via NY Times
Nearly $5 billion in development projects in New York City have been delayed or canceled because of the economic crisis, an extraordinary body blow to an industry that last year provided 130,000 unionized jobs, according to numbers tracked by a local trade group.
The setbacks for development — perhaps the single greatest economic force in the city over the last two decades — are likely to mean, in the words of one researcher, that the landscape of New York will be virtually unchanged for two years.
“There’s no way to finance a project,” said the researcher, Stephen R. Blank of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit group.
Charles Blaichman is not about to argue with that assessment. Looking south from the eighth floor of a half-finished office tower on 14th Street on a recent day, Mr. Blaichman pointed to buildings he had developed in the meatpacking district. But when he turned north to the blocks along the High Line, once among the most sought-after areas for development, he surveyed a landscape of frustration: the planned sites of three luxury hotels, all stalled by recession.
Several indicators show that developers nationwide have also been affected by the tighter lending markets. The growth rate for construction and land development loans shrunk drastically this year — to 0.08 percent through September, compared with 11.3 percent for all of 2007 and 25.7 percent in 2006, according to data tracked by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
And developers who have loans are missing payments. The percentage of loans in default nationwide jumped to 7.3 percent through September 2008, compared with 1 percent in 2007, according to data tracked by Reis Inc., a New York-based real estate research company.
New York’s development world is rife with such stories as developers who have been busy for years are killing projects or scrambling to avoid default because of the credit crunch.
Mr. Blaichman, who has built two dozen projects in the past 20 years, is struggling to borrow money: $370 million for the three hotels, which include a venture with Jay-Z, the hip-hop mogul. A year ago, it would have seemed a reasonable amount for Mr. Blaichman. Not now.
“Even the banks who want to give us money can’t,” he said.
The long-term impact is potentially immense, experts said. Construction generated more than $30 billion in economic activity in New York last year, said Louis J. Coletti, the chief executive of the Building Trades Employers’ Association. The $5 billion in canceled or delayed projects tracked by Mr. Coletti’s association include all types of construction: luxury high-rise buildings, office renovations for major banks and new hospital wings. Mr. Coletti’s association, which represents 27 contractor groups, is talking to the trade unions about accepting wage cuts or freezes. So far there is no deal.
Not surprisingly, unemployment in the construction industry is soaring: in October, it was up by more than 50 percent from the same period last year, labor statistics show.
Experience does not seem to matter. Over the past 15 years, Josh Guberman, 48, developed 28 condo buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan, many of them purchased by well-paid bankers. He is cutting back to one project in 2009.
Donald Capoccia, 53, who has built roughly 4,500 condos and moderate-income housing units in all five boroughs, took the day after Thanksgiving off, for the first time in 20 years, because business was so slow. He is shifting his attention to projects like housing for the elderly on Staten Island, which the government seems willing to finance.
Some of their better known and even wealthier counterparts are facing the same problems. In August, Deutsche Bank started foreclosure proceedings against William S. Macklowe over his planned project at the former Drake Hotel on Park Avenue. Kent M. Swig, Mr. Macklowe’s son-in-law, recently shut down the sales office for a condo tower planned for 25 Broad Street after his lender, Lehman Brothers, declared bankruptcy in September. Several commercial and residential brokers said they were spending nearly half their days advising developers who are trying to find new uses for sites they fear will not be profitable.
“That rug has been pulled out from under their feet,” said David Johnson, a real estate broker with Eastern Consolidated who was involved with selling the site for the proposed hotel to Mr. Blaichman, Jay-Z and their business partners for $66 million, which included the property and adjoining air rights. Mr. Johnson said that because many banks are not lending, the only option for many developers is to take on debt from less traditional lenders like foreign investors or private equity firms that charge interest rates as high as 20 percent.
That doesn’t mean that all construction in New York will grind to a halt immediately. Mr. Guberman is moving forward with one condo tower at 87th Street and Broadway that awaits approval for a loan; he expects it will attract buyers even in a slowing economy. Mr. Capoccia is trying to finish selling units at a Downtown Brooklyn condominium project, and is slowly moving ahead on applying for permits for an East Village project.
Mr. Blaichman, 54, is keeping busy with four buildings financed before the slowdown. He has found fashion and advertising firms to rent space in his tower at 450 West 14th Street and buyers for two downtown condo buildings. He recently rented a Lower East Side building to the School of Visual Arts as a dorm.
Mr. Blaichman had success in Greenwich Village and the meatpacking district, where he developed the private club SoHo House, the restaurant Spice Market and the Theory store. He had similar hopes for the area along the High Line, where he bought properties last year when they were fetching record prices.
An art collector, he considered the area destined for growth because of its many galleries and its proximity to the park being built on elevated railroad tracks that have given the area its name. The park, which extends 1.45 miles from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, is expected to be completed in the spring.
Other developers have shown that buyers will pay high prices to be in the area. Condo projects designed by well-known architects like Jean Nouvel and Annabelle Selldorf have been eagerly anticipated. In recent months, buyers have paid $2 million for a two-bedroom unit and $3 million for a three-bedroom at Ms. Selldorf’s project, according to Streeteasy.com, a real estate Web site.
“It’s one of the greatest stretches of undeveloped areas,” Mr. Blaichman said. “I still think it’s going to take off.”
In August 2007, Mr. Blaichman bought the site and air rights of a former Time Warner Cable warehouse. He thought the neighborhood needed its first full-service five-star hotel, in contrast to the many boutique hotels sprouting up downtown. So with his partners, Jay-Z and Abram and Scott Shnay, he envisioned a hotel with a pool, gym, spa and multiple restaurants under a brand called J Hotels. But since his mortgage brokers started shopping in late summer for roughly $200 million in financing, they have only one serious prospect for a lender.
For now, he is seeking an extension on the mortgage — monthly payments are to begin in the coming months — and trying to rent the warehouse. (He currently has no income from the property.)
It is perhaps small comfort that his fellow developers are having as many problems getting loans. Shaya Boymelgreen had banks “pull back” recently on financing for a 107-unit rental tower the developer is building at 500 West 23rd Street, according to Sara Mirski, managing director of development for Boymelgreen Developers. The half-finished project looked abandoned on two recent visits, but Ms. Mirski said that construction will continue. Banks have “invited” the developer to reapply for a loan next year and have offered interim bridge loans for up to $30 million.
Mr. Blaichman cuts a more mellow figure than many other developers do. He avoids the real estate social scene, tries to turn his cellphone off after 6 p.m. and plays folk guitar in his spare time.
For now, Mr. Blaichman seems stoic about his plight. At a diner, he polished off a Swiss-cheese omelet and calmly noted that he had no near-term way to pay off his debts. He exercises several times a week and tells his three children to curb their shopping even as he regularly presses his mortgage bankers for answers.
“I sleep pretty well,” Mr. Blaichman said. “There’s nothing you can do in the middle of the night that will help your projects.”
But even when the lending market improves — in months, or years — restarting large-scale projects will not be a quick process. A freeze in development, in fact, could continue well after the recession ends.
Mr. Blank of the Urban Land Institute said he has taken to giving the following advice to real estate executives: “We told them to take up golf.”