Best Cities: Investors Talk About Their Strategies

Leading investors speak with CPE editorial director Suzann D. Silverman about their current strategies.

Some of today’s leading investors spoke with CPE editorial director Suzann D. Silverman about their current strategies. Shorter versions of their commentaries appeared as part of the Special Report: The Best and Worst Cities for Investment in the September 2012 issue of CPE. Following are the more complete details of their strategies:

David Gilbert
Chief Investment Officer & Head of Acquisitions
Clarion Partners

The country is going through a slow and uneven economic recovery. Strong employment growth is primarily in technology, energy and healthcare, while government, finance and construction remain weak. Consequently, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Houston, Austin and Raleigh are high on our target market list, driven by high-growth industries.

At this stage of the recovery cycle, Clarion Partners is concentrating on the apartment and industrial sectors, which are outperforming other property types. Generally, the greatest opportunities are in a value-add strategy and urban apartment ground-up development. Clarion Partners recently completed several warehouse acquisitions in strategic distribution markets like the Inland Empire (Calif.), Miami and Northeast Pa. We also purchased a number of prime office assets in select CBDs including San Francisco, West Los Angeles and Houston.

Although core property returns have compressed over the past two years, we believe that attractive relative returns—in comparison to stocks or bonds—can be achieved in this real estate cycle. Due to the global economic slowdown—attributed mainly to the euro-zone debt crisis, which has worsened over the past quarter—the U.S. economic recovery has slowed. We are taking a more cautious approach to our investment selection, although our investment strategies and target markets have not changed.


Debra Cafaro
Chairman & CEO

We are investing in high-quality, private-pay senior living communities and medical office buildings (MOBs) located in the top MSAs because they offer investors core characteristics of good, reliable growth with resiliency in a downturn at above-core returns.

In our MOB portfolio, 94 percent of our assets are on campus or affiliated with top hospitals and healthcare systems, and that remains the focus of our investment strategy. Our second-quarter acquisition of Cogdell Spencer for $760 million is a good example. Its 71 MOBs, mostly located in the Southeast, are affiliated with a dozen highly rated healthcare systems.

In our private-pay seniors housing portfolio of 214 communities managed by Sunrise Senior Living and Atria Senior Living, net operating income increased in the high single digits.  Our second-quarter acquisition of 16 communities from Sunrise for $362 million includes locations in top MSAs.


Richard Mack
North America CEO
AREA Property Partners

We are looking for mid-teens levered IRRs with levered cash-on-cash yields in the high single/low double digits. While we have generally been sellers of core office buildings in gateway cities, we have been buyers of other asset classes in non-gateway major markets in the United States that exhibit the same or better job growth but fewer barriers to entry. In many cases, you’re still able to buy well enough below replacement cost in markets like Houston, Dallas and Austin, so that increasing supply, the risk in these high-growth markets, will have a lower impact. These markets are also characterized by having better-than-average growth prospects for jobs, driven by some or all of the currently strong U.S. industries: healthcare, education, energy and technology. Other important factors are very good population growth and positive financial leverage, i.e. cap rates in excess of borrowing costs.

We see this opportunity as being especially prominent in the multi-family rental side, which we also believe has solid demand fundamentals nationwide. You can still buy good risk-adjusted returns in multi-family apartments in these Texas markets.

We’re also relatively bullish on South Florida. There’s a little less job growth—although it’s stronger there than many places in the United States—but it’s becoming more and more a gateway to Latin America, and you see more and more capital going there and driving the economy. We generally won’t buy office there, but certainly multi-family and, with the increases expected for commercial trade volume in Miami’s port, distribution.

We have been net sellers of office in San Francisco and New York, and have not been buyers of multi-family in these two gateway markets because of negative financial leverage. However, multi-family development is starting to make sense to us because we see sale values for cash-flowing assets at well above replacement cost. We are not necessarily building in the more established/main locations but rather in less established locations such as Jersey City and Williamsburg in New York and places like lower Pacific Heights in San Francisco that are around the fringes of established markets for rentals. We believe new neighborhoods are going to have to emerge, given rental rates. You can build on the fringes of these cities at favorable rates relative to exit cap rates. In New York, technology and media are driving the economy on the margin. In San Francisco, it’s technology, but more and more the media side of technology companies that want to be downtown. They’re driving rates not just for office but for multi-family.

