The bumpy ride that commercial property investors and developers have been enduring for two years may give way to a smoother path in 2023, but it will probably take until mid-year, according to experts who analyze the real estate sector.
”There’s a lot of capital available, and those in the industry who have it are going to be looking for places to invest it,” says Emeka Mayes, head of Canadian capital markets, brokerage, at Colliers Canada.
Experts are calling the new year a time of “price discovery,” as buyers and sellers try to sniff out what the market will bear. Ms. Mayes says that there’s cautious optimism that the year will go well for commercial real estate even though the Bank of Canada raised interest rates seven times in 2022, with more possible rate hikes to come.
“People will be looking to relatively low-risk strategies for buying and trading, rather than rolling the dice,” she explains.
Many investors holding capital are now putting their money into secondary “bridge” or “mezzanine” lending for developers who need more funds than the banks will now provide, Ms. Mayes explains.
“Historically, a developer may have gotten a loan of between 75 and 85 per cent of the cost of a project. In the current economy, the banks are putting in maybe 65 to 70 per cent. That means a developer has to come up with another 10 to 20 per cent, and there are groups of lenders popping up to provide this,” she says.
“Depending on who you borrow from, developers are looking at 8 or 9 per cent rates for this bridge financing,” she adds.
“People will be looking to relatively low-risk strategies for buying and trading, rather than rolling the dice.
— Emeka Mayes, head of Canadian capital markets, brokerage, at Colliers Canada
Repricing and recovery
Despite these escalating loan costs, Colliers’s 2023 Global Investor Outlook, released in early December, predicts that the worldwide real estate market will become more stable by mid-year than it has been since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020.
According to the report, “A recalibration of the global real estate market is under way, and we anticipate the stabilization to take hold [by] mid-2023. The velocity and timing of this stabilization, repricing and recovery will differ across markets and sectors.”
”You’re going to see a time lag between the projects that have been approved and when they actually start digging, because people are waiting to see what happens with the economy,” Ms. Mayes says.
A PwC assessment, Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2023, agrees that there’s both optimism and hesitation, reporting that while the changing environment in 2022 has been a shock for some, the long-term outlook for the Canadian real estate market is positive.
“Lenders … are making it harder for real estate companies to raise capital and move projects forward. This, in turn is leading to reduced competition for deals.”
It noted that many of the Canadian real estate companies interviewed for the report and surveyed in the summer of 2022 are predicting a pause in market activity as they watch how the current uncertainty plays out.
Even if the commercial real estate scene does smooth out buy the middle of 2023, the outlook won’t be equally smooth everywhere, the experts warn.
”Expect the unexpected. The factors influencing decision making are changing hourly and daily, not monthly or quarterly,” Colliers’s report says.
Industrial and office outlook
Nearly 20 per cent of the investors it surveyed said they simply “don’t know” where property values will land in 2023. For investors in retail, hospitality and rental housing, more than 30 per cent said they can’t predict yet whether their property values will be up or down.
In Canadian markets, “industrial real estate remains a best bet,” PwC says. Subcategories like warehousing, fulfilment, data centres and self-storage also rank high, among investment and development recommendations, it adds.
The market for life sciences buildings also looks promising and there may be a surge in multi-residential property, although in Ontario, the outlook for the latter might be hobbled amid a backlash against Premier Doug Ford’s controversial moves to allow building on the province’s greenbelt.
The office market remains a question mark too, as employers seek to encourage or compel home workers to come back, with mixed results. “Many office users are just sitting there and going ‘Let’s just see what the first half of 2023 looks like from a business perspective,” says Alan MacKenzie, chief executive officer of JLL Canada. “Let’s not over-force our work populations back to the office.”
The other big trends expected in commercial real estate for 2023 are that environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations will be taken more seriously than ever and that smart technology to monitor and control building functions is increasingly being deployed in commercial property.
”While some real estate companies are still figuring out their ESG and net-zero [carbon emission] strategies, the imperative to act quickly goes well beyond investor expectations,” PwC says. It notes that companies in Canada will soon face “climate disclosure” rules and regulations requiring public reporting of their buildings’ carbon footprints.
