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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

ORLANDO-The Pizzuti Cos. is making a contrarian development play within the city’s central business district, starting work on a new 150,000-square-foot class A office building at 777 N. Orange Ave. The Columbus, OH-based developer expects to open the 11-story structure in early 2011, during the anticipated economic recovery.

Additional details remain vague on the project, which has been a year in the making since Pizzuti began buying up parcels for its 2.5-acre tract at the southeast corner of North Orange Avenue and Park Lake Street, where it plans two future phases. The first building’s cost will be determined at a later date, with asking rents expected to be above the $25-per-square-foot average for Orlando office space.

“We are moving cautiously, but we are moving with conviction,” Scott Hall, Pizzuti’s senior vice president in Orlando, tells GlobeSt.com. He says there has been “significant” preleasing at the building, currently called 777 North Orange, though the developer would need advance signings for between 50% and 60% of the space in order to secure financing.

Marketing points for 777 North Orange include its prime location in Orlando’s Uptown District, near Interstate 4 and several upscale neighborhoods, as well as Pizzuti’s plans to achieve LEED certification for the building. Colliers Arnold is handling leasing for the project, which will include 10,000 square feet of ground-level retail space.

Hall says the successful leaseup of a neighboring office building at 801 N. Orange Ave., measuring 112,760 square feet in eight stories opening in 2006, was a strong motivator in Pizzuti’s decision to move forward with its own plans. He adds that now is possibly a better time than any to begin construction, since labor and material costs are lower than in recent years, and because other competing office projects proposed in Downtown Orlando have been either delayed or canceled.

Orlando is considered a good risk for new office space, given the area’s growing reputation as a center for technology and medical research, Hall observes. “Class A office in Downtown Orlando is still attractive to equity and institutional investors,” he says.

Ron Pizzuti, the company’s chairman and CEO, vowed to move quickly in building 777 North Orange after assembling the site over the past year. “We’re not in the land bank business,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re not going to sit on it. This is actually a good time to get this done.”

Orlando’s office vacancy rate appears to have held steady at 15% by the end of 2008, showing slight improvement in the final quarter, according to Cushman & Wakefield research. However, negative absorption for the year measured 1.2 million square feet, the worst total on record.

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