Some technology companies are looking for space in Seattle because their employees want to be in a creative urban environment, and creative space has become so expensive in San Francisco. Seattle is rapidly urbanizing, with more and more people wanting to be located in offices and apartments in the urban core, but because there is little multi-family with positive leverage available to buy in Seattle, we are developing multi-family there, too.

We also like bulk distribution, and we’re trying to invest in markets that are going to be disproportionately driven by growth in the U.S. of e-commerce and global trade.


Peter DiCorpo
President of the Managed Accounts Group
CBRE Global Investors

Many of our collective clients are still quite interested and quite engaged in markets like New York, San Francisco, Boston, D.C. There are still some opportunities in those markets to the extent that you have good solid rent growth in most of the product types;  you also have good demand. We’re looking at them, but we’re taking a very cautious approach to them. We’re typically much more focused these days on what we’ve defined in our organization as the next-tier cities, cities that have strong fundamentals in terms of rent growth, occupancy and a limited new pipeline of product but aren’t necessarily getting the same level of hype and attention that the trophy cities are getting. These are cities like Austin, Denver, Dallas, Houston, San Diego and Seattle. A couple of things are driving them. Energy is obviously very important within some of those major areas. Technology is also very important. And those markets aren’t as overheated.

D.C. is not a market we have a major focus on, although we’re still looking at opportunities there. With the public sector slowing, it’s definitely cooling down, and you’re going to see very little real estate activity in D.C. through the election. It’s gotten a little bit soft on the office side. That being said, many of the foreign investors are still excited about the D.C. market, so you’re getting a softer market but you’re not getting much softening in the pricing. Right now, we view D.C. as not appropriately valued for what we want to do.

We’re investing across the spectrum. We’re looking at some core for some of our investors, but we’re also looking at value-add for one of our funds. We think value-add is the next stage of investing in this cycle. People, I think, are getting their sea legs back with regard to real estate and willing to take on a little bit more risk. Not a ton of risk, but a little bit more risk.

We would like to be more active in multi-family development—I still think there are some selected opportunities in office and industrial, but multi-family development is a great opportunity. The demographics for multi-family are tremendous right now, with the Echo Boom generation trying to get out of mom and dad’s basement and get into their own apartments. The pipeline, while more active than any of the other product types, is still well below our historical averages. I think there’s also opportunity to acquire multi-family, even though cap rates have come down considerably since the downturn. That really is the asset class that has recovered the best.

We also think that office offers a great opportunity for investment, and we like industrial. Your neighborhood grocery-anchored stores in areas of high demographics, where there’s a good level of wealth, are also great opportunities, and you should take advantage of those any chance you get.


Kevin Smith
Senior Managing Director, Head of U.S. Business
Prudential Real Estate Investors

We divide our investing thinking into two different types of markets. One would be longer-term markets, typically markets where there are greater barriers to new supply and a higher level of human capital, a higher level of education, maybe a more entrepreneurial type of people. We think that, long term; those are the markets that are going to drive more job growth. The San Francisco Bay area, New York, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and San Diego are all examples. The other side would be what I think of as trading markets. Those markets will typically grow more quickly. Most of them are in the Southeast and Southwest United States. They’ve got more growth in terms of population and jobs, but they typically have fewer limits on new supply, which makes the timing of entering and exiting that much more important. The larger markets are places like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, Charlotte—major markets, but in general we would look at them as short-term holds.

The thing that has changed in our view is the importance of focusing on the human capital element in these longer-term markets. It’s not enough to be a large market; it’s not enough to be a market where it’s hard to build.  We’ll focus more on markets where those drivers of growth are around people who are highly educated and are interested in building businesses, and the environment in the area is supportive of that—it has a human capital infrastructure, if you will. That just encourages more innovation and more job growth. These markets are faring better generally as they come out of the Great Recession because of those attributes.

We typically deal across our funds in the top 20 metros in the United States. We have not done a lot in tertiary markets and don’t plan to. In most times we just don’t feel like you’re getting paid for the extra risk—either leasing risk or liquidity risk. The returns outside of the five or six prime markets in the U.S. are more attractive today, and recently we’ve spent more time in those markets looking for opportunities.

We’ve spent the last couple of years focused significantly on apartments, mainly via development, financing that with various development partners. To date, the bulk of that activity has been in the trading markets to try to take advantage of the surge in apartment demand that goes along with population and job growth.  We’re also looking at more urban investments, so we’re doing many more infill apartments—a lot of them are midrise, some high-rise. I expect that our apartment activity is going to pull back some as we go forward just because we don’t expect the same level of rent growth over the next two or three years that we’ve had over the last two years.