The trend toward smart tech is raising concerns too. New research released Dec. 6 from KPMG in Canada, which surveyed Canada’s 17 biggest real estate organizations, found that 80 per cent of these companies that use smart tech don’t monitor their networks or devices for cybersecurity threats.
“Smart building technology is commonplace and holds many benefits, but it also comes with risks,” says Tom Rothfischer, audit partner and national industry leader for KPMG in Canada’s building, construction, and real estate practice. “The reality is that most companies now find they are playing catch-up to seal the security gaps.”
Canada’s commercial real estate sector is striving to meet increasingly demanding environmental, social and governance standards, but the ESG is still greener on the other side of the world.
For example, experts say Canada is playing catch-up in the use of “green leases” – commercial tenancy agreements in which the landlord and the renter incorporate sustainability, socially responsible management and good governance into their property deals.
According to Tonya Lagrasta, vice-president and head of ESG for Colliers Canada in Toronto, “Canada is behind places such as the European Union. Many Canadian developers are moving ahead anyway – we’re seeing a shift – but the rules and regulations aren’t necessarily in place.”
“In North America we’re seeing more of a push toward stronger ESG standards coming from investors, while in Europe it comes more from regulation,” says Avis Devine, associate professor of real estate finance and sustainability at York University’s Schulich School of Business, in Toronto.
A study last year by Deloitte, Green Leases – in the ESG Context, found that the European Union Commission gave green leases and other ESG measures in the property sector a boost in December, 2019, when it adopted rules specifying what makes these measures green.
“In North America we’re seeing more of a push toward stronger ESG standards coming from investors, while in Europe it comes more from regulation.
— Avis Devine, associate professor, Schulich School of Business, York University
Lenders, developers and tenants can consider deals to be green if they include goals for climate change, protecting and conserving water and biodiversity (on the property), controlling and minimizing pollution and moving toward a circular economy that recycles and reuses materials.
According to the Deloitte report, research by Savills Investment Management found that 73 per cent of the world’s institutional investors expect green lease clauses to be incorporated universally between tenants and real estate investment managers by 2029.
In Canada, the experts say that major commercial developers, such as Oxford Properties, BentallGreenOak and Brookfield Asset Management, are typically ESG leaders. “These tend to be companies that have global assets, including those in places where the ESG rules are more developed than in Canada,” Ms. Lagrasta says.
Developers and institutional lenders in Canada were getting more serious about higher ESG standards before 2019, “but the pandemic set things back,” says Ryan Riordan, finance professor at Queen’s University’s Institute for Sustainable Finance, Smith School of Business, in Kingston.
On the other hand, COVID-19 gave real estate developers the opportunity to look more closely at environmental issues such as indoor air quality, Dr. Devine says.
There’s more interest than ever in commercial property ESG measures, but the challenge now is to make physical changes to buildings, Dr. Riordan says.
“We’re making strides on the construction side of ESG, but it takes a lot of time to retrofit and replace buildings with ones of higher standards,” he says.
Retrofitting is a daunting challenge but one that experts consider necessary because buildings contribute nearly 40 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions that are linked to the global climate emergency.
Canada and other countries are struggling to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century amid concern that if we don’t succeed, damage to the Earth will be beyond repair.
“We need to retrofit nearly all the standing dwellings in Canada, but we’re doing this at 1 per cent of them per year. If we don’t go faster, it will take about 70 years – we should be going three times as fast every year,” Dr. Devine says.
There’s also a strong business case for retrofitting old office buildings to make them more eco-friendly, Dr. Devine adds. It’s partly good marketing – white-collar employees are still only trickling back to offices in major Canadian cities, and when they do, they want to go back to good quality workplaces, she says.
“There’s a premium earned by environmentally certified buildings,” she explains. It shows up in better occupancy rates, more likely lease renewal and lower costs to finish off rehab work for tenants once the basic environmental work is done, she says.
“And after we account for higher rents or lower water costs, is there a market premium for being a leader in sustainability? Evidence says yes,” Dr. Devine adds.
