Since Ian Ross founded Somera Road Inc. in 2014, the New York commercial real estate investment firm has done over 50 deals, totaling more than $1 billion and representing about 11 million square feet of space across nearly 40 U.S. cities.
The firm’s most recent acquisition: PPL Plaza in downtown Allentown, a property Somera officially added to its portfolio after submitting the top bid of $16 million at a sheriff’s sale last month.
The office building at 835 W. Hamilton St. and accompanying parking garage at 940 W. Linden St., essentially stuck in neutral for two years while foreclosure proceedings played out, fit into Somera’s focus on distressed, value-add properties in secondary markets that are in need of a fresh start. While the building only has a few tenants, Ross attributed the low occupancy rate to the prior ownership group being overburdened with debt after buying the property for more than $90 million in 2006.
But now, he told The Morning Call on Monday, the property is owned at the right price, giving Somera the ability to offer prospective tenants compelling rent pricing and capitalize on the nationwide trend of suburban office tenants returning to urban cores. With a brighter financial outlook, Ross believes PPL Plaza — due for a rebranding soon — has features that speak for themselves, namely an LEED Gold certification, a rooftop garden space, and architecture that leads Ross to say, “They just don’t build buildings this way anymore.”
“It’s hands down the nicest architectural construction product that we own in our portfolio,” said Ross, Somera’s managing principal. “Going back to the value proposition, we’ll be able to provide what’s hands down the best office space in the market at a fraction of the cost of new construction. One thing we love about our position here is we can provide better product at a lower price than our competitors, and we’re excited to see that next big company come to Allentown and excited to compete to be a space provider for them.”
Ross spoke to The Morning Call about the building’s condition, the property’s tenant prospects — the building was in the running for ADP before the payroll processor selected Five City Centerlast year — and a Kansas City project that Somera carried out that has some similarities to PPL Plaza. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q: In court documents, the property’s receiver mentioned the Plaza received interest from Blue Cross and Buckeye Partners as potential tenants. Are those deals still alive or are there companies interested in the building now that the foreclosure is over?
A: We’re actively engaged with a handful of prospective tenants that are compelled by the live-work-play environment that can be created in downtown Allentown, especially with the parking ratio that we’re able to provide at our building. There’s a great value proposition here, I think especially as compared to the suburbs. A lot of these suburban users are saying, “Not only is this not the environment that I want to be in out in the suburbs for my newer generation workforce, but if I move down there into the downtown, I can have the right environment at a cheaper price.”
With regard to potential tenants, there’s really no good reason that this building should be empty. I think it’s the worst-kept secret that ADP was strongly considering, and was actually at the finish line, of taking over this entire building. We weren’t really involved at that time, but I think the unfortunate truth there was tenants don’t like potential disruption. They were concerned that the prior ownership didn’t have the capital and the positioning, with regards to the capital structure, to be able to hold onto this asset long term. And I think there probably were concerns about an ongoing foreclosure battle, ongoing receivership, potential bankruptcy, and no tenant wanted to take that risk. But outside of those risks, which are clearly neutered at this point now that you have a sophisticated, low-capitalized owner that owns at the right basis, I think ADP absolutely loved the building.
Q: The Plaza was built in 2003. Are there certain parts you want to refresh?
A: When we look at our portfolio around the country, that’s a lot of times what we’re doing. We’re fixing distressed buildings. [Senior Associate] Basel [Bataineh] and I were in the market a couple days last week, and we were actively looking for ways to spend money improving the asset. The truth of the matter is: This building is in pristine, mint condition. The mechanical engineering, the plumbing, the building’s systems, everything is in perfect shape, even the rooftop garden still looks great. With regard to some of the aesthetic features in the lobby, we might do some upgrades there, but the design has stayed extremely well and the building shows great. For better or worse, there’s not a lot for us to do.
Q: How do you envision the property? Because when you look at development in downtown Allentown, a lot of the construction has been down the road closer to PPL Center. If the Plaza gets full, can it help that end of the district?
A: I think the PPL Tower is really the anchor of downtown, and I think our building is inside of that anchor. I think you’ll continue to see these four, five blocks infill inside of those anchors, and I think we’re on the right side of that building, if that makes sense.
Q: Do you think you’ll be hitting the market about the right time? Because City Center Investment Corp. has ADP taking 10 floors of the 13-story Five City Center being built at Eighth and Hamilton street, and then will need to build more office space.
A: Absolutely. With regards to our value proposition and our ability to provide space at highly compelling rates, I think we’re in a great position to attract the next large user to this building. There’s certainly no longer any noise around distressed ownership or anything of that sort. It’s an incredible asset, in great shape. I don’t want to knock any competition, but we can provide better space at a lower price. I think we’re certainly in the market at the right time, and we’re excited about seeing the next great company come to downtown Allentown.
