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BOSTON-After 29 years, there will be no more annual “Meredith & Grew Trends in the Real Estate Market” seminars. That’s because the venerable real estate services company used yesterday’s event to announce its new moniker as “Colliers Meredith & Grew,” resolving uncertainty over the long-term impacts from its merger last September with the Canadian-based owners of Colliers International USA.

“We are confident that the Colliers platform will pay big dividends to our clients,” Hynes insisted in his opening remarks before several hundred gathered at the Marriott Copley Place for the afternoon program, one that has emerged as the Boston commercial real estate industry’s version of a commencement address for the coming year. Yesterday’s seminar offered the typical review of market activity and forecast for 2008 accentuated by a heavy hitting guest, in this case former US Commerce Secretary William Daley. The scion of late Chicago Mayor Richard Daley joins an impressive list of past speakers at the event, among them Fidelity Investments chairman Edward C. Johnson III, MIT president Charles M. Vest and author Tom Wolfe. Industry icons speaking have ranged from Alan Leventhal and Edward Linde to Michael Fascitelli, Gerald Hines and Samuel Zell.

M&G’s sale of an 80% interest to FirstService Corp. of Toronto last September was a monumental occurrence for a region that has seen many of its old-line firms disappear as national and international players have descended upon New England’s commercial real estate scene. The Boston office of Colliers became disengaged when former affiliate Spaulding & Slye was bought out by Jones Lang LaSalle two years ago, giving the international real estate network no branch in the city where it is headquartered. The new arrangement ends that omission, while Hynes says M&G benefits by hooking into one of the world’s largest real estate networks, a footprint featuring 267 offices in 57 countries. Unlike Spaulding & Slye, the M&G brand that dates to 1875 survives the changeover. Ironically, the announcement comes the same week that Newmark Knight Frank confirmed it has bought the Codman Co., another Boston real estate company whose roots date to the 1870s.

Besides unveiling the rebranding, Colliers M&G professionals delivered an assessment of various sectors including leasing and property sales. Most of the reviews reflected the rough ending to 2007 and challenges going forward from the subprime mortgage crisis and related debt crunch. Colliers M&G president Kevin Phelan, an expert on commercial lending, predicted that uncertainty will continue in the early going of 2008, with CMBS issuance likely to be spotty. EVP David Douvadjian concurred, estimating that the $300 billion of CMBS issued in 2007 could dwindle to 20% of that level this year. Any CMBS rebound will come late, he opined, citing banks and life insurers as the most reliable sources of debt until that recovery.

For whatever money is available, terms are likely to be restrictive, Douvadjian said, noting that lenders are dropping LTV levels, eliminating interest-only loans, and requiring greater documentation. “It seems like we’ve come full circle,” he said. A good motto for borrowers, he offered, is “in 2008, don’t hesitate,” especially given a penchant among life insurers to run out of money by the fourth quarter. Even so, Douvadjian said, “deals are getting done,” with capital still plentiful for certain product types. Investment sales specialist Lisa Campoli agreed, citing multifamily and retail as having the least capitalization rate compression. “There are plenty of folks who are interested in buying in today’s market,” she said, with core product and deals $50 million and under likely to see the most activity. Overseas players are also targeting the US, explained Campoli, and Boston is among the favorite destinations for those funds.

Even so, Campoli acceded that the investment sales world is markedly different than it was a year ago. The thought of a recession “is a real fear,” she said, and the lack of debt is making it hard for leveraged buyers to operate. Many owners are entertaining a possible sale, but Campoli said there is “another camp” that feels the real estate market is sufficiently vibrant enough that they do not need to test a market leaning back in favor of the buyers. Bottom-feeding will be limited as a result, and Campoli indicated she does expect a sharp decline in property sales overall in 2008 despite interest in certain sections such as Downtown Boston and Cambridge.

Fundamentally speaking, Greater Boston had a strong year across the boards from Downtown, Cambridge and the suburbs, reported M&G professionals Ronald Perry, Joseph Flaherty and James Elcock, respectively. The head of the Downtown team, Perry reported an 8.7% vacancy rate for the 57 million sf Boston market, well below the peak of 16.7% seen in 2004. Blackstone Group’s buyout of Equity Office Properties was among the milestones of 2007, he noted, and that firm’s dominating presence coupled with dwindling supply helped spike office rents dramatically. Rents are rising across all spectrums, but the rate fluctuates between class B and class A tower space, Perry said, ranging from $35 to $75 per sf, while a few small deals are scraping the $100 per sf level rarely if ever seen in Boston. A more moderate rise of 5% to 10% rise is seen for 2008, Perry says.

Across the river in Cambridge, office and laboratory activity was especially brisk to begin the year but tapered off in the third and fourth quarters, according to Flaherty. New lab supply pushed the vacancy rate up to 13.7%, while large blocks of office space became virtually non-existent. Rents and other factors sparked tenants to migrate out to the suburbs from Cambridge to the tune of 550,000 sf and eight major defections, said Flaherty. More departures are expected, but Cambridge’s strength as a global business address offers hope that demand will keep landlords busy, he said.

Suburban Boston also had a solid 2007, said Elcock, particularly for Route 128 Northwest and Interstate 495 North. Some 4.2 million sf of net absorption was recorded for the year in the suburbs, he said, and rental rates grew substantially in top markets such as Waltham. Businesses are keeping an eye on the US economy, said Elcock, and there have been some examples of sublease activity on the rise, but overall the EVP offered a bright outlook. “We are well-poised for a balanced year,” he said.

The retail arena was battered by a harsh holiday season, industry specialist Ted Chryssicas reported in his remarks, but he said there were bright spots locally. Among them was the opening of the high-end Natick Collection complex in suburban Boston and the repositioning of Linden Square in Wellesley. A major retail component is being added to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, and Chryssicas said there is evidence international shoppers are flooding Boston to take advantage of the weak dollar. Colliers M&G even provided its own economic stimulus plan, with Chryssicas announcing to the audience there were 10 gift cards for outdoor retailer REI hidden under random seats. “Go out and spend, spend, spend and boost the economy,” he implored the lucky winners.

In his diverse remarks that closed out the program, Daley discussed global economic trends and the impact a US recession would have on the world, lobbied for a resolution of the immigration impasse–”a serious problem,” he stressed–and gave insights into the presidential election while revealing his role advising surging US Sen. Barack Obama. Daley also praised the proposed stimulus package coming out of Congress but lobbied audience members to provide for the less fortunate on a consistent basis, an exhortation in keeping with his current role as chief of corporate giving for JP Morgan. The disparity of income is a daunting issue, Daley warned. “We cannot allow that to fester in our country,” he said of the dwindling middle class.

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