves the smell, the ritual, and of course, the caffeine hit. He recognized that buying a daily latte was kind of an indulgence, but reasoned he worked hard, and it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal to swipe his card for a little under $5 to start the day off with a boost. He acknowledged that the habit grew: it used to be some days, then it was workdays…  But, he confessed, it was now most days, and his wife did the same thing. A couple of years ago, they naively decided to do the math. As I said, his cost was just about $5/cup – and hers was about the same.  The math wasn’t very difficult; if we assume they drink on average twelve lattes a week, they were spending $60/week, or $3,120/year.  Yes, $3,120 for frothy flavored coffee and milk. 

Doing the math floored him because it wasn’t just one year; it was every year.  Despite his protests to his accountant, his latte habit was clearly not a deductible business expense either. One day, he stopped and asked himself the question: if, before they did this math, he was offered “all the coffee we wanted” for $3,000 a year, he would have stated immediately, “No thanks. That’s crazy.”  But that’s precisely what they were paying for the luxury and flexibility of having someone else make the coffee and buying it whenever they wanted.  And, absent a quick change, momentum dictated that he would spend another $3,000+ per year in perpetuity.

He started researching espresso makers and almost immediately plunked down about $1,300 for a great one.  He then bought 100 paper cups with sleeves and lids – virtually identical to his store-bought cup – and bought some milk and espresso beans.  He and his wife now start every morning with a latte (and often sneak another one in later!) for the low, low price – all-in – of about $.80/cup.  At a savings of $4.20/cup, they will pay off the espresso machine in just over 300 lattes – or about a half a year.  Yes, they are sacrificing some convenience, and they have to deal with supplies, cleaning, and maintenance; but he has kept the essentials of his habit intact, and now walks by his old coffee shop feeling like he won.

How do lattes relate to office space, you may ask?  They relate to shared office space.  In just a little over a decade, the shared office space/co-working phenomenon has revolutionized the way people work.  There is a true “generational shift” going on.  To wit, more than 1.7 million people will work in co-working spaces by the end of 2018, according to the Global Coworking Survey, and a staggering 29 percent of co-working spaces were opened over the last year.  For WeWork alone, a giant, but just one of the players in this sector…

  • WeWork is now the largest tenant in Manhattan, the largest tenant in Washington, DC and the second largest corporate occupier of commercial real estate (owner/tenant) in London – second only to the British government. 
  • WeWork controls 15.5 million square feet globally with 335 locations in 24 countries. 
  • WeWork was founded in 2010 and is now valued at $40 billion (twice its valuation from only a year ago!). This is not only one of the highest valuations of a United States startup (second only to Uber) but also blows away the valuations of Boston Properties and Vornado, two of the biggest commercial landlords in the country – and companies that actually OWN the kind of space that WeWork typically rents.

There’s clearly something going on here that goes beyond “market trend,” and that something is an enticing combination of luxury and flexibility. 

As to luxury, if you haven’t visited these spaces, they are the epitome of hip – if hip is still hip. They are beautifully appointed (typically with a very modern look and feel), meticulously maintained, and offer amenities that would come at only the nicest (and most millennial-staffed and themed) companies.  Coffee, snacks, and beer are free flowing (with some recent limitations for New Yorkers who couldn’t handle it). The vibe, while different from place to place, is extremely modern, relaxed, and casual, with a focus on premium technology and modular furniture that seems to foster the teamwork and collaboration essential in today’s workplace.

As to flexibility, this is billed as the highest value offered in the co-working sector – and in some cases, the justification for what can be an extremely costly expense. Co-working spaces almost uniformly offer month-to-month leases for single desks and 6, 9, or 12-month leases for more private office suites. As to size, so long as you’re growing, most coworking spaces will gladly allow you to tear up one agreement in exchange for a new commitment on a larger one. You generally get exclusive use of your suite, use of conference rooms, training rooms, and technology rooms (for x hours or with an added cost), and an unlimited use of the common areas. You pay a setup fee, but they generally take care of furniture procurement, setup, and all the basics to get a company up and running. There’s a receptionist at the door, a phone system in place, and you can print your documents on day 1 – even if there is a strong chance that your neighbor will frown upon you for not being fully paperless yet… 

So, there’s an amazing combination of luxury and flexibility with co-working and the world is clearly noticing.  But is your co-working space a $5 latte?  In other words, do you know if you’re paying a premium for it and/or how much that might be?  And aren’t these essential determinations in order to assess if the luxury and flexibility are worth the cost? 

