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ATLANTA-After weathering a rough 2008 without significant losses, locally based Cousins Properties Inc. says it is preparing for a challenging 2009 in terms of retail and office leasing. This year the REIT will see 10% of its office portfolio expire and expects rising vacancies with its retail properties.

The REIT’s retail portfolio vacancies rose 3% year over year, much of which was a result of Circuit City and Linens ‘N Things closings at several shopping centers. Retail accounts for 25% of the company’s portfolio, and same property results were down over 11% for the fourth quarter, and ended the year down 2%. Much of the decrease was chalked up to conservative reserves on tenant receivables by Jim Fleming, executive vice president and CFO, during this week’s earnings call. “While we hope we can recover some of these amounts in the future, they are indicative of the difficult economic environment in which we live today,” he said.

Despite the waning retail market, the REIT’s chairman and CEO Tom Bell called 2008 a “decent” year for Cousins. Overall, funds from operations totaled $61 million for the year ended Dec. 31, compared to $48.4 million for the same period in 2007, according to the REIT’s latest results. “We were able to sell a significant number of our assets during the boom and restructure our debt and credit facilities in early 2007,” said Bell. “As a result…we’re in a much better position than many real estate companies to deal with today’s downturn.”

However, Cousins is bracing for the hard work it will have to engage in this year as large blocks of office space in the Atlanta market will have to be re-tenanted. AT&T’s 139,000-square-foot lease at the American Cancer Society building at 250 Williams Street expires in September. An additional 22,000 square feet will expire this year at the company’s North Point Center in Alpharetta. Within the same submarket, AtheroGenics will shrink its lease from the entire 51,000 square foot building at 8995 Westside Parkway to only 15,000 square feet. In March, Cousins plans to start renovating the site in order to convert it to a multi-tenant property, Cameron Golden, Cousins’ director of investor relations and corporate communications, tells GlobeSt.com.

The REIT is confident that they can keep the office portfolio stabilized, especially with technology, law and consulting firms seeking space between 50,000 square feet and 100,000 square feet, revealed Bell during the earnings call.

Cousins is also keeping a positive attitude about its recently delivered condominium project–the 137-unit 10 Terminus in Atlanta. So far, only 13 units have been sold, with an additional 21 under contract, says Golden. Prices for the condos range from the mid $300,000′s to over $2 million. “While we believe this project will be profitable, in fact, recorded net gains on units sold in the third and fourth quarters, we expect to hold the units longer than originally planned because of current market conditions,” said Fleming.

Cousins had a total of $83 million in cash at the end of 2008, which it says is sufficient to fully fund development and capital expenditures through 2009. Executives at the REIT say they are on the look out for distressed opportunities, but have not yet found any that meet their standards.

“Nobody knows what the government is going to do so nobody is willing to do anything until they get some clear signals from the government,” Bell told analysts on Tuesday. “And since the signals have been changing about every 30 days, it’s hard for them to really commit to anything.”

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