Real Estate Round-up

Houston's $300 million skyscraper: The for-sale Heritage Plaza could reach that ceiling

Houston's $300 million skyscraper: The for-sale Heritage Plaza could reach that ceiling

The iconic Heritage Plaza building, the distinctive photographic centerpiece of numerous Houston skyline pictures, is for sale.

Recognized for the stepped granite feature at the top, which resembles a Mayan temple, the Heritage Plaza is attracting the interest of investors from around the world.

The sale is going to be a huge deal, one of the biggest in years. And this transaction comes with this lasting message: Houston is no longer the redlined pariah of real estate investing.

Heritage Plaza’s Mayan temple resemblance is no coincidence. The downtown building, designed by M. Nasr & Partners, was actually conceived after the architect visited the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The unique tower is constantly showcased in "B-roll” footage in broadcasts of the Super Bowl and during time-outs of other Houston sporting events, in addition to frequent exposure in skyline photos for the Greater Houston Partnership and the like.

The 53-story building has been a great investment for the current owners. But Heritage Plaza got off to a very rocky start in the 1980s when it was built.

The 1.2 million-square-foot building, 1111 Bagby in downtown, was completed in 1987, just as Houston’s office market was in the midst of its worst bloodbath ever. Vacancies hit record levels. Scads of Houston buildings slid into foreclosure. And Heritage Plaza did not survive unscathed.

The developers of the Heritage Plaza building filed for bankruptcy and years after its completion the building still had one million square feet of vacant space, earning the tower the distinction of being the emptiest building in Houston.

And the news was quite interesting as investment deals go. At one time a Saudi prince owned the building and he tried unsuccessfully to barter his stake in Heritage Plaza for ownership of one-third of the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. A series of ownership changes occurred before Heritage Plaza was purchased in 2005 for about $130 million by a group led by Goddard Investment Group of Atlanta.

Goddard made a great buy. The firm should more than double its money.

Money, money, money

The building could sell for more than $300 million, according to Allied Advisors’ Richard H. Rudd, who handled the sale of the building five years ago.

Major institutional investors and foreign buyers are seriously evaluating Heritage Plaza, Rudd said.

Eastdil Secured, a major New York real estate investment banker, is organizing the sale of Heritage Plaza, quietly marketing it to institutions and major offshore buyers. 

A few years ago, it was a challenge to get institutional investors to consider making large real estate investments in Houston, says real estate finance expert Bernard Branca, a director in CB Richard Ellis’ capital markets unit. Today, things have changed and institutional investors, including life insurance companies, want to be in Houston, Branca says.

The institutional investors have realized that Houston has not been vastly overbuilt and the foreclosure activity has been mild compared to some cities, Branca says.

Of course, the institutional investors are picky. A project must have a price tag of at least $10 million to be considered as an acquisition target in their investment-grade portfolios.

“The perception of Houston as a place to invest has improved dramatically in the last five years,” Rudd says. “There are a lot of people bullish on Houston.”

A new Bayou perspective

In years past, Houston’s economy had been written off as an oil town that was too susceptible to big busts. The economic crash of the 1980s tainted Houston as a disaster zone of commercial real estate for almost two decades.

Of course, even though the perceptions have changed, the deals haven’t been happening often in Houston in the last year.

One key reason for that, Rudd says, is that few Houston building owners have been in distress so they weren’t forced to sell in order to avoid foreclosure, which happened in many other cities. Houston has not been a big market for vulture buyers in the last couple of years.

Goddard Investment Group will do very well with its Heritage Plaza investment. One thing pushing the sales price up is the building has had strong leasing in the last few years. When the building was purchased in 2005 for $130 million, it was only 40-percent occupied. But some big tenants have signed on — the Deloitte Touche accounting firm and EOG Resources — and Heritage Plaza is 80-percent leased now.

Heritage Plaza has been symbolic of a lot of things for Houston. It was once known as the emptiest skyscraper in Houston in the hard times of the 1980s. Its design has made it an icon of Houston’s skyline. Maybe in the future, Heritage Plaza can become a symbol of Houston being a good place for real estate investment — especially when news gets out that Goddard hit a grand slam home run by selling it for $300 million.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of RealtyNewsReport.com.

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Heritage Plaza, one of the most distinctive buildings on Houston's skyline, is expected to sell for $300 million. Photo by Ralph Bivins
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The top of the 53-story Heritage Plaza building was patterned after a Mayan temple. Photo by Ralph Bivins
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Heritage Plaza is expected to bring a handsome profit to its owners, Goddard Investment Group of Atlanta.
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Heritage Plaza is attracting interest from investors around the world. Photo by Ralph Bivins