Wait a minute, you say: I thought renting costs more than coworking! Well, in the case of an individual desk or even a few, that can absolutely be true. However, as your company grows to include more than a half dozen or so employees, you may find that it makes more sense, at least from a financial perspective, to rent your own space. As we did with the lattes, let’s look at the math.  For our illustration, let’s use a 12-person company looking to open up in either a co-working space or a traditional office.

Based on current proposals, the local coworking options for a private office (with very little in the way of elbow room) are about $600 per desk, per month – so we’ll call it $7,200/month for a 12-person office.  The office is about 600 SF.  Looking at this based on traditional metrics, the company would be paying an annual rental rate of $144/SF – in a market where the average rental rate is $28/SF.  But is that a fair comparison?

Probably not completely. If you were to rent the space yourself, you’d probably need to include extra space to replace the “as needed” space you had in the coworking environment. You’d need additional furniture, fixtures, and equipment to operate independently. You’d need to pay for your own internet and utilities, and you would likely need to contract with third parties for some of the services that were provided by the coworking staff. But even if you needed three times the space, 1,800 SF, you’d still be paying roughly 30% less to have your own space. 

Using reasonable assumptions for square footage, rent and market concession packages, the difference between a 600 SF WeWork Suite and an 1,800 SF “Class A” direct lease is nearly $50,000/year. Further, as the number of employees increases, the annual savings increases (at least) proportionately, and the savings can be compelling.  This is especially noteworthy because many companies start in a shared-space environment to get up and running – and then renew because, well, momentum.  As a result, what started out as a flexible cost-saving mechanism for 3-4 people can quickly become an extremely expensive indulgence for 30-40. 

Whether a co-working space or traditional office lease is best for you and your business depends on a lot of things: the environment you want to foster, the intricacies of your operation, your available capital and opportunity cost, and your ability to predict your space needs with sufficient certainty.  As WeWork’s monstrous growth demonstrates, many see enough value in co-working culture and flexibility that they are willing to pay a premium over what a private office of similar size might cost.  But paying an additional expense for flexibility may be unnecessary or something a company – especially a young company – can ill afford.  This expense exacerbates with each additional employee, and there is clearly a tipping point somewhere.  It’s very easy to just keep paying for luxury and flexibility, and momentum is a very strong force… but so is math. Is it time to start looking at espresso machines?

Posted in Commentaries, Markets, Strategies | Leave a comment

Explaining Amazon’s HQ2 Decision


(And How Philadelphia Can Change the Story Next Time Around)

After an unprecedented 14-month public search competition, Amazon finally announced the winner(s) of its coveted headquarters decision.  To everyone’s surprise, it did not pick a city.  It picked two cities.  Amazon will be splitting its new HQ2 requirement between Crystal City, Virginia and Long Island City, NY.  While both Virginia and New York State have indicated that they put forth extremely generous economic incentives to lure the eCommerce titan, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City was adamant that no incentives were offered by his City.  It didn’t have to.

What a luxury that is for New York City.  They have created a compelling brand and industry destination that companies will actually pay extra to be a part of.  Many financial services firms, media companies, fashion houses, advertising firms and corporate law firms believe they must have a presence in New York City if they want to be viewed as leaders in their respective industries. New York is where the competition is and that’s where the best talent is.  It doesn’t matter that New York City has burdensome taxes and the cost of living is the highest in the country.

It’s no coincidence that the two winning regions in the Amazon sweepstakes represent the top two homes for tech workers in the United States.  Techies are more likely to live in New York City or the Beltway than almost anywhere else in the country.  So, in the end, Amazon went where the experts are. And, in case you missed it, this real estate approach by Amazon didn’t end with their headquarters decision.  Amazon also announced that it would be creating 5,000 new jobs in Nashville, TN where it will base its package delivery, transportation and supply-chain services group.  Tennessee, which is already home to Federal Express, is a state that knows a thing or two about how to deliver something “when it absolutely, positively needs to be there overnight.”

