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In 2003, the typical sale and lease activity took a backseat to the intrigue playing out in the C-suites of some of the industry’s most notable real estate services firms. And that’s saying something considering the transactional news of the year.

One of those was the $1.4-billion sale of Manhattan’s GM Building to Macklowe Properties, the deal that would become the poster-child for high-ticket office sales in months to come. It overshadowed, but not by much, the news that the New York Times was relocating to new digs on Eighth Ave. This was also the year when Trizec reversed its decision on Sears Tower in Chicago (see our 2002 coverage), shedding its second mortgage for $9 million to MetLife, which would flip the asset in a few months.

With New York City already on record with its interest in the 2012 Olympics (see our 2001 coverage), London followed suit in the early days of 2003, as GlobeSt.com reported. Ahead of the curve with its Olympics hopes, the Big Apple played catch-up in its Downtown growth trajectory as major firms began to look again at the benefits of Lower Manhattan tenancies. Nasdaq, for one, opted to stay, reupping for 80,000 sf at One Liberty Plaza. Amex also expressed its confidence in Downtown, taking 70,000 sf at Three World Financial.

Nationwide, hope in general was starting to return as an increasing number of developers started rolling out some mega-project proposals. A 1.2-million-sf Pru/TMW joint venture in Atlanta was typical of the newfound expansiveness, as was the total of $1 billion in retail builds slated for Orlando and the $320 million in affordable housing proposed for Virginia.

General Growth, meanwhile, was cranking up a strategy for $525 million in new growth. This was also the year that saw Wells stepping up its buying effort and in doing so, became the standard-bearer for the new age of aggressive investors. Capturing the market mood, another story captured the ever-more intense investment climate, a climate wherein major buys would be made despite the fundamentals that traditionally justified acquisitions.

In terms of lease deals, law firms, always hungry tenants, snapped up some major Manhattan space at Times Square Tower (originally slotted for scandalized Arthur Andersen). But not all of the news from the leasing front was positive. While WorldCom was still hanging on, the scent was in the wind, and in March, the beleaguered firm prepped for a give-back of as much as 120,000 sf in Westchester assets. It would only be the beginning, and in July, its Washington, DC headquarters would be sold as part of its bankruptcy bid.

Now for the intrigue. As the M&A drums began beating faster around Insignia/ESG, the plot thickened briefly as Carl Icahn attempted to trump CB Richard Ellis in its bid for the Manhattan-based services firm. Despite that gambit, we would learn in late July that CBRE would emerge the winner.

Meanwhile, Taubman Centers was fighting a bloody takeover attempt, this one by Simon Property Group. In mid-February, the Detroit-based REIT launched a $100-million share buyback program.

Freddie Mac came under scrutiny as early as June of the year. That was when the SEC launched an investigation of practices within the multifamily mortgage financier. And while SEC snooped around Freddie, the National Association of Securities Dealers knocked on Wells’ doors to question management on its broker-reward practices. Wells neither admitted nor denied the allegations.

Another mid-May operational transaction would foreshadow a major shift in global real estate. That was when Lend Lease shed its Housing and Community Investment business, selling it to Municipal Mortgage & Equity LLC for $102 million. On May 29, GlobeSt.com broke the story of Lend Lease’s exit from the US market, and the management buyout of Holiday Fenoglio Fowler.

Grubb & Ellis was fighting some internal battles as well. Brokers there were said to be mounting an effort to revert the firm back to its transactional roots, an uprising management denied. Post Properties also found itself in legal battles with former chairman John A. Williams, who was pitted against a new set of directors for control of the firm.

Some structural changes made news because of sheer size rather than drama. Such was the case in Preit’s late-spring buy of Crown American Realty Trust, which tipped the scales at $1.3 billion. And a relatively easy transition came to American Financial Realty, which launched its $550-million-plus midyear IPO. Ditto Prime Retail’s $638-million acquisition by Lightstone Group, and the creation of Hines REIT in October, which was expected to garner the firm $2 billion in equity through a two-year offer.

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