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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Do our cities support a healthy work life balance?

By Daryl Perry (London, U.K.)

Despite the continuous political headwinds, the demand for office space in central London continues to display strength. Take-up for Q3 2019 totalled 3.3 million sq ft, 29% higher than the ten-year quarterly average, with BT and Diageo, as well as WeWork, making large commitments to the city. The strength of the property market continues to be underpinned by London’s importance as a global centre of industry. While Brexit may have affected the short-term perception of the UK, London exhibits extraordinary resilience in its ability to attract and accommodate global occupiers.

For seven years running, London has been named the most powerful city in the world, sitting at the top of the Global Power City Index (GPCI) run by the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Strategies, ahead of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Singapore.

Yet, while London, as well as other UK cities including Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham, is regularly featured in rankings of the top places to do business, the UK’s cities rarely score highly when it comes to their liveability rating. Is there a disconnect between where we can do business and where we can live well?

Consulting firm Mercer’s Quality of Life Survey, possibly the most comprehensive of its kind, placed London 41st for quality of life, with Edinburgh coming in 45th. Glasgow and Birmingham came in at 48th and 49th, respectively, on par with Kobe and Chicago. While London is often and unsurprisingly cited as one of the best cities for culture and leisure, it is burdened by its infrastructure, poverty, pollution and crime rates. It follows that its citizens also report experiencing higher levels of stress, the longest commutes in Europe and poor affordability.

If the success of an individual city is based on its ability to attract talent, what happens when talent either can no longer afford to live there or decides it wants to locate elsewhere? Furthermore, in a time when technology blurs the boundaries between our work and home life and reduces the need for workers to be in any one place, locational decisions for the 21st century workforce will be increasingly biased towards places that stimulate our mental and physical wellbeing.

Making a place desirable is of increasing importance for London – and every city – to future-proof itself. We need our cities to remain global in terms of our approach to business and in our economic outlook. However, the most liveable and pleasant cities also have the ability to feel local through their use of infrastructure, quality of amenities, and mix of businesses and property use types. This is no easy feat for a city of London’s size, but it is achievable through increased affordability, connectivity and creating a sense of place from the built environment – much of which is set out in the Draft London Plan due for adoption in early 2020.

The key to change will be within the plans for Outer London, where considered development can be used to transform the current centralised model. By creating diverse, mixed-use nodes in the Outer London boroughs that provide housing, appropriate workspaces, retail space and other amenities, we can partially negate the magnetic pull of the Central Activities Zone.

The resulting opportunities for growing proximate employment, leisure and living opportunities allow people to gain access to the amenities they need through micro-manufacturing, final mile delivery hubs and locally-specific services. It also encourages local place making, by creating affordable developments and spaces with high utility and appeal, as well as encouraging sustainable community growth.

The London plan outlines the increase in housing capacity that could be delivered in Outer London. However, there is also the need to deliver balance and the appropriate infrastructure required to allow people to work, live and play in the same areas. White City and Stratford, and in a different way, King’s Cross, are held up as case studies for others to follow, achieving a sense of place that allows communities to grow and develop organically.

Changing London’s development model to this more localised approach is pivotal to raising quality of life through encouraging a more equitable distribution of opportunities and amenities. Doing so will not only make places more liveable but will also bring reciprocal economic gains through increasing productivity, particularly in under-resourced areas.

Daryl Perry is an Associate and Head of Research and Client Engagement. He is based in our London, U.K. office.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Snapshot of the UK debt market for commercial property

By Alastair Carmichael (London, U.K.) 

Although appetite is more subdued and lenders are more conservative, due in part to Brexit uncertainty, resilience continues to define the UK economy, and lenders remain keen to lend to UK commercial real estate. 

The number of deals available in the market for lenders is lower than usual as some investors aren’t actively taking decisions to buy or sell commercial property whilst the uncertainty of Brexit remains. As a consequence, lenders are competing for fewer deals, which is driving activity in the market. Lending is especially competitive for long-term leases and portfolios, where international, pension fund and insurer-backed lenders add to the mainstream lending pool. Income is still key for real estate investors and lenders are happy to lend against such property with good covenants. 

Margins are competitive for good sponsors and properties, albeit retail lending, London-based residential and speculative commercial development remains challenging to finance. Lenders are increasingly reducing their exposure to retail by not extending new loans to the sector or asking for more equity when refinancing existing loans. While just over a quarter of UK commercial property debt was secured against retail assets in 2007, that figure was closer to 15% in mid-2019. Nevertheless, a preference for the prime assets of this category remains. 