New York City, Northern Virginia and Nashville attracted Amazon because their workers have the most expertise in the areas Amazon needs.  These cities are not alone in being industry destinations.  Los Angeles is the king of the entertainment industry; Detroit owns the automobile industry; Washington, D.C. is where you go for defense or if you are significantly regulated by the federal government; Boston is a leader in the financial services and tech worlds; and San Francisco also is a destination for tech companies.  Chicago may not have a national brand like the aforementioned cities, but it has the benefit of geography:  it has no comparable city to compete with within 500 miles.

The fact is, if you create a compelling business reason for someone to be in your market, they’ll pay extra to go there.  Don’t believe me?  It’s been happening right here in our own backyard.

Even as office rents in Center City have risen to heights not seen, well, ever, no one east of the Schuylkill River is paying over $40/sf for rent.  Why is that?  Because office space on this side of the Schuylkill River is a commodity.  No one really has to be in any particular building. Thus, with supply exceeding demand (at least for now), rents for the best buildings level off at the mid to high $30s.

Now let’s look westward across the river to University City.  There are many tenants paying over $40/sf to be in the Science Center and UCity where they continue to build new buildings.  That’s because the tenants in that part of town have to be there. The proximity to the universities and health care systems is critical to their businesses. They are not just renting glass boxes to put their employees in. They are buying access to essential talent and they are more than willing to pay a premium for it just like Amazon. They don’t really have a choice.

So, what does that mean for Center City?  It means we need to find our place in the world and make ourselves a destination for a few major industries.  What CEO wakes up right now and says, “You know, we really need to be in Philadelphia because we do X”?  What college graduate or graduate student is saying to their parents “Sorry mom and dad, I know you wanted me to move back near  home after graduation but if I want to do Y, I clearly need to be in Philadelphia”?  Hardly anyone.

We need to change that story.  Where do we begin?  Let’s take stock of our strengths. Where do we have a leg up on the competition in an area that has long term potential?  Maybe it’s gene therapy and life sciences.  Maybe with Comcast and now Entercom, we can become a top three entertainment/media town.  Maybe it’s something else.  Unfortunately, we are in greater need of a purpose than most cities because we are so close to New York and Washington, D.C.  Unlike Chicago, we can’t rely on geography.  In fact, while we have always touted our proximity to New York and D.C. as strengths for Philadelphia, that geographic reality may very well be what has hurt us the most.  Why come here if you can just go there?  With those two compelling cities so close by, we need our own unique purpose in order for companies to choose Philadelphia.

Very few people truly believed we would win the Amazon sweepstakes.  It’s not even clear we could have accommodated them if we won.  In the end, this could be the best outcome for us if we play our cards right.  Immediately to our north and south, Amazon will soon be putting tremendous pressure on the labor and housing pools.  That means a lot of companies might want to bail from those areas in search of less competition and cheaper cost structures.  We’re not that far away.  We can grab them if we have a good game plan and a great story to tell.

It’s time for Philadelphia to stake its claim and become known for something more than cheesesteaks, Rocky and Founding Fathers who left us 250 years ago.  Let’s put our heads together and come up with a plan.  If we do, they will come.  And when they do, they’ll pay a premium to be here.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on November 30, 2018.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld



Posted in Leases | Leave a comment

Opportunity Zone Investments Still Need to Be Good Opportunities

The new Opportunity Zones created in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”) are the darlings of real estate right now.  And for good reason. These Zones could potentially enable trillions of dollars in current and future capital gains to be deferred, discounted and even fully exempted from taxes by investing them in some of our country’s poorest areas.  If you think this all this sounds too good to be true, you may be right. These vehicles are not a foolproof path to wealth. Rather, investors must carefully assess each investment opportunity to make sure they can stand on their own independent of the potential tax benefits.

What Are Opportunity Zones?

