Last week, Twin Cities real estate professionals gathered at the University of St. Thomas for the third annual Real Estate Outlook event. The program included a series of panels featuring leading experts in local real estate market segments, each offering their views on the current state of the market and their expectations for the coming year. The event was co-sponsored by Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business and Integra Realty Resources. Here is a recap of some of the major themes presented:
The keynote presentation was made by State Economist Laura Kalambokidis, who discussed the current state of the economy locally and nationally. Minnesota has generally fared better than the nation in recovering from the economic downturn. Employment in the state has now climbed back to pre-recession levels. Unemployment in Minnesota is at 4.6%, well below the national rate of 7%. Employment growth has been strongest in the health services, business services, retail, and hospitality industries, all of which have grown between 2.5 and 4% year over year. Government and manufacturing were the worst performing job sectors over the previous year, each declining by about 2%. Despite a slight drag on the economy from policy uncertainty related to the federal budgetary process, continued modest growth is expected locally and nationally over the next two years.
Office Market Update
Mike Salmen of Transwetern started off the office panel with a report on 2013, which was a decent year for Twin Cities office real estate. Absorption was modest at approximately 200,000 sf. Vacancy has slowly been decreasing thanks to the job growth and low unemployment noted by Ms. Kalambokidis. While Class A Space is performing well, Class B and C space and certain sub-markets are still seeing high vacancy.
Steve Chirhart of TaTonka Real Estate Advisors agreed, noting that the St. Paul and East suburban sub-markets were the weakest office markets in the region, although vacancy has declined from a peak of over 25%. Mark Kolsrud of Colliers stated that the St. Paul CBD had the least amount of investor interest of the regional submarkets, and that this was due to a lack of interest from lenders.
On the other side of the metro, the 394, Southwestern, and Minneapolis CBD submarkets are all performing very well. Mr. Salmen believes the I-394 corridor is currently the hottest office market in the Twin Citeis, with rates pushing into the mid-teens and low vacancy. Vacancies are also low in the Southwest submarket, despite the addition of 3 million sf of space since 2007. An anomaly in the West Metro is the Northwest submarket, which has among the highest vacancies at 24%. Mr. Kolsrud pointed out a 150 basis point swing in cap rates from the 394 area to Northwest submarkets. Like St. Paul and Eastern suburban, Northwest is unlikely to attract interest from institutional investors, although the panelists believed a local developer could find a way to make a deal work.
Lastly, the Minneapolis CBD remains the largest submarket and currently has vacancy at 15%. A big concern for office real estate downtown is the impact of the Wells Fargo build-to-suit deal with Ryan Cos. for new office space in Downtown East; the panelists speculated that this move could pull 1 million space of occupancy out of the downtown core as Wells Fargo consolidates employess in the new buildings. Another concern is the increasing obsolescence of older buildings, where mechanical systems and floorplans don’t support the employee density and layouts now desired by office tenants. But despite these concerns, downtown continues to see strong investor interest, as institutional investors from the coasts seek out the comparatively higher cap rates available in Class A properties in Minneapolis. Additionally, institutional investors are increasingly interested in “non-traditional” investemnets, such as office conversions in historic warehouse buildings in the North Loop area.
The office market panelists ended with a discussion of a macro trend that will have a large impact the office market going forward, which is coporate users taking less space per employee. The average space used per employee is expected to decline from over 220 sf to 150 sf by 2015. Among ten large renewals over the last 18 months, almost all took less space than they had before. Thus despite employment growth, the outlook for office absorpbtion is flat.
Retail Market Update
The retail market panel featured a lively discussion with Jim McComb, John Johannson of Colliers, and Skip Melin of Cushman Wakefield. In the Twin Cities, 2013 saw declines in vacancy and somewhat flat absorption of roughly 900,000 sf. However, Mr. Johannson noted that good space is mostly full, and gave the example of 16 formerly vacant spaces over 12,000 sf in the Southdale area, of which 13 have leased in the last 16 months. Mr. McComb noted that there isn’t much vacancy in smaller neighborhood spaces either. He pointed out that changes in the economy and demographcis are creating opportunities in retail markets.
One of the most significant retail developments currently underway is an outlet center in Eagan. Mr. Melin noted that the center will have 400,000 sf of space for 19 tenants, anchored by Saks Off 5th. Mr. Johannson then described another large 450,000 sf outlet development currently in the planning stages, this one also in Eagan. These two projects are all the more interesting because they are just about the only large multi-tenant retail developments currently in the works in the Twin Cities. Each are banking partly on capturing tourist trade from the nearby Mall of America but also taking advantage of a submarket in Eagan that is currently under-retailed.
The panelists noted that grocery-anchored retail centers continue to