Washington area developers ready to take a chance on new office construction


Tim Helmig, left, and Anthony Westreich, next on left, from Monday Properties, with others at the groundbreaking ceremony at 1812 N. Moore St, Arlington, Va. on Oct. 14, 2010. (Jeffrey MacMillan/FTWP)

Washington area real estate developers are eager to again build office buildings speculatively — meaning without having leases signed with tenants — but many are waiting on banks to begin financing them again.

Work has recently begun or is scheduled to begin in coming months on more than half a dozen speculative office projects in the area, a situation relatively particular to the region. Developers in most other major office markets are holding off as the commercial real estate industry creeps back from the recession.

The biggest speculative project in the region is 1812 North Moore, a 581,000-square-foot building in Rosslyn that will be one of the tallest in the area. Monday Properties, the developer behind the project, began digging the parking garage in October 2010, and work is scheduled to begin above grade in January.

Although most commercial construction projects are financed with a mix of the owner’s money and borrowed money, Monday Properties and its partners have to this point paid for all the work themselves, spending nearly $30 million in the process.

Perhaps more surprising, construction continues despite a leasing market that analysts say has softened considerably in the past six months, largely because of cutbacks by the federal government. Monday continued work even as majority ownership of the property changed hands last week, when Goldman Sachs paid $1.2 billion to the bankrupt Lehman Brothers for a 79 percent stake in Monday’s Washington area portfolio.

The idea, according to Monday’s chief executive, Anthony Westreich, is to complete a world-class building in a popular neighborhood at a time when almost no other new buildings are being completed. “We are of the opinion that when we deliver in 2013, the market will be strong,” Westreich said.

Monday is negotiating with prospective tenants — Westreich said three are close to signing — and with construction lenders. But without a completed lease, Westreich said, there is a chicken-or-egg dynamic. “No lenders are lending to finance speculative office construction; that’s just not something that they’re doing,” he said.

Monday and Goldman might have to build the building entirely with their own money. Westreich said he believed so strongly in the project that he was prepared to do that. “I really don’t think there is any way we stop this unless the world absolutely explodes,” he said.

If Monday and Goldman Sachs do finance the project without borrowing, they will follow in the footsteps of Hines Interests and the government of Qatar, which are financing the $900 million CityCenter DC project, which includes two office buildings for which no leases have been announced.

Other office developers would like to start projects now that would be complete two or three years from now. JBG Cos., based in Chevy Chase, plans to begin work on a Rosslyn office tower in the second quarter of 2012. “We’re out in the market talking to construction lenders and our current plan is to start the project” without any tenants, Brian P. Coulter, a JBG managing partner, said last month.

Speculative projects have begun to pop up in a few other submarkets as well. In Tysons Corner, Lerner Enterprises is building a 476,000-square-foot building, although it has not announced any tenants, and the Macerich Co. plans to begin a Tysons Corner building early next year.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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