Opportunity Zones are a community development program established by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to encourage long term investment in low income areas throughout the United States.   Each Governor has now designated a certain number of its State’s poorest areas to receive special tax treatment based on the most recent Census data. By investing in these Opportunity Zones through Qualified Opportunity Funds, taxpayers can receive the following benefits:

  1. If the tax payer redeploys capital gains from a prior investment into an Opportunity Zone, the tax on such capital gain will be deferred until the earlier of (a) the sale of the new asset or (b) December 31, 2026. Note that the gain can be derived from, and re-invested in, any tangible asset or business and, unlike with a 1031 tax free exchange, only the gain must be reinvested in the new asset as opposed to all of the original sale proceeds.
  2. If the new investment in the Opportunity Zone is held for at least five (5) years, the tax payer will receive a 10% discount on the capital gains tax. If the new investment is held for at least seven (7) years, it will receive a 15% discount on such capital gains tax.  Because the gain cannot be deferred beyond December 31, 2026, the money must be invested no later than December 31, 2021 to receive the 10% discount and by December 31, 2019 to receive the 15% discount.
  3. In addition to deferring and potentially discounting the capital gains tax from the original investment, if the tax payer holds the new investment in the Opportunity Zone for at least 10 years, it will pay NO TAXES on the ultimate sale of the new investment.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate how the tax benefits work.  Assume that in December 2018 Mary Smith sells a valuable piece of artwork for $5 million and realizes a $1 million gain.  On January 1, 2019, Mary (through a Qualified Fund) invests her $1 million gain in a business located within an Opportunity Zone and the Opportunity Fund then sells that business on January 1, 2030 for $3 million.  The sale of the business generates a $2 million gain for Mary.  What are her tax obligations?

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, (x) Mary gets to defer the payment of her capital gains taxes on the artwork until December 31, 2026, (y) at such time, Mary will pay taxes on only $850,000 of her gain from the sale of the original artwork (i.e., a 15% discount off of the $1 million gain) because, when the tax became due on December 31, 2026, she had held her new investment in the business located within the Opportunity Zone for seven years and (z) Mary will owe no taxes ($0) on the sale of the business because she held that investment for more than 10 years.

Investors Beware

Clearly, the tax benefits of Opportunity Zones can be substantial.  However, Opportunity Zones will only be good “opportunities” if the underlying investments themselves make economic sense.  Unlike pre-1986 tax shelters which could, and often did, become great investments even if the underlying real estate deals lost money, this will not be the case with Opportunity Zones. If the taxpayer loses money on the new investment, it could more than wipe out the benefit of any initial tax deferral or discount and render any exemption illusory.

As a result, before jumping into an Opportunity Zone investment, investors need to consider the following risks:

  1. Because Opportunity Zones are generally located in the very poorest neighborhoods, investments in these areas may be riskier than those in wealthier, more established neighborhoods.
  2. To qualify for the tax benefits, the capital gains realized from the initial investment must be redeployed into the Opportunity Zone within 180 days of the sale—a very tight timeframe. If the seller of the asset in the Opportunity Zone is aware of this time sensitivity, they may increase their asking price thereby requiring you to overpay.
  3. Some Wall Street analysts are estimating that the potential benefit of the tax deferral, discount and ultimate exemption could be worth as much as 500 and 700 basis points to an investor if things all go smoothly. There is a risk that some Qualified Fund sponsors may try to peddle investment opportunities with very modest cash on cash returns by claiming that the overall investment return will be enhanced by the tax benefits.  Thus, they may offer returns that, on a risk adjusted basis with respect to the underlying asset itself, don’t make sense.
  4. Qualified Opportunity Funds, which are the vehicles through which any investments must be made in the Opportunity Zones, are merely partnerships or corporations that can be formed and managed by anyone. The fact that they are “qualified” should not be construed to mean that they or their proposed investments have somehow been vetted or approved by any regulatory authority or that their ongoing operations or management will be monitored by such bodies.  As a result, investors need to make sure that the fund sponsors are reputable and have meaningful experience and demonstrated success with the types of investments being offered.
  5. The investor will need to pay its capital gains tax by December 31, 2026 whether or not the new investment has been sold by then. Thus, investors must make sure they have liquidity to pay this liability when the tax collector comes calling.


The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 provides us with compelling incentives to make much needed investments in some of our country’s most vulnerable and impoverished areas.  However, investors need to be careful not to rush into these investments based solely on the promise of tax savings or avoidance. There is a reason the federal government had to offer such compelling tax benefits to incent people to invest their money in these neighborhoods—there is significant risk involved.  Before throwing money into these opportunities, investors will need to do their due diligence and make sure that the underlying investments are sound, and the sponsors are credible.

