The Elephant in the Room – part 2

Port of Spain
Port of Spain

The recent announcements as to the upcoming completion of the ‘Government Campus Plaza’ offices in POS and the relocation of significant State agencies to central Trinidad are charged with meaning for the office sector. The previous article on this topic examined the huge quantity of State-owned incomplete office buildings in greater Port-of-Spain, the impact of that on the incomplete private office projects and the role of the ongoing process of decentralisation.  For the purposes of this discussion, greater POS is the area bounded by the sea to the South, the WestShore Clinic to the West, the Queen’s Park Savannah to the North and the Lady Young Road to the East. This is going to be a closer look at those aspects, so that we might discern how this issue is going to be settled. There are interlocking issues which have created the Elephant in the Room –

  1. the incomplete State offices, which will impact on the private office rental market as they are completed;
  2. the existing offices leased by the State, which need to be re-examined;
  3. the trend towards decentralisation, with its own profound implications.

To understand the issue requires the reconciliation of these large, seemingly-conflicting, elements.  The first is of course, the ‘sunk capital’ in terms of the State-owned, incomplete office buildings in POS.  The second is the existing leases the State holds from landlords of office space in POS.  The third element is the ongoing programme to relocate significant Ministries and State Agencies out of POS, generally to Central Trinidad.   I am also of the view that we need to enquire into the progress of the ongoing decentralisation process.  The details we need are – Which Ministries/State Agencies are to be relocated from POS?  What are the preferred locations for these offices?  What progress has been made on those relocations?   Has land been purchased/leased?  Has State land been allocated? Has a building been identified?  If a new building is to be constructed, what progress has been made in terms of project scoping, design, tendering and construction?  When are these new non-POS State offices anticipated to be occupied? The key enquiries in this matter would be –

  • State Leases

    We need to know exactly what offices the State is leasing and that info would include – the Ministry or State Agency in occupation; the addresses of the buildings; the size of the office space and its facilities; the number of carparking spaces; the rent paid; the service charge paid; the parties; the extent of the lease/tenancy agreement (when did the lease start and for how long was it agreed).  Apart from the info being presented in that type of detail for each rental, the overall picture will be instructive, as it will show the amount of space occupied  and at what cost. That information will in turn disclose the average (mean) rent per square foot paid.  Without details on the present arrangements for State offices, we cannot properly judge the alternatives.

  • Empty Buildings

    Alexandra PlaceAn additional enquiry has to be raised on the particular instances where the State is paying a rent for property which remains unoccupied.  The same details listed above need to be sought in those cases, but in addition, we need to be told why those properties are still unused.  A great concern was raised recently on #One Alexandra, which concern was mostly justified in my opinion, but the fact is that it is not the only one.  The public needs to be told the full extent to which the State pays rent for unoccupied offices.

  • Re-location progress

    On 2 April 2014, Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, gave some details in the Senate on these relocations –

    • Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training and some of its portfolio agencies are to be relocated to an ‘integrated administrative complex‘ 15-acre site north of the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size was given for the complex and construction was noted to have started in April 2014.
    • Ministry of Community Development is to be relocated to new offices at a 10-acre site near the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size or start-date was given for these offices.
    • Ministry of Food Production is considering relocating out of its long-established offices at St. Clair Circle, at the northern end of the Magnificent Seven strip, to either Chaguanas or Farm Road in Curepe.  That decision is pending.

    COSTATT2-595x340

    In the last week we have been told that the headquarters of COSTAATT, which is a part of UTT, is to be relocated from Melville Lane in POS to a location near the new Chaguanas Administrative Complex.   The main building occupied by COSTAATT is said to comprise 86,000sf, which is rented for $13.00psf – the total annual rent is $13.473M.  We were also told that COSTAATT’s POS operations require further rental space to the annual amount of $1.64M.  The new building is costing $168M inclusive of VAT, but no details were given as to its size or proposed completion date.  There are other relevant questions as to the convenience of the new location for students and faculty, but the fact that Chaguanas remains the fastest-expanding town in the country for the past 20 years is a part of that issue.

  • UDECOTT’s rollout

    governmentcampus
    Government Campus

    As per the previous article in this series, the State has built, but not completed, a total of 1,329,000sf of offices in POS.  According to Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, on 5 May 2014 –  “Cabinet has approved a sum of approximately $1.5 billion to complete the Government Campus buildings in downtown Port-of-Spain,” said Howai. Once this is completed in the next 12 months I expect that the OSH problems being complained of at the BIR will be a thing of the past.”

    That Cabinet approval equates to $1,129 per sq ft, which seems high unless one considers that a significant part of that money is stated to be for remedial works and not strictly for fittings and finishes. The impending completion of those offices will be a sea-change in the fortunes of POS, since their occupation will force the landlords who were renting to the State to seek other tenants. In my estimation at least half the rented offices in the capital are occupied by the State, so that office market is largely driven by the public sector.

    I have heard many colleagues attempting to rationalise the coming change by reference to OSHA requirements which require more office space allocated to each worker and therefore those requirements would ease the impact of the impending new offices.  Another rationalisation I have heard is the one about how some landlords would be leaving their places locked-up so they will not actually be offering those on the market, so there will be no real effect and so on.

All of those are coping mechanisms for dealing with the reality of change on an epic scale.  This is the Manning Plan, in full effect.  To quote the CEO of leading private sector office developer, RGM, Gerard Darcy, in a May 2013 interview  – “…The Government Campus is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room because it is too large to ignore…”.  I expect a significant adjustment in office rent levels in POS in the medium term. The financial sector, especially those who have expanded their loan portfolios on the basis of the property boom, will need to take careful stock of the extent to which these rapidly-approaching changes imply severely impaired assets.

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