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ALLENTOWN, Pa. – The PPL Plaza in Allentown is headed in a new direction and preparing for a new name.
The new owners invited media inside for a tour Wednesday after purchasing the property in a sheriff’s sale last month.
The building, though 16 years old, was way ahead of its time and offers a lot of modern features.
The biggest change up is the plaza. The new owners want to make it more of a communal space. The water fountains go, but they’ll add more places for people to sit and beef up entertainment.
The PPL Plaza has a spectacular lobby skylight, rooftop gardens and countless eco-friendly features.
The PPL Plaza building was sold at a sheriff’s auction to Somera Road for 16 million, a fraction of what it cost to build it. It most recently was home to Talen Energy, a PPL spinoff.
The owners aim to make the building once again attractive to tenants, who recently have gone for newer, cheaper builds thanks to the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.
The old PPL Plaza Is in the NIZ, and the new owners could be eligible for NIZ benefits for new improvements like upgrading the lobby and revamping the plaza space.
Ian Ross says there’s a lot of vendor interest in the vacant restaurant space, especially with 2,000 ADP employees soon to move in just down the street.
“A lot of vendors want to play into that and be accessible from a street front perspective,” Ross said.
About a half a dozen companies have already expressed interest in moving into the building.
“Companies are saying I want to be downtown,” Ross said.
The new owners aren’t naming those companies, but they say they expect tenants will start moving in by the end of the summer.
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