Posted in Leases | Leave a comment

Defeating Philadelphia’s defeatist attitude – What we can learn from basketball legend Michael Jordan

When it comes to competing for headquarters projects like Amazon’s, cities are just like corporations competing for customers or individuals competing to be the best in their profession; they need to honestly assess their relative strengths and weaknesses and work harder to bridge the gap between them and those they aspire to be. Too often Philadelphia has conceded defeat to cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. and taken a defeatist attitude because, in our minds, we just don’t stack up. The fact is, our attitude is killing us.

In “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Dr. Carol Dweck, describes people as having one of two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that people are born with certain God given talents or intelligence and you cannot really change or improve your skills through practice or hard work. To them, Mozart was a genius to whom music and composition came naturally and Usain Bolt, the Fastest Man on Earth, was just born faster than anyone else.

Because people with a fixed mindset believe their fate is sealed at birth, they avoid things that are difficult. If something doesn’t come easily to them, it means they don’t have the talent for it so why waste the energy. In fact, rather than seeing practice as the necessary means to an end –success, they view hard work as an indication of failure.  They believe, “If I was really good at this, I wouldn’t have to work so hard at it.” It’s not surprising that people with a fixed mindset don’t generally become successful or reach their full potential.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that their fate is not sealed at birth and that, through hard work, anything is possible. For them, trying and failing is part of the path to success; the thrill or challenge of any endeavor comes from the learning process where setbacks and failure are simply necessary road bumps along the way. If something is hard, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful at it or that you’re not talented, it simply means it’s a challenge worth pursuing. Dr. Dweck uses Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, as an example of someone with a strong growth mindset.

The first time he tried out for his high school basketball team, Michael Jordan was cut by the coaches. If Michael had a fixed mindset, he would have concluded that he just didn’t have what it takes to excel on the basketball court and perhaps would have tried his hand at another sport. Luckily for us, Michael decided basketball was his passion and so he decided he would outwork everyone else to make the team. Importantly, once he became the greatest player of all time, he continued to outwork everyone else. He did not equate the need to practice hard with a lack of natural ability or a sign of failure. To the contrary, Michael believed that to truly be the best, he always needed to challenge himself and not become complacent.

What does this have to do with Philadelphia and Amazon? Too often over the past 30 years I have heard why Philadelphia cannot be competitive with the top tier cities who are homes to scores of Fortune 500 companies. It’s our tax structure, our school systems, our proximity to New York or Washington or our high poverty rate. These are excuses and represent a fixed mindset by Philadelphians and the politicians who have led us over the years. It’s time to follow Michael Jordan’s lead and realize that we can be better if we stop conceding first class status to other cities and start working harder to improve the areas where we fall short. In short, we need to change our mindset.

Here are some areas where hard work and “practice” can help us become successful.


“My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.” Michael Jordan.

Let’s start with an easy first step. Our attitude stinks when it comes to businesses. They are not the enemy. They are the lifeblood of any thriving city and, therefore, we need to start thinking about them as assets who will make us better. Yes, we’ve thrown out the red carpet to Amazon and their 50,000 jobs. However, what are we doing to attract businesses with 25, 100 or 500 employees? Will our politicians embrace them with open arms or begrudge them some initial tax benefits to get them to test our waters? Forget what we’ve done in the past. Let’s turn this attitude around and send a message to the business community that things are going to be different. Electing more business -friendly politicians and ideally ones with strong business backgrounds will certainly send the right signal.


“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan

When the idea of tax reform is floated, many people shake their heads and say nothing can be done about it. We’re stuck with what we have or changing it would require too much work. Sounds like a fixed mindset and we all know how that usually ends—failure and unrealized potential. Yes, we have unique problems given our extremely high poverty rate. However, if we bring more top companies into our city limits, there will be more people to share the financial burdens. That means we can lower taxes for everyone. We can also be more open to new taxing paradigms like Jerry Sweeney and Paul Levy’s initiative that shifts taxes towards real estate and away from businesses. We could also analyze what other successful cities are doing in this regard and try to emulate them. Boston, for example, allows taxes generated from certain new developments to be targeted to nearby infrastructure projects that would otherwise go untouched. This program benefits both the developer and the City rather than simply putting more cash in the developer’s pocket. Let’s keep trying until we find something that works.