A study by Smith’s Institute for Sustainable Financing, released in April, shows investing in carbon reduction “more than pays for itself in terms of avoided physical damage alone.”
The Physical Costs of Climate Change: A Canadian Perspective suggests the savings come even before “taking into account the potential economic benefits of transitioning to a low-carbon economy” for Canada’s entire GDP.
But green leases are only a small part of how commercial real estate developers are boosting their ESG credentials, Ms. Lagrasta says. “There’s more attention being paid now to the S [social benefit] and the G [governance],” she says.
Institutional investors are looking more holistically these days at potential risks, for example, the cost of urban sprawl and the potential financial benefits of diversity on corporate boards.
“There is deep corporate finance literature showing that we end up with better risk-balanced outcomes in our real estate [investments] if the management isn’t all male,” Dr. Devine explains.
As world leaders, diplomats and scientists continue to gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to debate climate change this week the people of Canada’s smallest province are already coping with the climate emergency’s damage.
Prince Edward Island is still shaking off the effects of Hurricane Fiona, which hit the island and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces with ferocious force on Sept. 23. Damage was extensive across Eastern Canada; on PEI, 95 per cent of the population was without power two days after the big storm.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada says that much damage to residential property was in high-risk areas and flood plains where insurance was not available. “As a result, the overwhelming majority [of the costs] for this disaster will be borne by government,” the bureau says. The provincial government announced some storm relief funds on Sept. 30 and proposed a record $1.1-billion, five-year capital budget on Nov. 2, focusing on infrastructure and climate change.
Insurable damage to PEI’s buildings and infrastructure has been estimated at $220-million. “The cost is still being compiled, but early indications point to close to half a billion dollars in damage,” says Vicki Tse, communications officer for PEI’s Emergency Measures Organization.
“There are holes in the roofs on hotels in Charlottetown. It’s hard enough to find someone who can fix the roof on your house, harder to get someone who can go up 10 storeys to do repairs.”
— Jacqueline Desroches, commercial sales and leasing, Colliers International in Charlottetown
Individual islanders were asked to pile up all their debris for pickup by provincial crews before Oct. 31. After that, pickup resumes in the spring, because crews need to get ready for winter, Ms. Tse says.
“Cleanup efforts can be expected to go well into 2023, and this will be supported by additional resources from other provinces,” she added.
One challenge is acquiring the concrete, steel and other building materials needed to rebuild as the resources go beyond what the province itself produces.
Getting these to the island is an obstacle, but the logistics are being managed, says Jacqueline Desroches, commercial sales and leasing representative at Colliers International in Charlottetown.
“Materials come by truck, via ferries and over the Confederation Bridge [which connects PEI and New Brunswick],” she says. “Both were out for a few days, but damage was relatively minimal and they’re up and running. There’s still a holdover of supply chain problems that started during the pandemic, but we’ve gotten used to those.”
Another of the biggest challenges to restoring PEI’s infrastructure after Fiona is finding people to do the work. “There are holes in the roofs on hotels in Charlottetown, for example. It’s hard enough to find someone who can fix the roof on your house, harder to get someone who can go up 10 storeys to do repairs,” Ms. Desroches says.
The biggest concern though, is that Fiona is a harbinger for a future filled with bigger, fiercer and more frequent storms. “This [storm damage] is a direct line to climate change,” said Dominic LeBlanc, federal minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and Infrastructure.
Climate change has loomed in the background as a long-term threat to Prince Edward Island for years, but Fiona has brought home the immediate severity of the threat.
On Nov. 2, PEI Premier Dennis King tabled the province’s capital budget, proposing to spend a record $1-billion focusing on infrastructure investment over the next five years, including $308-million in the coming year.
The five-year plan includes specific climate-related measures, such as $10-million to bolster eroding shorelines and boost defences against extreme weather, and funding to make the island’s school bus fleet fully electric by 2030.
Protecting PEI’s shoreline infrastructure is a long-term need. A provincial climate change risk assessment released in October, 2021, predicts that, “nearly all Islanders are likely to be directly or indirectly affected by coastal erosion in the future.”
It’s also an urgent need, as the province needs to get ready for next year’s tourists.
