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ATLANTA-Wooed and courted by a dozen class A office towers Downtown and in the suburbs, the 600-lawyer Troutman Sanders law firm has chosen to remain in the central business district, signing a 13-year, 307,000-sf extension and expansion lease at the tallest office structure in the South, the 55-story, 1,023-foot tall, 1.3-million-sf Bank of America Plaza.

The deal, confirmed by the building’s owners, locally based Cousins Properties Inc. and Bank of America, ends a year of speculation on where Troutman Sanders would move to. The law firm’s current 15-year lease expires in 2007.

The deal also keeps Bank of America Plaza’s estimated occupancy at 100%, Downtown brokers tell GlobeSt.com. Cousins declined to estimate the aggregate value of the deal at the 12-year-old building. But office brokers in a position to know tell GlobeSt.com Troutman Sanders’ estimated effective rent is $28 per sf. That would place the aggregate value of the lease at $111 million and make it the largest class A office deal of its kind closed in the metro area in the past decade, according to brokers working the Downtown.

Officials at Cousins and Troutman Sanders couldn’t be reached by GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But local office brokers familiar with the deal say they are not surprised by Troutman Sanders’ decision to stay at Bank of America Plaza.

“This isn’t sour grapes just because I didn’t do the deal,” one broker who asked for anonymity tells GlobeSt.com, “but the Troutman law firm represents both Cousins and Bank of America in day-to-day legal services. It would be pretty tough for any tenant to break up such a lucrative relationship just over a few million” dollars.

Cousins Properties founder Tom Cousins, an icon of sorts in Georgia commercial real estate circles, has a close personal and social relationship with several of Troutman Sanders’ senior partners, another Downtown real estate lawyer not associated with the Bank of America Plaza lease tells GlobeSt.com.

Locally based Colliers Cauble Co. estimates average asking Downtown class A rent among 23 buildings consisting of 13 million sf at $21.06 per sf. Colliers Cauble puts the overall Downtown vacancy level at 17.1% and the class A vacancy mark at 17.5%. Overall, there is 2.3 million sf of vacant class A office space Downtown, the brokerage estimates.

Downtown brokers tell GlobeSt.com the Troutman Sanders lease is a major coup for Cousins and Bank of America, coming at a time when Atlantic Station’s new 21-story, 450,000-sf 171st Street Building in Midtown and other struggling office properties Downtown and in the affluent Buckhead district are fiercely competing with Downtown for credit-worthy tenants to fill half-empty buildings.

“We are both proud and pleased to keep one of Atlanta’s premier law firms at Atlanta’s premier office tower and extend our already wonderful business relationship with Troutman Sanders,” Cousins president and CEO Tom Bell says in a prepared statement.

The next leasing crisis for Cousins and Bank of America may come shortly as another lead tenant, Ernst & Young, decides if it will go or stay put in the 212,033 sf it leases at Bank of America, according to Downtown brokers. Ernest & Young’s lease expires in 2007.

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