Despite all of the change from the Covid-19 pandemic this year, Cousins Properties feels steadfast about its investment philosophy: buying Class A commercial real estate in urban markets in the Sunbelt.
The REIT, one of Charlotte’s most prolific center city landlords, this week acquired The RailYard, a two-building mixed-use development by Beacon Properties with about 330,000 square feet of office and retail space.
The $201 million sale was a record breaker and follows another high-profile deal Cousins closed last month, across South Tryon Street from The RailYard. It purchased the building at 200 E. Bland St., which contains venues like All American Pub and Slate Charlotte, and two adjacent parking lots for $28.1 million.
At The RailYard, the credit quality of the office tenants, which include EY and Allstate Corp., was very compelling, said Mark Holoman, managing director of Cousins’ Charlotte office. The office space is fully leased and the ground-floor retail space, slightly more than 32,000 square feet, is mostly occupied.
“We’ve had an eye on this asset since Beacon came out of the ground with it,” Holoman said.
Cousins has retained the leasing team, which includes Charles Thrift at Thrift Commercial Real Estate, for the remaining retail space. No changes are planned at the buildings, and the office tenants generally have significant lease term left.
Cousins is planning up to 700,000 square feet of mixed-use development on the Bland Street site it purchased — steps away from The RailYard’s front door. Holoman declined to comment further on that project, which will be called South End Station.
Through investment, ground-up development and mergers and acquisitions, Cousins has over the years become a big player in Charlotte commercial real estate. It’s built several office properties here — most recently, the 282,000-square-foot Dimensional Place building in South End.
When Cousins merged with Parkway Properties in 2016, Charlotte became one of company’s largest markets as it took ownership of Hearst Tower and NASCAR Plaza in uptown.
Then, last year, it merged with TIER REIT, adding the 891,000-square-foot Bank of America Plaza building at Trade and Tryon streets to its portfolio.
Cousins has since unloaded some properties, most notably Hearst Tower — now Truist Center — which it sold for $456 million to the bank in March. It also sold its ownership interest at Gateway Village on West Trade Street, which it developed, to Bank of America Corp.
Following those sales and the purchase of The RailYard, Cousins currently owns slightly more than 2.5 million square feet in Charlotte.
Also this year, it acquired BB&T Center’s 11-story parking deck for $85 million. It was a move meant to bolster nearby Bank of America Plaza’s parking ratio, which will have a big vacancy as BofA exits the building at year’s end.
Cousins is very much a central business district landlord, with all of its holdings here in uptown and South End. Despite the pandemic and questions around CBD commercial real estate’s future, Holoman said Cousins continues to be bullish on downtowns, including Charlotte’s.
“We think when major employers return, all of the vibrancy and energy and excitement of uptown that makes uptown what it is … is going to be back,” Holoman said. “We really believe in the center city, whether it’s uptown or South End, (and) we think companies are going to continue to choose Charlotte.”
The pandemic has made everyone think about what they’re doing and investing in, he continued. But Cousins is a long-term buyer, developer and holder, and The RailYard fit into its investment philosophy, he said.
Holoman didn’t comment when asked if Cousins is buying any other properties in the CBD. He said the company is always looking for opportunities.
At Bank of America Plaza, more than 200,000 square feet will be up for lease in the new year. Holoman said Cousins is working through rebranding for the building. During its ownership, TIER REIT spent more than $25 million refreshing the tower’s ground floor and adding retail space.
In a recent earnings call, a Cousins executive said tenants seeking up to five floors have toured the building, and a partial-floor tenant has so far signed on. Holoman wouldn’t disclose specifics around leasing.
“We think it’s a good opportunity, a large block of space right in the heart of uptown with a bolstered parking asset,” Holoman said. “That, for us, is a pretty unique and exciting opportunity for leasing.”
Next year, Cousins may also sell its 50% ownership stake at Dimensional Place to Dimensional Fund Advisors, the building’s occupier. Dimensional Place was the first Class A office building to deliver in South End, which has since become a corporate hotspot.
Despite being a large real estate investment trust that is based out of town, Holoman said the company’s goal is to be local and hands on in all of its markets.
“We want to be nimble and aware of as many opportunities as we can be,” he continued. “I think (The RailYard and Bland Street) are two good examples of that, of being focused and going after the right assets.”