“The damage is unprecedented,” says Doug Dumais, community engagement assistant for Charlottetown. The $220-million toll compares with the record $500-million in revenues from tourism in 2019, before COVID-19.
As Canada’s smallest province – the Greater Toronto Area is 1.25 times as large in area – PEI arguably has more at stake than other locations in repairing and recovering its buildings and infrastructure as fast as it can. The island’s economy depends almost entirely on agriculture, fisheries and tourism, all of which got hit hard by the storm.
“Fall is usually a big month for golf on Prince Edward Island, and the courses were forced to close in October. If you’re a resort operator and you’re hosting a golf tourist package, you didn’t have anybody come,” Ms. Desroches said.
Getting ready for tourists is complicated by the needs of residents, she added. “The storm hit multi-unit apartment buildings hard, because the residential vacancy rate on Prince Edward Island is near zero and there were few places for displaced residents to go,” Ms. Desroches says.
As the island province continues to repair and rebuild, leaders meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are seeing if they can ratchet up measures to prevent more widespread disasters.
The outcome of their talks is uncertain; the world is already on track to miss the earlier-agreed upon target of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, and the consequences for islands like PEI that are barely above sea level will be severe.
“Some of the impacts of climate change could disrupt daily life and livelihoods on PEI,” the province’s climate report warned last year, predicting widespread damage and in some cases, some people having to relocate as the coastline surrenders to the sea. It has taken only a year for the prediction – and the cleanup – to materialize.
On a recent day this summer, visitors to Canada’s major malls may have been entertained by some of the most ambitious events ever produced at these shopping centres.
A Latin culture festival with live music and food kept Mississauga’s Square One patrons partying until midnight. At Toronto’s Yorkdale, fans of TV show Friends explored a 20,000-square-foot exhibit devoted to the sitcom. Bayshore Shopping Centre, in Ottawa, hosted an outdoor farmers market and, later that night, a free movie on a jumbo rooftop screen.
West Edmonton Mall, a leader of hosting mall events, featured a mini comic-con for kids, a mass fitness session, and a massive Soundwave electronica dance party featuring the world’s fourth-ranked DJ sensation, Steve Aoki. (With a ticket price of up to $130, the event was 80 per cent sold out.)
Owners can actually increase revenue by treating it as a production centre and charging rent not based on sales but on consumer impressions, just like a media platform charges for brand impressions.
— Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet
As many Canadian shopping malls leverage more and increasingly formidable events and attractions to draw foot traffic, the role of owners of these assets is evolving, says John Crombie, executive managing director of retail services at Cushman & Wakefield.
“The job of the mall landlord has now shifted to be more hospitality-based,” Mr. Crombie says.
“The concept of the mall is changing from a centre of transaction to a hub where community gathers,” Mr. Crombie says. “So, landlords require a greater understanding of that community and what it takes to engage it.”
Shopping centres across Canada were reinventing themselves prior to the pandemic, as expansive parking lots gave way to master-planned neighbourhoods dense with towers. The e-commerce revolution, which accelerated during the crisis – when online spending more than doubled in one month – has further reshaped the function of malls.
Doug Stephens, founder of Toronto-based consultancy Retail Prophet, says with shoppers able to buy virtually anything from the comfort of their couch, “the retail centre in and of itself is no longer a draw.”
Rather than focusing on building space and leasing space, he says, mall owners now have to think more like an entertainment business.
“And that’s not exactly an easy lift for many of them. It’s a different skill set and it’s going to require, in some cases, reaching out to partners or hiring people with event production abilities,” he says.
Mr. Stephens envisions a time when the Eaton Centre in Toronto teams up with concert producer Live Nation to host after-hour concerts “that might spill out onto Dundas Street.”
He suggests malls could take a cue from toy shop Camp in New York, where just 15 per cent of the floor space is for shopping.
“The other 8,500 square feet is a playground for children with admission charged for special events. So, at Camp, they’ve said, we’re in the business of not just selling toys but selling a toy-buying experience: totally different thing,” Mr. Stephens says. “And shopping-centre owners need to look at it that way, too. They have space and they have audience. There’s no reason why the experience needs to be restricted to people coming in to buy merchandise. That’s a narrow way of looking at it.”