Q: Is there a specific type of tenant you believe will be drawn to the building?
A: I think because of how well designed this building was, it offers itself up to a variety of tenants, whether that’s a single user that wants the entire building or whether that’s single-floor users. The building can be very easily multitenanted. Furthermore, because of the efficiencies of the floor plate, the floor also chops up really well, so if you wanted to look at two, three or four users per floor, we could certainly do that, as well. Again, we often have these problems in smaller floor-plate buildings or older vintage buildings — this is not that. This building was designed to perfectly fit a user, from 5,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet. I think it really leaves us very open to the kind of companies that can fit in here.
Q: When you look at your portfolio, is there a similar property that would serve as a good blueprint for what you plan to do to the Plaza?
A: There’s a building in Kansas City that we acquired in 2016 called the 3Y building, at 300 Wyandotte and the River Market. We bought that building, also architecturally significant, very similar in style, a lot smaller in scale. It’s about 100,000 square feet, all steel and glass, beautiful building that was only about 10 years old that was designed by HOK Architects, which actually occupied a majority of the building. In a similar situation, the building was overleveraged with too much debt and acquired by a tenant-in-common group at too high of a purchase price, where come renewal, HOK — the firm had renamed to Populous — Populous couldn’t get a compelling enough rate as compared to alternative options in the market.
We ended up acquiring that [mortgage] note, taking title of the property and, as of today, we are now 100% leased at the asset, fully occupied with multiple tenants and an average lease term of about eight years. It’s been a great success story taking that building from entirely vacant to entirely occupied.
PPL Plaza in downtown Allentown has posed something of a conundrum for its new owner, Somera Road.
The New York commercial real estate firm typically acquires distressed properties in need of some obvious renovations. While the PPL Plaza (or, its previous ownership group) has certainly faced financial distress, the 16-year-old LEED Gold-certified structure is already “hands-down the architectural gem” of Somera Road’s portfolio, founder and managing principal Ian Ross says.
“We’ve banged our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to make it a better space,” Ross said in the atrium of the building prior to a tour Wednesday.
He later said it might be the “nicest vacant office building in the country.”
Ross reiterated his conviction that the more than 200,000 square feet of office space is of superior quality to any other office building in the city, and he promised to lease it at cheaper rates than anywhere else downtown.
Prospective tenants like that value proposition, he said. A half dozen are actively looking at the seven full floors of office space, he said, and three are interested in the retail space on the southeastern corner of the ground floor. Somera Road hopes to begin announcing tenants in the next three to four months and have its first tenants move in this fall.
“The interest has been astounding,” Ross said. “We’ve barely gotten started.”
Somera Road, which owns 55 buildings with about 11 million square feet of space across nearly 40 cities, has hired original building architect Robert A.M. Stern to consult on some modest upgrades.
That includes a redesign of the lobby, including new furniture and removing security turnstiles; fresh foliage in “winter gardens” on the third and fifth floors; and some demo work on the top two floors to create more open spaces attractive to today’s tenants.
It also wants to bring food trucks to the outdoor plaza, as well as more events and seating, Ross said. (It will feature the main stage of the city’s Blues, Brews & Barbecue festival June 8).
“We want it to again be the focal point of downtown,” he said.
Somera Road officially added the office building and accompanying parking garage at 940 Linden St. to its portfolio after submitting the top bid of $16 million at a sheriff’s sale last month.
Liberty Property Trust built the $60 million project in 2003 for PPL Energy Supply, which later became Talen Energy after the parent company headquartered next door spun it off.
A firm led by investor Joshua Safrin bought the property for more than $90 million in 2006, taking out a $83 million mortgage. The debt proved too much, and it’s been mired in foreclosure proceedings the past two years following a mortgage default in late 2016.
The previous ownership group argued the financial distress was a result of an unfair playing field created by the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, where developers can tap into certain state and local taxes to pay the debt service on their construction loans.
It filed numerous lawsuits against the city and the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority, including a claim that the tax subsidies offered competitors constitute a “de facto taking of the property for which just compensation must be paid.” Talen moved three blocks last year into City Center Investment Corp.’s Tower 6, where rent per square foot was up to 30 percent cheaper.
In April, Lehigh County Judge Doug Reichley ruled against the former owners.
Somera Road, the new owner, claims it too has been unfairly hurt by the NIZ. On May 9, it filed a notice of appeal before Commonwealth Court.
