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LOS ANGELES-Lawyers and real developers alike lamented the increasing complexity of real estate law, industry leaders offered outlooks on market conditions, and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown drew a standing ovation for his lunchtime speech at the USC Law School Institute’s annual Benjamin S. Crocker Symposium on Real Estate Law and Business Thursday in Downtown Los Angeles.

Panelists including John Cushman, chairman of Cushman & Wakefield Inc., to Downtown Los Angeles developer Jim Thomas and a number of seasoned real estate attorneys called on real estate lawyers to simplify their legal documents and focus on executing deals rather than fixating on legal minutiae that delays deals. Thomas is a former real estate lawyer and the founder and CEO of Downtown LA-based Thomas Properties Group, which recently acquired the 2.7-million-sf Arco Towers in Downtown LA for $270 million.

Cushman, to illustrate how cumbersome real estate legal documents have become, told the audience how the first lease he ever negotiated as a broker–an office deal in New York City–consisted of only two pages.

Cushman and Thomas were among several dozen panelists and speakers throughout the day who addressed topics ranging from the outlook for the real estate industry to recommendations on how to improve attorney-client relationships to new developments in real estate law and techniques for structuring development projects. The panels also tackled a host of other topics, such as leasing, development opportunities in various industry sectors, managing environmental risk and navigating capital markets.

A morning panel that summarized market conditions included Jim Flynn, president of the Carson Cos., who told how his firm is gravitating away from manufacturing-type buildings and investing in warehouse properties because of what he called a “sea change” in the industrial sector that is reducing US demand for manufacturing buildings.

Brad Hillgren, president of Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group’s Western Region, called current conditions “a confusing time” in the real estate markets. He explained that real estate remains more popular than other types of investments because it is delivering better returns than other alternatives that are competing for investors’ dollars. Nonetheless, Hillgren said, real estate returns today are “anemic” in comparison with what they once were.

Oakland’s Brown, who has spearheaded redevelopment of that city’s downtown, spoke about the obstacles to revitalizing downtowns and the benefits to be gained. Brown, a Yale Law School graduate, also spiced his noontime speech at the Wilshire Grand Hotel with anecdotes about his two terms as California governor, poking fun at himself and other politicians as well as the lawyer-laden audience. He said the hurdles to developing in an urban environment are “not for the faint of heart” because of the controversy and risk that such developments generate. Those who set about to change downtowns must gather “a lot of political will and a lot of money,” he said, and expect to hear “a lot of howls of execration.”

Despite the difficulties, Brown told the audience downtown redevelopment can work in Los Angeles as it has elsewhere because a significant portion of the population likes the hustle and bustle and excitement and “rubbing of elbows and bumping into each other” that constitute city life. “I think the city is the place to be,” he concluded.

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