Tenants want to see an event crowd at a mall even if it doesn’t translate into sales because they covet brand exposure, he adds.
He compares the mall to a television network, newspaper or other media platform: “It may be that the purpose of mall landlords now is to attract large numbers of visitors so they can simply be exposed to the brands under their roof – just like a TV network’s entertaining content brings in people to watch advertisements.”
Given today’s omnichannel retail environment, the postevent brand purchase then happens anywhere, any time, Mr. Stephens says.
“If a retailer is exposed to 20,000 consumers on a Saturday afternoon at Square One, what is the value of that to the brand? That’s the way shopping centres need to start thinking. Owners can actually increase revenue by treating it as a production centre and charging rent not based on sales but on consumer impressions, just like a media platform charges for brand impressions.”
Maria Holly, senior vice-president in charge of retail leasing at Shape Properties, owner of Metro Vancouver’s newly redeveloped Amazing Brentwood mall, says Shape’s event-focused marketing is a draw for prospective tenants.
“The brands we’ve secured want to be a part of the excitement” that events create, Ms. Holly says.
Shape Properties’ revitalization of the 28-acre mall includes 11 towers but also a one-acre outdoor plaza and stage, which this summer hosted weekend music festivals and 17 consecutive days of events.
“We built the plaza purposefully as part of our leasing scheme,” Ms. Holly says.
“People do want to get together and connect, and these events and attractions provide more reason to go to the centre.” And while attendance can calculate success, website traffic and social-media impressions are also measured, Ms. Holly says.
It all adds up to a lease rate of $70 per square foot, more than double the national mall average of $30 (according to Colliers), and a vacancy rate of 5 per cent, almost half the average Canadian mall rate (with all unleased space under negotiation, Ms. Holly says).
Event planning starts with tenant collaboration, Ms. Holly says. Her work with retailers on the mall’s 2023 marketing plan included receiving “inspiring feedback” from the tenants.
“The landlord-tenant relationship, the wall between it, has broken down,” Ms. Holly says. “We really need to work together to make both the Amazing Brentwood brand and the brands within it successful.”
Amazing Brentwood at times uses third-party event planners to assist with events. And in some cases, the mall’s retailers, aiming to promote their brand, become event partners. TD Bank sponsored the summer’s weekend festival series.
That connection led Ms. Holly to consider approaching the prestigious TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival to offer Amazing Brentwood’s plaza as a festival venue. “In the future, we’d like to become part of these bigger-known Vancouver events,” Ms. Holly says.
A cluster of office towers along Jasper Avenue was the commercial heart of Edmonton for a quarter of a century. But things have changed recently as new office towers are sprouting around Rogers Place, a few blocks to the north.
When major tenants moved to the newer buildings offering more amenities, some older Class A buildings ended up nearly vacant. In the core, vacancy rates were over 13 per cent before the pandemic and they now stand at around 18 per cent, with older A class buildings as high as 21 per cent.
As available space increases, we’re going to see landlords getting much more competitive to offer compelling rate structures but also investing in their buildings and lobbies.”
— Jon Ramscar, national managing director at CBRE
“We’re seeing a flight to quality, to new products that have state-of-the-art HVAC and mechanical systems, larger floor plates and offer lifestyle and amenity-rich environments and social hubs,” says Mark Hartum, principal with Avison Young in Edmonton. To stay competitive, landlords of older buildings are heavily investing in renovations that add collaborative space.
Flight to quality has gained momentum in cities across Canada in the wake of the pandemic, as tenants want amenities that attract workers accustomed to working from home back to the office, says Jon Ramscar, CBRE national managing director based in Toronto.
With vacancy rates at historic lows prepandemic, he says, landlords had less incentive to make investments in fully leased buildings.
“But as available space increases, we’re going to see landlords getting much more competitive to offer compelling rate structures but also investing in their buildings and lobbies,” he explains.
“Ventilation and touch-free surfaces are big asks because of the pandemic and most quality buildings have upgraded their filtration and air handling and made access points and fixtures in washrooms touch-free in the past two years,” he says.
