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Toronto to meet office demand In 2014

Commercial real estate prices soar in Canada's largest city, home to the world's highest number of high-rises under construction

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 4:59am

Toronto will add more prime office space in 2014 than almost any other city in the Americas as developers take advantage of low borrowing costs to meet demand from companies such as Google.

More than 1.59 million square feet of so-called triple-A space will be added in Toronto next year, according to data from Cushman & Wakefield, the world's largest closely held real estate brokerage firm. That's more than in New York and trails only Mexico City, Cushman said. Investments from pension funds and real estate investment trusts, as well as borrowing costs, in some cases more than 2 percentage points lower than in 2007, have helped fund development as well as acquisitions.

Rising demand led to a record high price for an office building in Canada when a group of pension funds paid C$749 (HK$5,800) a square foot for the Brookfield Place-TD Canada Trust Tower on Bay Street in December, according to RealNet Canada, a Canadian real estate data firm.

"It's expensive right now and this kind of office space should command a premium for the next few years until much more supply comes onto the market," Pierre Bergevin, chief executive officer of Cushman & Wakefield in Canada said. "The Toronto market, let's face it, is relatively closed."

Commercial real estate prices have been rising in Toronto as companies tap an urban workforce living among the 51 condominiums that have been built since 2009.

The city, home to the country's five biggest lenders, which control about 80 per cent of the nation's bank assets, has more high rises under construction than any other metropolis in the world. It's the second-largest North American financial services centre after New York.

Canada's reits and pension funds are taking advantage of low-cost funding to purchase and finance development of commercial real estate. Dundee reit and H&R reit bought Scotia Plaza, Canada's second-tallest office building, from Bank of Nova Scotia for a record C$1.27 billion in May.

Dundee said it financed the purchase in part with a C$650 million 3.45 per cent seven-year mortgage bond. By comparison, H&R, Dundee's partner in the deal, paid 5.66 per cent for 10 years of mortgage financing in September 2007. Toronto-based Dundee also raised C$300 million with an equity offering, adding to the US$5.12 billion that was raised by reits in 51 initial public offerings and secondary sales in Canada last year. The US$500 million raised from seven reit IPOs in 2012 was the most for any industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Real estate developers are also benefiting from a rebound in the commercial mortgage-backed security market. Brookfield Office Properties Canada raised C$525 million of bonds using the leases on the Bay Wellington Tower, adjacent to the Canada Trust Tower. The December deal was the second of 2012 and only the third since 2007, after the CMBS market slammed shut in 2008.

Ten glass-encased high-rise office towers are slated to open by the end of 2017, financed by pension funds, real estate investment trusts and private developers. RBC Waterpark Place, which will be the headquarters of Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada's consumer lending unit, is being developed by Oxford Properties and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the country's biggest pension fund.

The largest prime office tower opening in the next decade is the Richmond Adelaide Centre, also developed by Oxford Properties. The futuristic building will have Deloitte & Touche occupy some of its almost one million square feet. A smaller office block at 134 Peter St. is under development by Allied Properties reit.

There was no additional supply of class-A office space in 2012 and only 100,000 square feet is due this year, according to Cushman & Wakefield. That pushed Toronto's prime vacancy rate to 5.1 per cent last year, close to its 2000 record low of 3.4 per cent, according to the data. The vacancy rate will reach 7.6 per cent in 2014, Cushman said. New York's rate, at 7.2 per cent last year, will remain unchanged at 7.4 per cent in 2014. The city is adding 916,000 square feet of space in 2014.

Last year was a record for commercial sales transactions in Toronto. Investment in office, retail and industrial properties reached C$13 billion, up 73 per cent from 2009, according to RealNet data. About a third of that was office space. Total transactions were about 2,000 while the number of sales worth more than C$100 million reached a record 14 deals.

The most expensive deals are in the south core of the city. The Standard Life Tower at 121 King St. West sold for C$587 per square foot, or C$306 million, while the RBC Centre was C$495 per square foot, or C$300 million.

"What the area of the south financial district brings to the city of Toronto is the whole live, work, play environment," said Peter Menkes, president of the commercial and industrial division of closely held Menkes Development at One York's ground breaking in January. The developer is also part owner of the C$375 million building.

The communications industry, including Google Canada's marketing team, accounted for 16 percent of total tenants in Toronto for the past three years, according to data supplied by Cushman. The health of the country's banking sector has largely sustained this demand at 26 per cent of total tenants.

Google Canada and Coca-Cola are among companies moving closer to the Toronto core.

"It's about location, location, location and when we looked around, that's always at the top of our list," Chris O'Neill, managing director of Google Canada, said. Google moved to five floors of an office building one block away from the Exchange Tower, home to the Toronto Stock Exchange, in October.

The tech giant outgrew its previous office in the city and wanted to find somewhere even more central.