Monday, December 27, 2010

For Every Love Letter Written, There's Another One Burned--A Little Balance Please

Banker & Tradesman’s lead article today was “Boston Tenants Vacate 1 M Square Feet in 2010.” A good grabber. And it’s even true. Gritty reading as Jim Cronin covered all of the properties that saw tenants pack up and go. He even got some respectable industry quotes. The problem is that his article was only half-a-story, as they say. What he forgot to cover or just plain overlooked is that more than 1 M Square Feet was occupied by fresh tenancies in 2010. Let’s get into the detail.

Banker & Tradesman (“B&T”) failed to balance off the vacancies to space that came to the market in 2010 with companies that did indeed, contrary to some of the article’s quoted sources, backfill the vacancies. Every good real estate researcher knows that backfilling takes place across markets, not within individual buildings. If B&T does not analyze the data this way, then B&T would be showing massive negative absorption in Boston of over 1 million in 2010. Every brokerage house and I have already noted positive absorption for the year. I will use B&T’s list first and then cover the properties they ignored.

1. International Place—Yes, when Ropes moved, nobody backfilled the space. But B&T failed to mention that Ropes’ move to 800 Boylston completely backfilled the vacancy left by the Gillette Company after its purchase by Procter & Gamble to the tune of 400,000 square feet.

2. One Federal—B&T is right on with this property. Between One Federal and 125 High, Tishman is sitting on the largest amount of space of any landlord in the city.

3. One Congress—I would not consider a converted garage to even be in inventory and thus not truly vacant. Under Tom O’Brien, the property is being marketed as future office space, and Tom is seeing a lot of interest.

4. 225 Franklin—This is B&T’s biggest mistake. Bank of America leased 226,000, followed shortly by Ameriprise Financial for 130,000 square feet. Along with 100 High, covered below, 225 Franklin was the success story of 2010. B&T’s numbers are completely wrong.

5. 99 High Street—How can B&T mention a vacancy increase without talking about the building’s largest tenant, KPMG, taking over 100,000 square feet to anchor Two Financial Center?

6. 53 State—Same question. The entirety of the vacancy at 53 State consists of Choate’s backfilling massive relocations out of Two International Place. The same will be true at 75 State when Wellington vacates 300,000 square feet there and at a handful of properties to anchor 500 Atlantic in a 400,000 square foot lease.

B&T missed the remarkable leasing efforts at 100 High Street—net 140,000 square feet slowly chipping away at what Bingham left behind; at 200 Clarendon led by the Bain Capital lease; and by way of Liberty Mutual’s expansion into 500 Boylston and its announcement of a new tower which will represent net growth. And many more pure growth stories.

B&T needs to make a choice—accurate net absorption figures or scary stories. You can’t have it both ways, no matter how much of a “grabber” it is.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What's Right about Boston's City Hall

It's my guess that about 95% of Bostonians would not mind if Boston City Hall were demolished tomorrow. About a year ago, the Mayor was so desparate to get out, he almost built a building in the ocean.

But the entire problem and the tremendous potential of the building is the landscape upon which it sits. Consider the State House (New State House, as a proper Bostonian would say.) If the building were built on the vast acreage that City Hall sits on, it would immediately lose its glory. City Hall is a majestic building. It is a city on a hill unto itself, but inverted. The problem is that nobody ever thought to bring the grandeur of City Hall itself to what could be the grand approaches to City Hall.

And I am not talking about the brick. I’m talking about bringing light and activity in concentric circles out from the base of City Hall. Doing so should have been simultaneous with the design of the building. Any building with an inverted base will naturally have a dark and shadowy base. Kallman et al forgot about this. As you approach City Hall, instead of looking up to see how the levels build upon each other, you look down into the pit of the entry. The lack of attention to light, a clear entry, and clear entry “flight paths,” if you will, defeat the architecture of the building. You feel like a mouse trying to find the hole into a massive hunk of cheese.

Grass is not the answer. It would be as unused as the brick plaza or the Dimway, oops Greenway, and would belittle the architecture itself. The answer to the context is varied, gentle elevations leading up into City Hall rather down into the pits. Imagine a series of ramparts approaching a castle except that along the ramparts we could build appropriately designed commercial, retail, and entertainment space—perfect space for an opera house which we embarrassingly do not have. But the approach must be up and toward the top of City Hall, not down and into the pit.

Back to the Old State House. How would you feel if there were McDonald’s bags on the lawn or plastic planes of glass in a few of the Governor’s office windows? The City has never taken care of City Hall. It is a disgrace. This is OUR building, and its care should be a matter of civic pride. The only response we manage to come up with is “tear it down, tear it down.” That’s fear speaking, not logic. About 10 years ago, the same crowd wanted to “re-clad” the Prudential Tower.

And all the architects who praise its design do that and nothing more. We are all wonderful critics and cynics, but few of us feel obligated to do anything. If the 1 million architects (that’s my estimate) who bobble around Boston and Cambridge want to bring life back to what, without dispute, is one of the country’s greatest examples of Brutalism, then they and we better look at the context of the property and the disgusting manner in which have let this property rot.

If we condemn City Hall to the wrecking ball, we condemn ourselves for a lack of will and imagination.