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HOT TOPIC: A tale of two deals

Ideal retail deals come in all shapes and sizes. Within that universe, some deals fall into place as if they were destined to happen. Others take years of painstaking work and refinement. Either way, a perfect deal is a perfect deal. Here are two examples, both of which received “Deal of the Year” recognition from their local real estate boards.

On June 22, 2000, Shaw's Supermarkets Inc. announced the sale of 19 neighborhood and community shopping centers totaling 1.4 million sq. ft. in five New England states. The buyer, a consortium including Northstar Properties and Lend Lease Real Estate Investments Inc., paid more than $117 million.

Fifteen of the 19 properties were anchored by Shaw's grocery stores. A group company made up of J. Sainsbury PLC of London and Shaw's Supermarkets Inc., operates 167 stores in six New England states.

As part of the transaction, Shaw's leased back their grocery stores in 15 of the centers covered by the sale, under triple net leases.

Shaw's used the cash generated by the sales to pursue an expansion program across its New England market.

The transaction ranked as the largest portfolio sale of strip shopping centers in the region's history. It surpassed the previous record of $96.3 million for 27 strip centers totaling 1.6 million sq. ft. sold by Stop & Shop to GPB Real Estate Holdings LLC Realty Trust.

Given the complexity of the deal, the marketing process was surprisingly simple. Spaulding & Slye Colliers of Boston represented Shaw's, which asked that the sales process remain confidential.

How do you market shopping centers when the owner wants the issue kept under wraps? “It was not the normal marketing process,” says James M. Koury, senior vice president with Spaulding & Slye Colliers. “Ordinarily you would set out to generate a bunch of offers. But Shaw's needed us to tailor a marketing program that would maintain confidentiality.”

Shaw's chose Spaulding & Slye Colliers to broker the deal because of the firm's range of contacts within the buying community, continues Koury. “Most brokers are generalists but we specialize in shopping centers,” Koury says. “Because we specialize, we know our buyer-base well, and we can take a product to just the right buyer.”

Indeed, that's what happened: Spaulding & Slye Colliers approached Northstar and without much ado at all, Northstar agreed to the deal.

Perhaps the most challenging part of managing the transaction involved keeping it secret. To do that, the broker engaged in a softball game of cloak and dagger, giving the project a fake name: the Levine portfolio. “Whenever we referred to the deal, we used that name to prevent others from overhearing what we were up to,” Koury says.

Toys ‘R’ Us & Times Square

Leasing a single address on Times Square in New York City would seem easier than selling a complex shopping center portfolio in secrecy. But the retail real estate business rarely works in predictable ways.

In November 1997, Insignia/ESG in New York City was hired as the exclusive leasing agent for a portion of the 105,000-sq.-ft. space at 1514-1530 Broadway in Times Square. At the time, cinema chain United Artists (UA) occupied the lion's share of the space, which included four levels plus a mezzanine. Other tenants included Xanadu and Sbarro. Large advertising signs above the space were also considered part of the property. The owner wanted to find a tenant to replace United Artists, whose lease was expiring, and to renew the leases with the other tenants.

The Insignia/ESG team consisted of C. Bradley Mendelson, David Green, and David LaPierre. They studied the problem and wondered whether the owner might consider leasing to nationally known restaurants and traditional retailers. While the address had primarily housed entertainment retailers such as UA in the past, Mendelson, Green, and LaPierre believed the current redevelopment of Times Square offered an ideal opportunity for traditional retailers seeking flagship locations.

The owner liked the idea of several tenants with strong national credit and agreed. The theory proved itself quickly. Rain Forest Café expressed an interest in 30,000 sq. ft., or about one-third, of the total space. But the deal fell through when negotiations related to the air rights above the structure raised uncertainty about structural renovations that might affect the Rainforest space. Not long after Rainforest pulled out, the air rights deal collapsed.

Next, the Insignia/ESG team pitched the space plus the air rights to a number of potential tenants including an aquarium and Sephora, the upscale cosmetics super-store.

No luck. Two years had passed, and the frustrated owner decided to sign a new agent as the Insignia/ESG agreement expired.

Mendelson, Green, and LaPierre, however, continued searching for tenants. Toys ‘R’ Us blipped onto the radar screen. The toy retailer had recently undertaken a major effort to re-brand its image. John Eyler, the company's new CEO, was negotiating for space with the owner of Three Times Square, right next door.

But 1514-1530 Broadway offered more square footage, enough to give Toys ‘R’ Us the largest toy store in the world. Eyler expressed interest.

Nothing comes easy though. Toys ‘R’ Us wanted a 60-ft. tall Ferris wheel in the space, an issue that raised zoning problems. Insignia/ESG hired a consultant to resolve those problems.

The owner wanted the deal, but had to wait for existing leases to expire. That issue worked itself out.

But another problem arose with the glass panels that Toys ‘R’ Us wanted to put up to enhance its street appeal. Signs for Jockey and ABC occupied that space, located above the property. Insignia/ESG, along with the owner of the space, persuaded the advertisers to move the signs.

Rent became the final obstacle. Initially, the owner proposed a creative warrant structure that would enable the owner to participate in the success of Toys ‘R’ Us through a non-cash vehicle. But the structure became too complicated, and the parties abandoned the concept.

The negotiators finally shook hands on a 15-year lease that would generate more than $200 million in rental payments, for the space as well as the signage areas above the space.


Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based writer.

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