Loan-to-value (LTV) across most asset classes remains relatively conservative, with little real estate showing signs of over leverage in the way that it did during the Credit Crisis. This results from more prudent credit committees and stricter lending criteria post-crisis. That said, with limited transactional activity, the market value of many properties is difficult to determine, so the ‘true’ LTV may be masked. 

The lending markets are diverse with mainstream lenders complemented by challenger banks, debt funds, private equity, family offices and the public sector. The diversity of lenders has increased significantly since the Credit Crisis, filling the gap left by mainstream high-street lenders as well as other investors looking for better risk adjusted returns than the direct property investments available in the market. Each lender has a varying appetite depending on their historical presence, losses in the crisis and current credit policy, including their preference for lending to certain geographies or sectors. Non-bank lenders, most significantly insurance companies, played a large role in increasing loan origination in the past year, lending more to UK property than German banks, which are typically the second-largest lender. UK banks still lent the most, but tighter regulation now moderates bank appetite for property lending. 

International investors have seen a 15% discount investing in the UK from normalised exchange rates. This is leading to an increased appetite from international lenders, especially given the fundamentals of the UK remain the same despite Brexit. While most activity stills centres on the capital, some international lenders are looking to diversify their UK portfolio outside of London, seeking potential value growth in the regions, where loan margins are higher. 

Valuations are diverse with political and environmental uncertainty pushing valuers to consider the downside position. That downside potential is difficult to quantify, so valuers are often coming out with very different valuations for the same property; this is also as a result of the transactional property markets providing few comparable transactions.

Overall, despite a slightly more cautious approach, the fundamentals of lending in the UK, backed by favourable legislation, property ownership rights, and solid insolvency regime remain unchanged, providing a positive outlook for the year ahead.

(Alastair Carmichael is a Principal of Avison Young and Head of the Real Estate Finance team. He is based in the firm’s London City office.)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Roads, Rails and Routes

By Rand Stephens (Houston)

As Houston’s population continues to grow, so does our time spent in traffic. Approximately three million people make up the Houston-area workforce as of 2017. Whether you are driving from Katy, Clear Lake or The Heights, your commute stinks. So, what’s the solution? Build new roads? Add more lanes to existing freeways? Or, add more mass transit such as rail and busses? Those solutions have been implemented time and time again, but yet the situation doesn’t improve. In fact, it may even be worse.

This issue is very much on the minds of Houstonians with the November election on the horizon. On the city ballot is a $3.5 billion bond from Houston Metro to fund 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and $600 million into the bus system. The campaign has been dubbed MetroNext. The plan has three goals – take cars off the road, offer new service and travel options and continue to fund roadway projects. That sounds great, but I’m not sure that when it’s all said and done (which will be 20 years from now) that our traffic woes will be behind us.

The bottom line is that transportation infrastructure in the U.S. was designed for the automobile. When cars drove onto the scene in the 1920’s, it eventually led to a decline in transit ridership and transit companies could not compete. Then, the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, sparked the super highway transportation era and pretty much left mass transit in the rearview mirror.

As mobility continues to evolve in America, cars, busses and rail systems are still very much a part of our transportation culture. Will all three continue to share the road of mobility in the future? Probably.

In Houston, the Uptown Development Authority (Uptown) is building Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and METRO will provide transit service when the project is completed. It will run from Westpark to the Northwest Transit Center (NWTC). Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) is building 1.5 miles of dedicated, elevated bus lanes from Post Oak Boulevard to North Post Oak Road along the West Loop where METRO bus lanes will connect to NWTC. Whether this project will actually increase ridership and take cars off the road remains to be seen, but the dedicated bus lane means that busses will definitely be out of the way of car traffic which should alleviate Galleria congestion.

Houston’s mobility issues will not be solved overnight, especially as the population continues to increase and job growth produces more commuters.  However, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact BRT will have on Uptown traffic. BRTs and rail are point to point systems and if people still have to walk a great distance to reach their final destination, MetroNext may have to consider ways to incentivize riders to use the system. Unfortunately, we won’t know how this all plays out before November 5th.

 (Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.)

Friday, September 27, 2019

Avison Young backs global effort to reduce embodied carbon

By Tom Malcolm Green (London)
Avison Young has formally endorsed the World Green Building Council (WGBC) report entitled Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront as one of more than 80 signatories. This endorsement coincides with the 10th annual World Green Building Week and comes in the wake of the Global Climate Strike (held September 20) demanding climate action to target net zero.

The report sets out a bold new vision for how buildings and infrastructure around the world can have 40% less embodied carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve 100% net zero emissions by 2050. In order to achieve these targets, the industry must act together, with owners, occupiers, developers, investors, architects and consultants all leading the charge on change.

