COPT tries to renegotiate $146.5M Airport Square loan

A $146.5 million loan that Corporate Office Properties Trust took out on 14 office properties in Maryland and Colorado was transferred to a special service firm in March as the company tries to renegotiate its terms.

Issued in 2007 — near the peak of the real estate boom — the loan supported five buildings in Colorado and nine at Airport Square, a 220-acre office park in Linthicum, near Baltimore-Washington Marshall International Airport.

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Steve Riffee, COPT’s chief financial officer, acknowledged in a call with investors last week that the loan is probably underwater, saying the 14 properties “are likely worth less than the loan balance.” The special servicer, LNR Partners, is handling negotiations.

Riffee said COPT, a publicly traded real estate investment trust based in Columbia, hoped to renegotiate the terms of the loan. “We will update you on the restructuring once the discussions are complete,” he said.

COPT reported earnings of 11 cents per share for the first quarter, up from nine cents for the same period last year. Riffee said COPT had sufficient cash flow to continue paying back the Airport Square loan, refuting suggestions that the company would default. The ratings firm Fitch listed the reason for the transfer as “imminent default.”

Another analyst, Frank A. Innaurato, a managing director at Morningstar Credit Ratings, said he considers the loan a “moderate to high default risk based on the declining performance.”

Many Washington area firms ran into trouble with underwater loans after the global financial collapse, but fewer have struggled with them recently.

Delinquencies on securitized loans nationwide peaked in mid-2012 at 10.3 percent, according to the research firm Trepp, but Trepp warned in March that the rate for 2007 loans, such as COPT’s, remained much higher — 14.6 percent over the past 12 months.

COPT is deeply reliant on defense spending because it specializes in real estate for secure government agencies and owns dozens of properties in Maryland and Virginia.

One of COPT’s priorities is to increase occupancy in its buildings, despite government cutbacks. The buildings on the loan are only 77 percent occupied, according to the real estate data firm CoStar Group. COPT’s entire 19.1-million-square-foot portfolio is 87.6 percent occupied and 89.3 percent leased, according to regulatory filings.

Roger A. Waesche Jr., COPT president and chief executive, told investors last week that “the first quarter is normally the lightest in terms of leasing volume, however, we were pleased to see tenants more willing to sign longer-term leases.”

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