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NEWTON, MA-Meredith & Grew brought downtown to the suburbs in more ways than one yesterday, as the Boston-based real estate services firm sponsored a review of the industry’s performance over the normally torpid summer stretch, with a focus on the suburban sector. The event at a hotel just off Route 128 was delayed briefly thanks to a city-sized traffic jam fomented by an unanticipated paving project, but when invitees finally filled the function room, they were told little stands in the way of urban tenants and core-focused investors from exploring Greater Boston’s outer reaches.

Among those anticipating a migration is M&G’s Lisa Campoli, an EVP in the investment sales group who delivered an assessment of that arena’s local performance. Campoli, who just brokered the sale of Boston’s 30 Winter St. office building to Irish investors for nearly $350 per sf, told the audience “extraordinary fundamentals” should keep the appetite for other downtown CRE strong. Still, Campoli said she believes the desire for growth–and yield accretion–will lure city centric capital to invest in suburban locales, including foreign funds such as the buyers backed by Anglo Irish Bank that paid $30.2 million for 30 Winter St

“I happen to think it’s a just a matter of time before they make their way to the suburbs,” Campoli offered of that cross-border capital stack. This will occur, she says, even though foreign buyers have traditionally been reluctant to make such a foray, and have been practically non-existent outside Boston in 2007 despite being a major source of activity for office, hotel and retail investments inside city borders.

Campoli also joined M&G suburban broker James Elcock and keynote speaker Douglas Poutasse in predicting threats of a recession will not slow a regional recovery. That is especially true in top communities such as Waltham, said Elcock, where 70% of the suburban Boston’s 1.3 million sf of new office construction is concentrated, a cloister barely five minutes from the site of the M&G program. Although Elcock said developers may not reap quite as lofty a rental rate as they initially projected, the M&G EVP said he thinks the space “is going to get leased, and is going to get leased at the highest rents in the marketplace.”

That would be in the $31-to-$45 per sf range, Elcock reported, a level that has risen after a flurry of Cambridge tenants have gobbled up space throughout Route 128 Central. The average rate for class A space in the outer Interstate 495 belt runs $18 to $24 per sf, says M&G. As for the leasing pace, all but 140,000 sf of the 1.03 million sf absorbed to date in 2007 has been along Route 128, says M&G. That market now has an 18.4% vacancy, versus 24.8% for I-495. A more recently identified submarket, the so-called inner suburbs adjacent to Boston, has actually done a better job attracting tenants being priced out of downtown, Elcock also relayed. The vacancy rate of 8% is lowest among 10 submarkets, one that includes such communities as Brighton, Charlestown, Malden, Medford and Watertown.

The coming months should be critical for suburban Boston, Elcock said, with potential X factors including the prospect of sublease space coming available. But with M&G tracking 300 tenants sporting requirements of 13.5 million sf, Elcock said he believes the demand will be healthy. Of the eight biggest deals to date in 2007, five represented actual growth, Elcock noted, and nine of 10 suburban Boston firms who went public this year have said they will need additional space. “Clearly the market is improving,” Elcock said. “It is better today than it was a year ago, it is much better than it was two years ago, and that [trend] should continue.”

While flashing his credentials as a “proud pessimist” early and often to the audience, Poutasse was also upbeat about the region going forward. “I think we are in pretty good shape in the Boston market right now,” he said. Poutasse was critical of loose lending policies, but on a macro level says he believes the US office market as a whole has kept new supply in check, and is finally enjoying real returns after seeing values in recent years rise mostly on the wings of changing capitalization rates. “It’s back,” he said of NOI growth.

Poutasse, the executive director of the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries, did advise that the risk of a credit crunch “has risen dramatically” in a brief time period, but agreed with Campoli that alternative sources to the suddenly fallow CMBS sector should keep investment sales brisk. New England, he added, is especially attractive because the departure of residents to other parts of the country is beginning to ease, partly due to higher costs of living in those growth areas and tight unemployment rates making labor harder to secure.

The suburban investment market appears to be holding its own in Greater Boston, added Campoli. Although the debt crisis did require brokers to hustle in order to keep some deals together, Campoli said her experience has been one of few price adjustments and a continued ability to see the pacts through to completion. “Buyers are out there, lenders are out there, and deals are being consummated,” Campoli offered, citing such leading summer transactions as the $212-million sale of the Sun Microsystems campus in Burlington and the sale of Waltham’s Crown Colony Office Park, plus the just completed acquisition of the Westborough Office Park in Westborough by BPG Ltd. for $63.4 million, a sale first reported last week by GlobeSt.com.

As long as brokers are mindful of where the capital is coming from, investment sales should continue to get done through year-end, maintained Campoli. “We have a very deep buyer pool still out there,” she said, including pension funds and other institutional funds heretofore “left on the sidelines” by aggressive levered financial players who have been dunned the greatest by the debt tightening.

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