But now features as simple as coffee houses and bike-storage facilities for those who commute by bike have become significant differentiators as potential tenants consider an office move.
State-of-the-art technology is essential as tech companies are the drivers of office demand seeking out new Class A buildings across North America, he adds. That’s also increasing demand for buildings to consider environmental, social and governance factors to achieve net zero, which will have a huge impact on future investments.
“The market was so tight for space before the pandemic that everyone could lease space no matter what space you had,” says Scott Watson, managing partner, acquisitions and leasing for Crown Realty Partners, whose portfolio includes 70 office buildings in Toronto and Ottawa. “But today when vacancies are in the high teens in many markets, it’s way more challenging,”
With supply outstripping demand, even normally competitive Toronto is seeing double-digit vacancy rates, he says. “The average tenant looks at four spaces before they commit to an office building. And when you look at the financial core of Toronto, there’s a lot more than four buildings competing. It’s tougher to stand out, so you have to offer unique amenities to be attractive.”
Prebuilding suites is a way to get ahead of the curve, Mr. Watson says, as tenants want fully move-in-ready space. Crown has been building suites on spec in its buildings with efficient layouts and new finishes and app-enabled conference centres.
“We want our office experience to feel fresh and inviting from the moment you enter our building doors to the time you sit down at your workspace,” he adds.
In the past, Crown’s prebuilt suites were seldom larger than 3,000 square feet. But “recently we’ve been increasing those sizes; we have one in construction right now that’s a 21,000-square-foot full floor at a cost of about $1.2-million, in the hopes of attracting a tenant and competing with new spaces that are out there.”
Reinvestment in buildings to keep them competitive will be essential even as the office market recovers, Mr. Hartum says. “The alternative is to compete on price alone, which is not ideal [because] if landlords don’t achieve enough economic rent, the result will be less capital available to reinvest in the building and its systems.
“Long term, this is not a good solution, and forces tenants to shop around and continue to empty out these older buildings. That isn’t healthy for the market as a whole.”
Edmonton landlords have been inventive and invested in rebuilds that are attracting new tenants to vacated buildings, he notes. An example is the 22-storey 103 Street Centre near Jasper, built in 1980. It saw most of its space vacated when Enbridge decided to consolidate its offices in a new building.
To bounce back, AIMCo/Epic Investment Services did a rebuild of 103 Street Centre aimed at the growing tech community in Edmonton. The lobby and second floor were connected by a “social staircase,” with bleacher-like seating for people to sit and have conversations or work on a laptop, along with a flexible presentation space for more than 100 people on the main floor.
Other additions include a conference centre, meeting rooms, tenant lounges, a games room and a kitchen and dining area. It’s been so attractive to new tech clients that the vacancy rate plummeted from 95 per cent to just 22 per cent, “which is still high, but it really has been a substantial turnaround,” Mr. Hartum says.
In another building known as First and Jasper, managed by GWL Realty Advisors, Avison Young has been engaged to handle project management of the main floor of the 20-storey building on Jasper Avenue which housed retail tenants that were struggling.
The space was rebuilt into tenant-focused amenities, including a lobby refresh, fitness and wellness centre, conference and meeting centre, parcel storage and concierge desk, Mr. Hartum says. The building is also pet friendly, which isn’t common in Edmonton, he adds.
The intent is to continue adding new tenants similar to the tech companies that recently joined the building, including Google DeepMind which is opening its first AI research labs outside of Britain.
Leasing interest picked up significantly across Canada as lockdowns have ended, “but we’re still on hold waiting for a lot of large organizations to commit to their longer-term office plans, whether it be renewing leases, reducing their space needs or even increasing their footprint to accommodate new amenities for the employees or business expansion,” Mr. Ramscar says.
Tenants who may have put space up for sublease during the pandemic are now holding on to it waiting to see how quickly workers return to the office.
“Leasing activity is expected to increase throughout the remainder of the year as occupiers make decisions on their office space,” Mr. Ramscar says, “and we fully anticipate a continued focus on the flight to quality.”