There are signs that the industry is taking the global call to action seriously as well. On Friday, the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) published the BBP Members Climate Commitment, a pledge by 23 owners – who, collectively, have more than £300 billion of assets under management (in excess of 11,000 buildings) – to reach net zero by 2050 and, in 2020, publish their pathways to reach that goal.

A fundamental part of the carbon reduction strategy is reducing (and, eventually, negating) the impact of embodied carbon, which the WGBC defines as carbon emitted during the construction process and material manufacturing; hence, Avison Young endorsed the WGBC report. Another key part of the strategy is to reduce upfront carbon, which the report refers to as carbon released before the built asset is used.

It is clear that a radical change in industry co-ordination and co-operation is needed to ensure the required market transformation to mainstream net zero, and that the real estate industry cannot act in isolation. Promoting cross-sector collaboration is crucial, particularly as governments look to embed targets into policy and other regulatory frameworks. Innovative approaches are necessary to engage and deliver across industries – and deliver tangible results that, as a minimum, impact and satisfy the required standards.

The result of all of this is a clear mandate for the real estate industry to take action and bring its sustainability agenda to the forefront of operations. Avison Young is well-positioned as an industry leader in sustainability consulting to assist our clients in both putting together net-zero-carbon pathways and delivering on them. We see this service as good business sense and an investment in assets as well as the planet, ensuring that all of our buildings are better for everyone whilst protecting the future for our planet. The recent industry focus on climate issues clearly shows that those organisations that don’t keep up risk falling behind and losing value over time.

To discuss how Avison Young can help your business lead the change and what services we can offer, please do get in touch.

You can read the WGBC Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront report here.

(Tom Malcolm Green is a Graduate Surveyor based in Avison Young’s London-Gresham Street office. He is a member of the company’s U.K. sustainability team.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

By Rand Stephens (Houston)
Discussion of trains and busses utilized for traditional mass transit to alleviate traffic continues to be a hot topic around Houston. As discussed in earlier blogs, mass transit (Metro) in Houston isn’t working to ease traffic congestion. Metro buses that pull over at a bus stop, in the middle of traffic, with no riders getting on or off only worsens traffic congestion.  

Let’s face it, traditional mass transit is not being used enough to make a difference because it doesn’t save riders significant time, money, and nor is it a better travel experience to and from their destinations.

However, people are amenable to alternative modes of transportation when saving time, money or improving their transportation experience. Vonlane, a luxury 22-passenger motor coach with routes between Houston and Dallas, running 8 times per day, hit the road in 2015 and business is doing well. They recently added a San Antonio to Houston route.

Why is the Vonlane having success?  Well, we’re not talking about your average bus. This is a high-end motor coach that provides a first-class experience at a similar cost and travel time as flying including navigating airport security. So, at an equal cost and travel time, people are willing to use alternative travel modes just for the improved experience -  amenities like Wi-Fi, leg room, outlets and a variety of food and beverage options.

Vonlane demonstrates that people in Texas will use alternative forms of mobility which bodes well for the high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. In less than 10 years, Texans may have this option that will transport them from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes with ticket costs competitive with airlines. Still not clear whether train fares will spike for last minute purchases. (No last minute spikes for Japan’s high-speed rail.) Texas Central is closer than ever before to linking the two biggest economic powerhouses –Dallas/ Ft Worth and Houston with a bullet train using private investments. The company is expected to begin construction by the end of 2019 or early 2020 with a duration of up to five years.

Japanese bullet train – Courtesy of
The Texas Bullet Train (would be the first U.S. high-speed train) faces several challenges such as eminent domain, cost and government regulations. But, once resolved, Houstonians could be boarding the high-speed train at U.S. 290 and Loop 610, former Northwest Mall site which is slated to be H-town’s railway station as early as 2026. Other stations will be in Dallas and in the Brazos Valley.

According to research conducted by L.E.K Consulting and released by Texas Central, 90% of trips between Houston and Dallas are made by car and 85% of those who made that trip within the last year would be willing to use high-speed rail, if it were available. The Texas train is expected to have 8 cars with the capacity for approximately 650 passengers per trip. That could translate to thousands of riders per day – Japan averages 452,000 daily riders.  That could have a huge impact on I-45 traffic between Texas’ two largest metro areas. The train cars are also expected to have tons of leg room, high ceilings, wide aisles, and reclining seats (It’s all about the experience!).

When travelling – near or far, most people want to save time, save money, perhaps be productive and have an overall great travel experience. Traffic gridlock will not be resolved with a single solution, such as adding more lanes to freeways and highways and adding more busses and bus lanes. It’s going to take an infrastructure overhaul that reimagines mobility using technological advancements to improve the whole travel experience – the Texas Bullet Train may be the first giant step we need to get on track.

 (Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.)

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