Public Schools

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” Michael Jordan

What about the fact that our public-school system is irrevocably broken, and we don’t have the funds to fix it? Clearly a chicken and egg problem. If we had more deep pocketed corporate taxpayers, we’d have more tax revenues to fund our city services including our schools. And corporations don’t burden our city schools unless of course their employees decide to live in the city; in which case we’ll generate even more tax dollars. Of course, money alone won’t solve the problems with our school system. Fundamental changes are needed including more charter schools and STEM programs. Also, we need to do a better job organizing families to become more invested in their neighborhood schools. We’ve seen recent successes in this regard as strong parent teacher associations in places like Passyunk have led to better test scores, attendance and morale.


The fact is, Philadelphia suffers from a debilitating fixed mindset. Too many of our leaders believe that we are who we are, and we cannot change. To them, we’re not New York, Boston of Washington, D.C. and it’s useless to try and compete with them.  Hogwash. The good news, according to Dr. Dweck, is that people can actually change their mindset. That means there’s hope for Philadelphia. For us to develop a growth mindset, we need councilmembers who believe that anything is possible, that hard work and interim failures are just part of the process towards success and that we can only reach our full potential as a city if we dare to challenge the status quo. Yes, it will be hard and take time, but if we want to be the best, we need to “be like Mike.”

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 3, 2018.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld


Posted in Leases | Leave a comment

Corporations and Wealthy Homeowners are Not the Enemy; They’re the Solution

A lot has been written in recent weeks about the 10-year real estate tax abatement program and whether it should be continued, eliminated or scaled back.  Most of the objections come from people who feel that the abatements disproportionately favor the rich and leave out people in less affluent areas of the City.  The City Controller’s Office has recently completed a study for City Council that quantifies the economic impact of the abatement program and analyzes how different reductions in benefits might work.  The writing is on the wall and it’s all leading to the same old story here.    Attacks on this program are symptomatic of a larger problem that has plagued the City for years and ultimately will prevent us from reaching our full potential.

Let’s face facts.  We live in one of the poorest cities in the country where 25% of our population lives in poverty. These citizens need essential services that they cannot afford. That means others must subsidize them. It’s part of the social compact of living in a civilized society. However, for this to work in a city where so many have so little, we need more “haves” to move here and help shoulder the significant burden.  For too long we have depended on a shrinking number of corporate citizens to shoulder too much of this tax burden. As a result, many large companies (Arkema, Sunoco, Dow, Lincoln Financial) have left the City for more tax and business friendly jurisdictions.

Tax abatements do in fact disproportionately benefit corporations who occupy shiny new office buildings and wealthy homeowners.  That’s ok because the impact of these benefits makes us all better off.

Let’s look at an example.  In 2005, Brandywine Realty Trust developed Cira Centre which was in a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone.  This project was exempt from real estate taxes (as well as most other City and State taxes) through December 31, 2018.  Without the tax exemptions, this building would not have been built and today it would still be a vacant piece of land by the train tracks.

Starting in 2019, the City will begin to realize real estate taxes and Use and Occupancy taxes from this building in excess of $4 million.  FMC Tower will likewise start to generate “but for” real estate and Use and Occupancy taxes likely in excess of $6 million in 2025.  But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Because of these new towers, University City is now a thriving neighborhood with many new jobs, more quality housing and significantly more amenities.  This means everyone’s home in University City is worth more.  And the benefit extends across the river.  With the new inventory of high end office space, many aging, class B Center City office buildings could not compete for tenants and were therefore converted into upscale apartments.  These apartments not only attracted young, well paid workers to the City who fork over wage taxes, they also increased the City’s tax rolls as low value office buildings became much higher valued apartment buildings.  None of this happens without the tax abatements.

Cira and FMC are only two examples. The Navy Yard, a land mass the size of our Philadelphia Central Business District, will eventually generate tens of millions of dollars of tax revenues that might otherwise have ended up in the suburbs or New Jersey had we not incented these companies to move there.

And if you think all of this would happen without the benefits, think again.  We have not had one new speculative office building developed in Center City since the early 1990s. Why? Because they cost in excess of $600/sf to build and very few companies want to pay the $50 rents necessary to support these costs.  The office buildings that have been built since the 1990s are either in University City in tax advantaged zones or Comcast’s headquarters.  This effective freeze on new construction cannot go on much longer if we are to remain a first-class city.  Our office stock is aging, and we are falling behind cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, and New York where cranes are dotting the skyline with new office buildings for today’s businesses.  Most of our office gems are over 30 years old.

