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MCLEAN, VA-Government activity, a high rate of renewals and financial arrangements tailored to the times are all contributing to keep the Northern Virginia commercial real estate market afloat. So said moderators and panelists at RealShare’s Northern Virginia conference, held Monday, at the McLean Hilton.

Despite its proximity to the District, which is faring relatively well, NoVa is struggling: Northern Virginia’s vacancy rates, hovering around 13%, are in fact higher than the national average of 10%, according to opening comments by ALM/Real Estate Media Group editorial director John Salustri. Other metrics, from investment sales to new leases, are equally as dismal.

There is still plenty of pain ahead, panelists warned–starting with the ongoing deleveraging still underway at many banks and companies. Banks’ pretend and extend policies, for example, will only carry the industry so far, Doug Fleit, CEO of America’s Capital Partners, warns. “This is not something they are just blindly doing.” Even if a loan is underwater or a building underperforming, if the borrower has a good story about the asset–why it is a strong long term bet–bankers are willing to take the chance, as the bankers have little other options, he said. Increasingly, though, if they don’t see an exit strategy at all, they are opting to put the loan or asset out.

That said, a common underlying theme to the panels was that those elements that contributed to Northern Virginia’s rise as one of the strongest submarkets in the country still exist and slowly these pieces are being reassembled in preparation for 2010 and beyond. In short, 2010 will be the year when the region takes a deep breath and evaluates where it is after its year of making short-term decisions that were focused on mere survival.

For example, cap rates for office buildings in NoVA are currently averaging near the 10- to 15-year rolling average, according Cassidy & Pinkard Colliers’ Joe Stettinius. Renewals have been the lifeblood for most landlords in the area, he also said, averaging as high as 40%.

And, the federal government, as always, is maintaining a strong presence here, according to Bart Bush, regional commissioners of GSA’s Public Buildings Service. The agency has leased 3.5 million square feet in Northern Virginia this fiscal year–out of 8.4 million square in the DC area. Other leases are pending for NoVA, he added, with TriCare Medical’s one-million-square-foot deal still out on the street. GSA has also allocated $300 million worth of new local construction under the $5.5 billion it received as part of the stimulus, Bush added.

Landlords, tenants and lenders are also learning to collaborate more on credit events – whether they are new TIs or tenant decampments, said Fleit. “We are seeing more collaboration between the lender, sponsor and new capital for any capital need, such as TIs.”

Also for companies–particularly public ones that have been able to raise equity–now is a good time to buy, assuming the right assets can be sourced. Corporate Office Properties Trust’s Derrick Boegner says COPT plans on making $300 million in acquisitions next year.

More than likely, international investors will be making their presence felt here too, according to Jim Creedon, EVP with Vornado/Charles E. Smith. Earlier this summer the company sold its recently delivered 12-story, 250,000-square-foot office, 1999 K, to an international investor, Germany-based Deka Immobilian GmbH for $207.8 million. “I think the deal was an indication of how the international community looks at the DC area,” he said–including Northern Virginia.

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