Hospitality: Distress Calls Begin to Go Out

Big-name investors have swooped in on two high-profile commercial real-estate assets in a sign that activity is returning to the investment-property market.

Private-equity firm CIM Group has teamed up with New York developer Harry Macklowe to help him regain control of what is regarded as one of the most valuable vacant lots in the world, according to people familiar with the matter. The site of the old Drake Hotel, in Midtown Manhattan at Park Avenue and 56th Street, has been under the cloud of foreclosure for the past few months after the collapse of Mr. Macklowe’s empire.

In the other opportunistic move, private-equity giant Blackstone Group LP is making a grab for Highland Hospitality Corp., a real-estate investment trusts that owns 27 hotels. Highland has been struggling to restructure its $1.7 billion debt load amid the worst downturn for the hotel industry in decades.

Both Blackstone and the partnership of CIM and Mr. Macklowe are using a strategy that is expected to become increasingly popular this year: going after distressed commercial-property assets by buying debt or paying off creditors at a steep discount.

In the case of the Drake site, the partnership has signed a deal to pay off about 10 creditors that hold the $510 million loan the developer took out primarily to acquire the site. The creditors are getting paid as much as 90 cents on the dollar and as little as zero, the people with the knowledge of the matter said.

Deutsche Bank AG, which made the loan, sliced it into four tranches and then syndicated it to the investors. IStar Financial Inc. and Sorin Capital Management hold the senior-most slices of the debt and Realty Finance Corp., owns the junior-most piece. Representatives of Macklowe, CIM and the creditors declined to comment.

Meantime, Blackstone is aiming to control the restructuring Highland by buying a chunk of so-called mezzanine debt with a face value of about $320 million from Wachovia Corp. That piece of debt, in a key position between the equity and the first mortgage debt backed by the hotels, gives Blackstone a significant say in how any restructuring unfolds, people familiar with the matter said.

Blackstone also purchased the debt at a significant discount to its face value, according to a people familiar with the matter. Representatives at Blackstone and Wachovia declined comment.

Blackstone itself is trying to restructure the $20 billion in debt it took on when it bought hotel chain Hilton Worldwide Inc. in 2007 at the market peak.

The deals come as pressure builds in the commercial real-estate market with landlords struggling with rising vacancies, falling rents and heavy debt loads. According to Real Capital Analytics, a New York real-estate research firm, more than $160 billion of commercial properties in the U.S. are now in default, foreclosure or bankruptcy.

During most of 2009, opportunistic investors accumulated cash to go after distressed assets but there was very little deal activity primarily because lenders were unwilling to unload debt at distressed prices. But this year, more lenders are expected to take hits as the financing drought continues and rents and occupancy rates keep falling.

The amount of debt available for sale is skyrocketing. Many banks remain reluctant to sell at prices investors are demanding. But the government and servicers responsible for handling defaulted commercial mortgages that were packaged into bonds, known as commercial mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS, are emerging as big sellers.

Currently, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has about $30 billion in real-estate debt that had been held by the scores of banks that have failed since the economic downturn, according to the agency. CMBS servicers also are emerging as sellers because, unlike banks, they have limited flexibility to extend or restructure troubled loans. Carlton Group, a loan-sale adviser in New York, is currently marketing $307 million CMBS loans in one of the largest sales by a nongovernmental agency.

Private-equity funds, sovereign-wealth funds and other investors have accumulated billions of dollars in the hope of taking advantage of the carnage in the same way that investors did during the last real-estate downturn.

“This is the first inning in a nine-inning game,” said Keith Barket, head of the real-estate business at Angelo, Gordon & Co., a New York-based private-equity firm specializing in distressed investments. “It is going to take three to five years for the ownership of overleveraged properties to change hands to buyers with new equity.” Since last summer, Mr. Barket’s team has closed about a dozen transactions, totaling $500 million, where it acquired properties for about half of what they traded for two years ago.

Risks remain. The hotel industry continues to struggle although some analysts believe that a slight recovery may start later this year. Blackstone’s effort to control Highland, by buying mezzanine debt, hinges on its expectation that the chain is still worth more than its $900 million in senior debt. If that calculation is wrong, Highland’s senior creditors will likely wind up controlling the properties. The Highland portfolio, made up mostly of upscale hotels, includes the Hilton Boston Back Bay, the Renaissance Nashville and a Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta.

If the Drake deal closes in two weeks as expected, CIM and Mr. Macklowe will own what may be the world’s most valuable rubble-strewn lot, once the site of the Drake Hotel, which was built in 1926.

Mr. Macklowe bought and then demolished the hotel in 2007, intending to build a major office tower atop a base of high-end stores.



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