We all know we need more tax dollars to support our schools, our pensions and our City services.   We can either tax everyone more or bring more people into the City to help us carry the load.  The smart answer is, we need more corporate headquarters and more wealthy residents.  Eliminating or reducing the very successful tax abatement program and instituting a new 1% construction tax is only exacerbating the problem—they send the wrong message to those we need most.  Corporations and wealthy homeowners are not the problem, they are a key part of our solution.  As long as we continue to treat them as the enemy, tax them with impunity and resent them for the benefits that are needed to draw them here, we will continue on the road to ruin.

To paraphrase a line from Field of Dreams, “If we let them build it, they will come.”  This has proven true for both trophy office buildings and high-end townhouses and condominiums when tax abatements are provided.  Ms. Reinhart’s Report confirms the effectiveness of this program in catalyzing new development.  Yes, the tenants and owners of these shiny new structures are getting a gift.  However, it’s not costing us anything.  We’d be getting nothing from these properties if they went undeveloped or underutilized and, if we’re patient, we’ll get a lifetime of new, incremental tax revenues.  Ten years may seem like a long time to wait but, when you’re a City, you can afford to think in much longer terms.

Of course, there is a hidden cost to the tax abatements.  Some people are appropriately concerned about displacement of families who can no longer afford the rising taxes that inevitably come with improved neighborhoods.  However, let’s not punish the people we’re trying to attract and who we are ultimately dependent upon to pay our bills.  Instead, why not require that, once the tax abatements expire, a certain percentage of the new revenues be dedicated to low income housing developments?

There is an economic reality to real estate that we cannot ignore.  People will only build new buildings or homes if someone will pay them enough to justify the cost. With rising construction costs, that’s becoming harder to do except at the high end of the spectrum.  Tax abatements disproportionately favor the rich because developers can’t make money selling inexpensive homes or charging low end rents.  It may be that this incentive tool doesn’t work for some neighborhoods or products. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or that we should eliminate it or scale it back. It might just mean we need a different tool to help those who don’t benefit from this incentive.


The cities that are thriving today understand that they need to attract more businesses and higher income residents. As a result, they don’t just tolerate them, they embrace them, actively recruit them and then create an environment where they can thrive.  Given our situation, we need to change our attitude before it’s too late.  The fact that the abatement program disproportionately benefits one group doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone else.  Sometimes you need to give a little to get a lot. And we need a lot.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 21, 2018.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld

Posted in Leases | Leave a comment

Why All the Sublets and What Does It Mean for the Future of Commercial Real Estate?

In the past 12 months there has been a significant uptick in the number of sublets hitting the market.  And these sublets are very different from the sublets we have seen in the past.  In many instances, companies are not merely looking to shed a fraction of their space, they want to exit their premises completely.  In addition, they are not looking to get out of their space in the last year or two of their leases, they are looking to shake things up much earlier in their lease terms.  What’s going on?

What’s Happening and Why?

As we have discussed in previous articles, businesses today are changing at a pace never before seen due to technology, consolidation and shifting preferences.  That makes predicting the future very tricky for corporate executives.  Unfortunately for businesses, real estate tends to be a long-term commitment.  The bigger the space and greater the capital outlay, the longer the required lease term needed to justify the disruption and amortize the cost.  For very large clients, 10 to 15-year leases are not uncommon.  In today’s world, however, a lot can happen within that time frame that was never anticipated when the lease was first signed.

When a business has a reduction in headcount, they typically pull out their lease to see if they have any contraction or early termination rights.  If they do not have these contractual rights, subletting becomes the next best option unless a consensual deal can be worked out with the landlord.

That’s what we’re seeing today.  The recent proliferation of sublets is the result of major changes in businesses that were never anticipated when the leases were first executed.  And the frequency with which companies will encounter unexpected changes in their business will increase leading to a paradigm shift in the way they consume real estate.  Interestingly, the increase in sublet space only reflects a fraction of the underlying efficiency problems faced by businesses. Sublets are only viable if the tenant can break off and market a discrete piece of their premises (or the entire thing).  However, there are many companies who cannot realize potential space efficiencies or shed excess space without significantly renovating their entire premises.

