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L.A. Office Ownership Shifts to Funds, REITs

Real estate: Foreign investors and individuals have pulled out of prime Westside and downtown buildings, study shows.


Ownership of premium office buildings in downtown Los Angeles and the Westside has changed dramatically in the last 10 years as a result of a gradual pullout by foreign investors, the highly publicized buying spree of real estate investment trusts and a much less publicized return to the market by pension funds.

Pension funds and real estate investment trusts combined now own more than 70% of the premium office space on the Westside and nearly 30% of the top quality buildings in downtown Los Angeles, according to a study by the Los Angeles office of Julien J. Studley Inc.

Those numbers contrast sharply with figures from 1990, when pension funds and REITs combined owned only 10% of the office space on the Westside and 7% of the downtown space, according to the study. It showed that REITs owned no premium office space in downtown L.A. in 1990 but now own 15% of it.

The report underscores how thoroughly the tides of real estate ownership can change in just a few years, from the wave of Japanese investment in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the buying binge of real estate investment trusts in the mid-1990s to today's increased investment by pension funds.

The study addressed only top-quality office buildings of more than 100,000 square feet--known in the industry as Class A space. It focused on downtown and West L.A. as the two largest office markets in Los Angeles County, with about 33 million square feet in downtown and about 30 million square feet in a number of submarkets known collectively as the Westside.

The survey quantifies a number of trends that real estate brokers, investment advisors and business publications have observed anecdotally for some time, including the gradual shifting of office building ownership away from private individuals to large public or private sources of capital.

"Individuals are getting out because they can't compete with REITs and pension funds," said Howard Sadowsky, West Los Angeles-based vice chairman of Studley. "That's a trend not only locally but nationally."

Individual developers and investors still own 21% of the premium Westside space and 27% of that downtown, but those figures are down from 48% on the Westside and 31% downtown in 1990, according to the report.

However, "It's a lot harder for individual entrepreneurial developers to raise the capital to build Class A space today than it was in 1990," said Paul Prescott, a Los Angeles-based real estate partner in the Arthur Andersen Real Estate and Hospitality Services Group. Prescott said lenders tightened their criteria after the overbuilding of office space in the late 1980s contributed to a glut of space and failed projects. Even today, he said, lenders remain wary of office projects.

One of the sharpest drops in ownership is on the Westside, where banks own only 1% of the office towers today, compared with 18% in 1990, the report said.

That's clearly a positive shift, according to Sadowsky.

"Almost all of what the banks owned in 1990 was a result of foreclosures," he said. "This means they've gotten the real estate off of their books, which is a result of the tremendous recovery in the real estate markets."

Despite that remarkable real estate recovery, pension funds were slow to return to buying office buildings and are still a bit reticent in markets they perceive as not fully recovered--like downtown Los Angeles, said Philip Hench, managing director at CB Richard Ellis Investors in Los Angeles, the investment advisory subsidiary of CB Richard Ellis Inc.

"The pension funds were the last to jump back into the fray because they had been burned by buying at the peak of the market" and later selling at a loss, Hench said.

Hench said so-called "opportunity funds" and REITs were the first to hop back into the buying of office properties after the recession of the early 1990s, with those two groups dominating the buying roughly from 1995 through 1998.

In recent years, however, "the pension funds have gotten back into the market in a big way," Hench said.

Hench said the pension fund activity has been much less publicized than the REIT buying spree, in part because so many REITs are publicly held companies that are required to publicize their transactions and in part because pension funds prefer to operate quietly and avoid publicity.

Pension funds were slower to return to the office market because they are generally more conservative investors and wanted to be more certain that real estate had recovered, and because office properties are usually considered slightly riskier than some other types of real estate, such as industrial and apartment buildings, Hench said.

Hench explained that pension funds typically set a goal of investing 5% to 10% of their money in real estate. Many pension funds are looking for real estate to buy because they have fallen below those goals, he said.

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