We continue to exercise caution in certain metro areas. For example, we’re going to be very selective in looking at opportunities in Chicago. And we are being a little bit more cautious about how we underwrite rents in Washington, D.C., because the jury’s out as to what the trajectory of the growth there is going to be going forward, because it feels like this may be a little bit more permanent than an election year hiccup. We like Washington, D.C. long term for a lot of reasons but we’re a little cautious right now.


Bob Plumb
Managing Director of Direct Investment and Group Acquisitions
AEW Capital Management L.P.

We use five criteria that we think are really important to be successful in real estate investment. We invest in what we like to call peak-to-peak rental growth markets: markets where there are supply constraints, physical barriers, governmental and legal restrictions, and economic factors that work to keep a market at equilibrium and allow for absolute growth in rent. Markets that have done that are Boston and New York and West L.A., parts of Seattle.

We also want to invest in markets with educated populations and strong job growth. We seek to exploit the changing demographics of America: the aging Baby Boomers, the coming of the Age of the Echo Boomers and immigration trends.

The third criteria we call “tracking the money.”  We want to invest in markets and properties that will see investment in emerging technologies and industries, as well as those that will benefit from changes in governmental expenditure. We want to be in liquid markets. We’re also very sensitive to what I would call a liquidity premium. If we are going to go to a market other than a major market, we would really take a look at the liquidity premium there and figure out what it is really going to cost us to exit. We’ve invested in Portland, Ore., particularly downtown Portland. We’ve made investments in Albuquerque, N.M.

The fourth filter is globalization. We want to be in the path of continued globalization and we want to take advantage of trends and markets that are affected by globalization and the world economy.

And then we want to be diversified—not by market and product type but from an economic perspective.

We focused on 12 to 15 markets two or three years ago, and now we probably have a universe that is double that: 30 markets. We are still applying the same criteria, though, and we’re really focusing on markets that have specific economic drivers, such as education and healthcare. We tranche the markets every quarter into top tier, second tier and third tier. In some cases, markets come back. Atlanta is a good example of that. Atlanta has a very diversified, strong economy, and you’re actually seeing improved job growth there.

There is a segment of Florida that I think is very safe, West Palm to Miami—it’s healed really quickly. And now you’re seeing recovery in Tampa-Clearwater, then next it’s going to be Orlando. Texas has always been a very solid, stable market—it’s the Energizer Bunny from an economic standpoint. It’s got great job growth, great numbers and it never really fell.  And then you’ve got energy—we like energy right now, so we’re mining the Houston Energy Corridor a great deal.

Another market that we’ve moved into in the last two years is Denver. We’re very intrigued by what’s going on there. We’re not jumping exclusively into secondary markets, but opportunities are limited for institutional investors in some of the major markets so we are trying to be smart when we go into smaller markets. We’ve looked at the Southeast, like Raleigh and Charlotte. Same with Minneapolis. Salt Lake City has got great numbers, and we’re looking at opportunities there, as well.

We’re doing development in multi-family. We’re also building industrial. Retail, we’ve focused on redeveloping. We like retail because there are so many different product types, and it tends to get broad-brushed with a pretty negative point of view. We’ve been able to find some diamonds in the rough and reposition them in different markets.


Martha Peyton
Head of Global Real Estate Strategy and Research

We remain largely focused on core properties, with selective interest in value-add and development opportunities.  To date, only the six “major” markets comprising Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have shown material recovery in property values, with improvement focused on the best-quality and most desirable locations. While we have focused our investments in these markets over the last two years, we are not limiting our attention to them exclusively.

We take a research-based approach to targeting markets for investment.  We consider historical investment performance versus benchmarks, current market conditions, supply discipline, employment composition and demographic vitality.  We also evaluate the composition of the investible property universe in each market and its attractiveness to an increasingly globalized investor community.  This analytical process points us toward the coastal markets among the six noted above, plus a number of less prominent coastal markets. We see coastal markets as offering the strongest supply and demand factors that contribute to investment performance.

In our view, the uncertain path of the U.S. economy, especially given the ongoing Eurozone financial crisis, is the chief risk facing real estate investors. This uncertainty is reinforcing the dominance of the most liquid markets; however, we also find that deal flow in the smaller coastal markets is adequate to address our appetite.


