'Era of less' is arriving, real estate report says

Posted: November 13, 2010

The Urban Land Institute's national Emerging Trends in Real Estate report, presented to an overflow crowd of businesspeople Friday at the Union League, offered no surprises about the U.S. or Philadelphia economies.

For the country, 2011 is the gateway to the "era of less, the Twilight Zone of real estate," in the words of the report's presenter, institute senior fellow Stephen R. Blank, who compared it with the time of a lot more - more deals, more leverage, more financing - "until the mores caught up with us and the capital markets couldn't save us."

Blank said 2011 would bring a continuation of slackened demand for real estate, with new and yet unwritten government financial regulations causing considerable concern.

In addition, the sputtering job market will continue to dog the recovery, and "near stagnant U.S. wages and the absence of free-flowing credit" will unsettle consumers seeking to maintain the nation's upscale way of life, he said.

The institute's trends report, based on a survey of 875 of the nation's movers and shakers, gave Philadelphia a single paragraph, which closed with the observation that "institutional investors never muster much enthusiasm" for the city.

While those interviewed for the report "lament that the city suffers from its proximity to New York," others hope for gains from its positioning as the "cheaper alternative," according to the study.

If there were just high-speed rail traveling 150 m.p.h. to Manhattan, the city might get a major boost, the survey stated.

"It's a perception study," Blank said, "and has little to do with intrinsic value. Philadelphia is that gem between New York and Washington that no one has figured out, and the outside market doesn't understand it."

Philadelphia is "misperceived and misunderstood," said Blank, who presents highlights of the report each year to the Philadelphia region's Urban Land Institute membership. The institute is a Washington-based, nonprofit research and education organization supported by its members.

The report points to Pittsburgh as an example for other cities.

"We're going to see a lot more places end up like Pittsburgh, if they are lucky," the study quotes one senior investment executive as saying, citing its transformation from a factory and corporate-headquarters town to a place ranked by Forbes as "America's most livable city" in 2010.

Pittsburgh has an ability to deliver decent, steady returns "without much upside," and in the era of less, "modest, boring income returns on investments" should be "embraced everywhere."

The top choices for investment on the list are the usual 24/7 gateways to world commerce and immigration on the East and West Coasts - even Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco in California, a state that, despite its budget shortfalls, remains the world's ninth- or 10th-largest economy, Blank said.

Fortunately, Philadelphia has no shortage of defenders, including John Gattuso, senior vice president of Liberty Property Trust.

"Until World War II, Philadelphia was a major manufacturing center, and has been able to sustain itself since," he said. "There is a vibrancy here that makes the city well-positioned" to be a driver of the regional and national economy.

Gattuso acknowledged that the city's tax structure needed tweaking to encourage business growth but said he believed that "people will choose to be here" and that companies will come here because of it.

Gattuso maintained that growth had to come from developing business enterprises locally, adding that no city was luring new companies.

"You plant 50 seeds, and of those, five will grow and sustain the economy," he said.

While emphasizing that 2011 would be a better year than 2010, and certainly better than 2009 and 2008, Joseph Gyourko, a real estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said anyone who believed in a "V-shaped" recovery "needs to get back on their meds."

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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