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The commercial real estate business is getting a powerful boost from around the globe. Investors from China, South Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries in particular are buying up premier American hotels, office towers and high-end retail outlets at a record pace.
NPR's Jackie Northam examines what's behind the real estate shopping spree.
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JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: I'm standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street here in midtown Manhattan. Across from me is the General Motors building. It's an enormous 50-story white marble building that takes up one whole city block. This is prime New York City real estate.
Across the street is the Plaza Hotel. The GM building is considered one of the most valuable office towers in the U.S. And in May, a large piece of it was bought up by a Chinese real estate developer.
That same developer, Soho China, already owns a significant stake in the Park Avenue Plaza. Other Chinese firms and investors are buying up notable properties across New York. But the buying isn't limited to just New York or Chinese investors, says Christopher Ludeman, who heads up Global Capital Markets at CBRE Group, which handled the GM building sale.
CHRISTOPHER LUDEMAN: We have a family out of Indonesia that just purchased the U.S. Bank building in Los Angeles for $385 million, within blocks of that you've got the Korean Air group that's just purchased a site in downtown Los Angeles on which they're going to build a large headquarters facility and you've got a site just south of that which would be pure ground-up development. And each of those instances are from different sources of Asian capital.
NORTHAM: From Florida to Illinois to Hawaii, the market is hot. Canada still buys more commercial real estate in the U.S. than any other nation. But China and other Asian nations are roaring up behind, says Dan Fasulo, the managing director of Real Capital Analytics, which studies these sorts of figures.
DAN FASULO: Foreign investment from Asian countries has totaled about $7 billion so far for commercial property in 2013. That's about a third of all activity. The total last year, oh wow, was $4.3 billion. So we've almost doubled already last year's activity.
NORTHAM: And Fasulo says, the Asian nations know what they want - postcard assets.
FASULO: Yes, a pretty picture that they can show around back home and everyone will know what they're looking at. We're talking trophy office towers in gateway cities. We're talking about luxury hotels, you know, Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue. Historically, that's what they've chased, is the more premier properties in prime locations.
NORTHAM: If you're thinking this real estate binge sounds familiar, you're right.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: New Yorkers woke this morning to headlines that one of their city's oldest landmarks has been sold to the Japanese...
NORTHAM: In the late 1980s, Japan went on a buying spree, scooping up everything from Rockefeller Center to Pebble Beach Golf Links at inflated prices. Many investors were hit with big losses when the real estate market crumbled a few years later. Today's investors may well take heed of the Japanese experience. But CBRE's Ludeman says Asian nations - investors flush with cash - want to diversify. And the U.S. looks pretty good.
LUDEMAN: They like our rule of law, they like the transparency associated with real estate information and they see the U.S. on a relative basis as being as strong or stronger than the strongest economies in the world.
NORTHAM: Ludeman says the capital is coming from big institutions like sovereign wealth funds and insurance companies, from ultra high net worth individuals or families and from development companies looking for long-term, ground-up projects.
One of those development companies found Mike Ghielmetti, the president of Signature Development Group. Ghielmetti had been desperately trying to get a stalled project off the ground in Oakland's Brooklyn Basin.
MIKE GHIELMETTI: A beautiful waterfront project, 65 acres in about 3.5 million square feet of mixed-use, you know, residential retail, marinas, parks, etcetera.
NORTHAM: Well, that's the vision. At the moment, Ghielmetti says it's a dilapidated post-industrial waterfront suffering from neglect. The project was caught up in litigation for several years, then came the economic crash. Ghielmetti unsuccessfully searched for investors here in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Then one day, Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan, put him in touch with Chinese investors. One of them, Weixun Shan, the chairman of Beijing Zarsion holding group, came to see the site.
GHIELMETTI: And it struck me that he was a real developer. So he loved the project, he toured several other cities around the country, came back and said this would be his first major investment in the U.S.
NORTHAM: The deal was worth $1.7 billion. Ghielmetti won't say what percentage Shan put in but says the Chinese investor is a true partner. Efforts to interview Shan - or many other Asian investors - were unsuccessful. Real estate analysts say they prefer to stay well below the radar screen for a variety of reasons. Ghielmetti says he's now scouting around for investors for several other projects.
Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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