The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Commercial real estate is facing a do-or-die moment.

The realm of commercial real estate is wading through a quagmire in several significant markets throughout the nation, with grave declines in market value shadowing the low occupancy rates. Notably, some buildings are weathering a staggering 40%-60% devaluation, with landmarks like Chicago’s 300 W. Adams and Boston’s 1200 Crown Colony Drive seeing a precipitous drop of 80%-90% in market value.

Real estate companies are seemingly encased in amber, reluctant to revitalize their holdings with the infusion of new technology and intelligent amenities. Reasons vary, from the stark absence of capital to a misguided belief in the market’s cyclical nature—a belief that the dip is ephemeral, and a resurgence to pre-pandemic levels is just around the corner. Yet, such prognostications are proving myopic.

The unabated erosion of market values and the diminution in property worth suggest that we are witnessing not a fleeting downturn but a profound recalibration. A deluge of vacated spaces has precipitated a second wave, the “deluge of debt,” putting a strain on real estate and banking firms alike. More frequently, keys are being surrendered to lenders, as ownership becomes a game of pass-the-parcel with these “hot potatoes” that no one desires to hold.

The puzzle, however, lies in the lack of deep analysis of these faltering properties. Is there not a viable, cost-effective strategy to reinvigorate them into profitable ventures? In every portfolio lurks the potential for a “hot potato” and the dread of being the firm left in possession is palpable. These concealed liabilities are now emerging more conspicuously, from downtown districts to suburban office parks.

The realization that a building is a sinking ship should trigger aggressive strategies to offload the asset before it’s too late. Yet, many real estate entities are lagging, clinging to the anticipation of the market’s natural buoyancy that will elevate them out of troubled waters in the coming quarters. This assumption that a return to “business as usual” is on the horizon has held sway in the past, but the current reality defies such optimism.

The market’s steadfast departure from “business as usual” is not only reshaping portfolio landscapes but also affecting the banks and impacting the economic fabric of the cities in question.

Cities with inattentive leadership may find themselves blindsided by this growing concern. The impact on property tax-derived revenue streams, given the halving of market values, poses a grave question for municipal tax assessments.

Emerging technologies beckon as a beacon for tenants, yet they demand a supporting infrastructure capable of sustaining them. The “strategic triad” for 21st-century performance—power, pipes, and processing—must be entrenched in the building’s design to allure the new generation of tenants.

The requirements of cutting-edge GPU chips, essential for expansive AI operations, highlight a burgeoning need for power—a need that is beyond the reach of the current capabilities of many buildings and data centers. This urgent need for a reassessment is paralleled by the necessity for ample broadband connectivity; without it, a building is on a fast track to obsolescence.

In the final reckoning, a building that lacks the crucial three Ps—power, pipes, and processing power—in a redundant and robust system is destined to become an undesirable asset. As property owners and financial institutions scramble to offload these “hot potatoes,” the question lingers: who will be left holding the bag?

James Carlini is a strategist for mission critical networks, technology, and intelligent infrastructure. Since 1986, he has been president of Carlini and Associates. Besides being an author, keynote speaker, and strategic consultant on large mission critical networks including the planning and design for the Chicago 911 center, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor networks, and the international network for GLOBEX, he has served as an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University.