The Office Market Had It Hard in 2023. Next Year Looks Worse. - Kanebridge News
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The Office Market Had It Hard in 2023. Next Year Looks Worse.

Office building owners are losing hope that occupancy rates will rebound soon

By PETER GRANT
Wed, Dec 20, 2023 8:58amGrey Clock 4 min

Office building owners, hammered by falling demand and high interest rates, struggled in 2023. But they mostly managed to stay afloat.

That is going to be a lot harder to do next year.

Many landlords have been able to extend their loans, often by putting in more capital. But a lot of those extensions are now expiring, and owners are losing hope that occupancy rates will rebound soon.

That means many more office landlords will be compelled to pay off their mortgages, sell their properties at a steep discount or hand their buildings over to their creditors.

“In 2024, it’s game time,” said Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, a major owner of office buildings in the New York region. “Owners and lenders are going to have to come to terms as to where values are, where debt needs to be and right-sizing capital structures for these buildings to be successful.”

Office demand shows no sign of returning to pre pandemic levels. While the number of full-time remote employees has dwindled, hybrid workplace policies look here to stay. In the fourth quarter, 62% of U.S. businesses allowed employees to work from home some days of the week, up from 51% in the first quarter, according to Scoop Technologies.

Return-to-office rates also stalled for most of 2023. Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes in 10 major U.S. cities, said that average office attendance is about half of its pre pandemic level. Placer.ai, which tracks mobile phone data, puts it in the 60% to 65% range. But it also said the return rate has topped out.

The office market has shown “some monthly fluctuations but little real change in the overall trajectory,” Placer.ai said in a November report.

The U.S. office vacancy rate stands at a record 13.6%, up from 9.4% at the end of 2019, according to data firm CoStar Group. The firm is forecasting it will rise to 15.7% by the end of 2024 and will peak above 17% by the end of 2026.

That vacancy rate is poised to push higher because nearly half of office leases signed before the pandemic haven’t expired, CoStar said. When they do, many of the businesses will likely take less space than they are currently occupying, whether they are renewing or relocating.

Take the case of Chicago law firm Neal Gerber Eisenberg, which signed one of the city’s largest 2023 office leases earlier this fall. The firm, which has grown steadily throughout the pandemic, adopted a policy that requires employees to work from the office at least eight days a month. Neal Gerber leased 90,000 square feet at its new location, down from the 113,000 square feet it will be giving up.

Beyond the longer-term decline in demand, office landlords are still contending with high interest rates. Landlords that have to refinance debt borrowed when rates were at historic lows will face much higher borrowing costs as high vacancy is putting rents and incomes under pressure.

In recent weeks, inflation has been declining and the Federal Reserve is likely to ease interest rates in 2024. That will soften the blow. But landlords still face a financial squeeze, analysts say.

“If you have a mortgage that’s expiring at 3% or 4%, there’s no way you’re refinancing at 3% or 4%,” said Steve Sakwa, an analyst with Evercore ISI. Even though rates have come down, he added, property owners are still looking at rates that could be double their expiring rates to refinance.

Not all the signals are bleak for the office market in 2024. Demand is still strong for the highest quality and best-located space in many markets from tenants willing to pay high rents to encourage employees to return to offices.

Developers have retreated from new construction in the sector, so there’s little competition from new supply. The 30 million square feet in office construction starts in 2023 was the lowest amount since 2010, according to CoStar.

Cities such as San Francisco, New York and Boston are lowering costs and streamlining the process for converting obsolete office buildings into apartments. While this isn’t expected to result in a big decline in vacancy, the actions might bring more activity to business districts, giving a psychological boost to downtown landlords and businesses.

But the steadily rising number of owners who are defaulting on their mortgages because of falling rent rolls looms over the market. The delinquency rate of bank loans and loans converted into commercial mortgage-backed securities currently is over 6% compared with below 1% before the pandemic hit, according to data firm Trepp.

High delinquencies combined with the dismal office outlook already have convinced some owners to hand properties back to lenders or sell for sharply discounted prices.

In Stamford, Conn., the owner of One Stamford Forum, a 500,000-square-foot building whose tenants include troubled Purdue Pharma, this fall gave the building back to its creditors, according to Trepp. In San Francisco, buyers have purchased office buildings like 60 Spear Street and 350 California Street for fractions of what they were worth before the pandemic.

Trepp is projecting that the office delinquency rate could be over 8% by the second half of next year. As more landlords default, the new owners that replace them—buying in at greatly reduced prices—will likely put more pressure on the market because they’ll be able to charge lower rents and still make a profit.

“What could be catastrophic is if you start seeing corporate profit pressures leading to continued or accelerated pace of office downsizing,” said Stephen Buschbom, Trepp’s research director.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”