Empty storefronts

By Felix Salmon
August 31, 2009
Justin Fox has a very good post on the broken state of the commercial real estate, pointing to empty spaces on Broadway and in Newcastle, Australia. I could easily add my own street, Avenue B, which has an inordinate number of empty storefronts, or could point to Centre Point, in London, a skyscraper which stood empty from its completion, in 1966, until 1979.

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Justin Fox has a very good post on the broken state of the commercial real estate, pointing to empty spaces on Broadway and in Newcastle, Australia. I could easily add my own street, Avenue B, which has an inordinate number of empty storefronts, or could point to Centre Point, in London, a skyscraper which stood empty from its completion, in 1966, until 1979.

Justin is absolutely right about the corrosive effect of bank rents on New York rental rates: all landlords want the kind of rents that only banks can afford, but of course not all landlords can have a bank as a renter. But the bigger picture is that commercial real estate in general often stays empty for extremely long periods of time — something which harms neighborhoods and lets huge amounts of economic value go to waste.

Why is this? I think the answer lies in the fact that commercial leases tend to be very long-term things — so long term, in fact, that the discounted cashflow from any given lease is likely, in a normal (non-bubbly) property market, to be more or less the same as the value of the commercial property itself. Looked at this way, a developer spends a certain amount of money on putting up (or simply buying) a building, and then sells that building, in lease form, for a profit.

If prevailing leases are low, or tenants hard to find, the developer will quite rationally choose to keep the property empty. Leasing at a low rate will lock in a loss, while keeping the property empty has significant option value: at some point in the future, rents might well rise, and the developer can at that point lock in a profit instead. This is why successful property developers generally need very deep pockets: anybody who needs immediate cashflow, in the form of rent today, is in an invidious bargaining position and is likely to lose out over the long term.

Marcus Westbury has manged, in Newcastle, to implement the obvious solution to this problem: short-dated leases, often just 30 days long, which roll over so long as the landlord hasn’t found a permanent tenant. That’s good for the neighborhood, and helps drive up prevailing rents, so everybody wins — except, of course, for the commercial real estate agents, who are disintermediated and who in any case are never going to make any money brokering 30-day deals. But many businesses are never going to find that kind of deal acceptable, even if they’re already in the space in question — remember that Kenny Shopsin, for instance, refused to extend his lease on the space he had occupied for years in the West Village by one year. “A one-year lease,” explained Calvin Trillin with no further elucidation, “is obviously not practical for a restaurant”. Yet somehow a brand-new teahouse in Newcastle manages to operate on a shorter lease yet.

My feeling is that commercial real estate in general has always operated on extremely long timescales, which can seem ridiculous to those of us not in the business. And it always will. Occasionally someone like Marcus Westbury will come along and shake things up. But more generally, many empty storefronts are likely to remain empty for years on end: it’s just how the business works.

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