Flagging demand for suburban office space noted

Liberty Property Trust, a Pennsylvania-based multinational real estate investment trust, has a potential buyer under contract to purchase the Mendenhall at Piedmont Centre office park in north High Point.

Major tenants of the office park include TransTech Pharma and PharmaCore.

Massie Flippin, vice president for the Carolinas region, discussed the trust’s growth strategy with business and civic leaders at the High Point Economic Development Corp. board of directors meeting today. Flippin said the publicly traded company decided about three years ago to focus on multi-tenant industrial parks and is exiting the office market in High Point, along with Greenville, SC.

Liberty Property Trust has no plans to sell its Eagle Hill Business Park in north High Point. Flippin said the company remains committed to the industrial real estate market, particularly on warehousing, along the Interstate 85 corridor between Raleigh and Greenville, and is planning for aggressive growth in Raleigh and Charlotte to meet consumer demand driven by robust population growth in those cities.

The economic downturn, technological changes and professional lifestyle preferences have all played a role in the company's decision to shed its office park properties.

Firstly, since the beginning of the recession companies have increased productivity while employing fewer workers. Secondly, more business is being transacted on smart phones.

“This is going to be the office of the future,” Flippin said, “this little handheld device.”

The third reason might give economic development and land-use planners in the Triad pause about the region’s low-density growth pattern and auto-dependent transportation infrastructure.

“The younger folks clearly want to be near light rail and retail,” Flippin said. “They want to be near a [central business district]. There’s not much demand for suburban office space.”

That disconnect is the focus of another group, the Piedmont Triad Sustainable Communities Planning Project, which is seeking public input on how to better coordinate jobs, housing and transportation in a series of meetings across the region over the next couple months. Among the convening organizations are the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation and the Piedmont Triad Partnership.

Flippin also raised a question about whether call centers will play as large a role in the region’s employment and economic development mix. Name-checking High Point City Manager Strib Boynton, Flippin alluded to the tax revenue local governments have gleaned from call centers, along with the rents collected by landlords.

“Strib and I, we’ve made a good living off call centers,” Flippin said, adding that younger workers don’t want to work in large call centers or at home, but rather prefer a flexible arrangement in which they can sometimes collaborate with peers but also have the option of working autonomously.

High Point City Councilman Chris Whitley, who chairs the body’s Planning, Economic Development and Information Technology Committee, said that last year the city increased incentives for companies that choose to locate downtown. He said the building inventory in the core city is too old for private developers to justify the expense of renovation, but that it might be economical to remove old structures and rebuild on Green Drive and Kivett Drive.

“I could envision the kind of residential, office and retail combination that you see in other cities,” he said.

In other news, High Point Economic Development Corp. President Loren Hill said Solstas Lab Partners has yet to make a decision on whether to expand in High Point. Before the city council voted unanimously last month to grant Solstas $500,000 in economic incentives, Chief Operating Officer Dr. Michael Hanbury evaded questions by council members about whether the expansion would take place in north High Point, the more prosperous end of town close to Greensboro and the airport, or in the central and southern parts of the city, which are comparatively depressed. Considering Hanbury’s reluctance to answer the question, elected officials likely understood that the expansion would be occurring at the north end.

Hill confirmed that today.

“They’ve got 90,000 square feet adjacent or very nearby their northern High Point facilities,” he said.

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