Patti Morris
Chief Real Estate Officer
Wells Real Estate Funds

Wells Real Estate Funds believes in the core investment strategy and continues to invest in institutional-quality real estate, targeting Class A office and industrial buildings, with strong credit tenants diversified by industry and long-term leases.

We target primary and secondary markets and are particularly interested in cities with historical/expanding industries, such as the energy sector and technology industry. These cities typically have a well-educated workforce with solid secondary and post-graduate university systems. They have strong and improving infrastructure that includes public transportation and interstate systems, offering a quality lifestyle for young professionals. These markets are experiencing recovering market fundamentals, increased demand in office space, trending toward increased rental rates and growing returns for investors.

We certainly have seen these trends in the major coastal cities but are also seeing improvement in the larger inland cities such as Chicago and Denver, where we have recently completed transactions.


David Dowell
The Praedium Group

We prefer primary and secondary markets with barriers to entry and proven job drivers, a strategy that has only become more important. We see opportunities to buy into growth (multi-family) or buy at attractive discounts (distressed), in combination with value-add strategies to increase cash flows through capital investment and operational execution. We look for multi-family opportunities that have attractive cash-on-cash returns, are the most efficient asset class to finance, are highly liquid (even in secondary markets) and have strong leasing demand growth. We do not invest in tertiary markets.

Some examples of deals we transacted recently include the purchase of the Alexandria Portfolio.The Portfolio is just 14 miles outside Washington, D.C., and within three miles of the Franconia-Springfield and Van Dorn Metro stations, as well as several major interstates, including I-495, I-95 and I-395. It is located within the jurisdiction of the Kingstowne Residential Owners Corp., a master-planned community, and residents are zoned for the Fairfax County Public School System, one of the top school systems in Virginia. The area is also recognized as the most populous jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C., metro area and a major hub for economic activity.

The Residences at the Collection is located in the Carrollton submarket of Dallas, where REIS is projecting cumulative rent growth of 23.6 percent over the next five years. It is ideally located in close proximity to a number of neighborhood destinations and amenities, and is served by the Lewisville Independent School District, a preferred school district in northwest Dallas, and offers an easy commute to numerous Fortune 500 employers located in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

33 North is in San Rafael, Calif., in the affluent Marin County submarket, which has one of the highest median household income averages in the nation, as well as strong anti-development sentiment that has created severe supply constraints. The highest-quality asset in the area, the property is located directly off U.S. Route 101, and is only 15 miles from Downtown San Francisco. The property was acquired through a 363 Bankruptcy sale, at a significant discount to replacement cost and construction cost.


Indraneel Karlekar, Ph.D.
Executive Vice President & Chief Investment Strategis
Cole Real Estate Investments 

Regional patterns of economic growth have historically proven to be significant drivers of demand for commercial real estate. In the current economic cycle, industries exposed to technology and commodities are generating strong economic growth in certain regions of the country, strengthening those commercial real estate markets. Markets with exposure to technology-oriented industries—like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh and Boston; cities with exposure to commodity industries, such as Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City; or both, as in the case of Denver—could be strong performers.

These patterns are already beginning to surface: According to CBRE Group Inc., reported net asking office rents remained broadly unchanged in the first half of 2012 on a national basis, but they continued to register impressive growth in San Francisco (14 percent) and Denver (7 percent), and continued their positive trend in Houston (2 percent), Oklahoma City (2 percent) and Austin (1 percent). Meanwhile, Phoenix (-3 percent), which saw much of its pre-recession economic growth attributable to housing, continued to lag behind.


Rodney Richerson
Regional President
KBS Realty Advisors

We typically are looking at the major growth markets across the country for our core real estate investments with an eye on job growth, population growth, business growth and a variety of other indicators. We also operate an opportunity fund that has been very active securing value-add and opportunistic deals in markets that may not be at the top of our list for well-leased core investments. We will buy an underperforming asset in a tertiary market if the opportunity is right. We are a little hesitant to say which markets carry risk, because where there is risk there can also be great reward.

KBS has completed approximately $520 million in acquisition volume since January of this year, and we hope to double that by year-end. Some of the key transactions have included Bellevue Technology Center in Bellevue, Wash. (formerly QBE Corporate Campus); Martin’s Point, a 256-unit apartment community in Lombard, Ill.; Gateway Tech Center in Salt Lake City; Legacy Town Center in Plano, Texas; and Summit I & II in Reston, Va.