Law firms represent one of the best examples of this phenomenon.  Almost every major law firm in the country whose lease has expired in the past five years has shed a material amount of space in its next lease.   In Center City, most Am Law 100 and 200 firms who have signed leases or renewals in the past five years have shed one or two floors.  Smaller firms (unless they are growing headcount) have shed proportionate amounts of space.

Fifteen years ago, large law firms were generally consuming between 750rsf and 850rsf/attorney depending on the type of practice and use of paralegals.  Today, these same firms are achieving ratios of between 550rsf and 650rsf/attorney.  What’s driving the efficiency is the reduction in administrative support (secretarial/attorney ratios have grown from 1.5-2/1 to 2.5-4/1), smaller office sizes and less space devoted to large conferencing, libraries and filing.

However, to capitalize on the foregoing efficiencies, law firms cannot merely move everyone off of a floor, backfill them into other floors and then jettison the vacated floor. It requires a major renovation and reconfiguration of the existing space. That means law firms need to wait until they have leverage with the landlord to negotiate a new deal with major tenant improvement dollars before they can reduce their footprint and realize efficiencies.  And, while many law firms have now gone through this transformation in the past five years, the evolution of space reduction will continue for law firms and other businesses.  Law firms and few other businesses have yet to embrace, in any meaningful way, telecommuting and hoteling concepts. These could eventually reduce, even further, the real estate footprint of businesses if they take hold.

Thus, in addition to the sublet space we’re seeing in today’s market, there is a lot of “shadow vacancy” within the real estate market that will only be shed down the road.  What does all this mean for the future?

What to Expect

With the foregoing in mind, here are some thoughts and predictions about the future of commercial real estate:

  1. Tenants will seek shorter term leases and/or more contraction and termination rights so they have more flexibility to adjust to unexpected changes in their business.
  2. To minimize capital expenditures, Tenants will settle for less bespoke work environments and, instead, try to re-use existing improvements or lease pre-built spaces. Designs will be exciting and contemporary but will reflect more generic layouts so that they have residual value to the landlord and future tenants (i.e., like co-working space designs today).
  3. Tenants and landlords will collaborate to design more flexible workspaces that can be modified by furniture changes as opposed to bricks and mortar.
  4. Larger tenants will design their space with exit strategies in mind in case they need to jettison excess space. Thus, a tenant with floors 20-30 in an office building may design floors 20 and 21 as self-contained spaces that can be easily returned to landlord or sublet to third parties without (1) requiring the tenant to reconfigure the rest of its space or (2) requiring a subtenant to build in needed amenities to make that floor self-sufficient (i.e., it may be designed to have a reception area and conference and pantry facilities to support that floor as opposed to being a special use floor like a conference center, café or records storage area that is essential to the rest of the space or unusable to any potential subtenant).
  5. Rents will increase in order to amortize needed build out costs over a shorter lease term and compensate landlords for the loss of long term certainty.
  6. Lenders will need to change their underwriting criteria as buildings will not be anchored by as many long-term leases. There will be even more focus on landlords’ abilities to retain their tenants and how the inevitable shedding of tenants’ excess space will be addressed.  Marketing plans that distinguish the building and ensure retention will be critical.
  7. As tenants gain more freedom to move and are less financially anchored to their real estate, landlords will need to create more compelling communities that emotionally anchor tenants to the buildings or provide unique value for being in that building.
  8. Co-working spaces will become more popular as more large companies seek the flexibility these options provide. As co-working operators continue to pursue larger, more traditional office tenants, Landlords will start to see them more as competitors to their business as opposed to saviors soaking up vacant space in their buildings.  The larger co-working operators will start to buy their own real estate rather than paying retail rents to compete with landlords.  The larger landlords will get into the co-working business.


With business changing today at an ever-increasing pace, planning is becoming more difficult and riskier.  A lot can and will happen over a 10-15-year period that was never anticipated when the lease was originally signed.  The increase in sublet space and shadow vacancy that we are seeing today reflects these unanticipated changes being faced by tenants.  As subletting is rarely a profitable or breakeven proposition, tenants will need to change the way they consume real estate going forward. And that means commercial real estate is in for a wild ride.







Posted in Leases | Leave a comment