According to Lehigh County Court records, Somera Road took on Wells Fargo’s obligations in the mortgage foreclosure judgment. That amounts to about $56 million, Ross said. Somera Road bought Wells Fargo’s interests in the mortgage last year for roughly $18.4 million, according to Trepp, a New York firm that monitors commercial property mortgages that have been bundled into bonds.
Somera Road also was one of the investors that sustained a considerable loss on the JP Morgan Chase mortgage-backed security that included the PPL Plaza loan, Ross said.
“We think we have a viable claim,” Ross said. “There was an artificial supply created in this market that unjustly burdened this building.”
City spokesman Mike Moore declined to comment Wednesday on Somera Road’s claim.
The building still has a few tenants: PPL Gold Credit Union, a restaurant and a BB&T bank branch on the first floor, along with some PPL Electric Utilities employees on the third floor. Somera Road said the third floor will again be vacant in a few months.
While the firm is open to leasing all the office space to a single tenant, Ross said it’s leaning toward multiple tenants, with most taking one floor and a marquee player taking the top two floors, which features an outdoor garden.
TPG Real Estate Finance Trust has provided $60.2 million to Somera Road to finance the acquisition of 30-story office tower in Kansas City, Mo.’s financial district, according to HFF, which arranged the debt.
The floating-rate bridge debt helped facilitate Somera’s off-market acquisition of Kansas City’s City Center Square building, a 657,070-square-foot office tower at 1100 Main Street.
Leon McBroom and Mark Katz comprised the HFF debt placement team that represented Somera Road.
“This was a highly stressful closing that bridged the holidays and the new year – the teams were incredibly responsive and professional, working around the clock to get this deal over the finish line,” Ian Ross, a principal at Somera Road, said in a prepared statement. “We have been a long-time believer in continued growth of the downtown [Kansas City] market and we believe the timing and the supply and demand dynamics are just right to bring this asset back to Class A status.”
Specifically, the debt proceeds will finance renovation, rebranding and repositioning efforts aimed to make the asset the “premier downtown office tower” in the city, according to information from HFF. The additions will include a fitness center and tenant lounge, dining options, a renovated lobby, a hospitality center and a conferencing center. Somera will also add retail terraces and public seating to the property’s exterior.
A spokeswoman for TPG RE Finance Trust told Commercial Observer in a statement that while the firm typically targets larger loans in primary markets, it looks to provide this type of transitional financing in secondary markets to strong sponsors.
Built in 1979 and designed by , the building encompassing an entire city block and two-acre lot and has a Kansas City streetcar stop located outside the entrance to the property. The tower is home to the Kansas City Business Journal, law firm Dollar Burns & Becker, data advertising firm Pinsight Media, and marketing analytics firm Alight Analytics. There’s also a U.S. Post Office and a Country Club Bank on-site. Colliers International Senior Vice President Phil James handles leasing at the property.
In February 2018, Commercial Observer reported that City Center Square backed the second-largest loan ($32.5 million) in Värde Partners’ first ever collateralized loan obligation (CLO) transaction, known as VMC 2018-FL1. At the time of securitization, the asset was only 52 percent leased, with 70 tenants, making it one of the riskier assets in the $368 million pool.
In the deal, which was rated by Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA), the CLO’s KLTV—a loan-to-value-like indicator derived from KBRA’s cash-flow analysis—was at 128.3 percent, which was riskier than any CLO transaction the agency had rated the previous year in 2017.
BY MACK BURKE JANUARY 29, 2019 3:45 PM
A substantial renovation will be coming to City Center Square after Somera Road Inc. bought the building in mid-January for an undisclosed amount.
Dallas-based Holliday Fenoglio Fowler LP said in a release Tuesday that the company secured $60.2 million in acquisition bridge financing on behalf of Somera Road.
According to the release, Somera will use proceeds from the loan “to renovate, rebrand and reposition the property as the premier downtown office tower in Kansas City.”
Located at 11th and Main streets, the 30-story, 657,070 square-foot building is home to the Kansas City Business Journal, Pinsight Media + and Alight Analytics. Its market value last year was $17.37 million, according to Jackson County property records. The building’s occupancy rate is 50 percent.
The renovation will include a “state-of-the-art fitness center and tenant lounge, numerous in-house dining options, a fully-activated lobby, a hospitality center, a conferencing center and a revival of the property’s iconic lightwell,” the HFF release said. “Furthermore, Somera Road intends to activate the exterior with retail terraces and public seating.”
HFF Director Leon McBroom and Senior Managing Director Mark Katz represented the borrower.
Representatives from HFF and Somera Road could not be reached for comment before publication.
By Miranda Davis – Staff Writer, Kansas City Business Journal