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Dublin's Office Market Shaken: Navigating a Tech Retreat and ESG Challenges


Leo Gonzalez

April 9, 2024 - 04:19 am


Green Building Hopes Dimmed as Dublin Office Market Reels from Tech Scaleback

Dublin, once a bustling hub teeming with the expansion of tech giants like Alphabet Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc., is now a city sending a stark warning to the international office market. Landlords who once bet on high rents and values for new buildings endowed with sustainable accreditations are waking up to a market awash with challenges.

Dublin Office Market

A Precarious Future for Office Spaces

In Dublin's North Docks district, a region once buoyant with expectations for high returns, properties are now plummeting into a state of financial distress. This comes on the heels of American technology companies scaling back their real estate footprints and a concurrent rise in borrowing costs. According to market professionals and brokers, property values have significantly deteriorated, nosediving by as much as 40% to 50% from their zenith.

The splintering valuations hark back to a dark chapter from the previous decade—a time when the skeletal structure of Anglo Irish Bank's intended headquarters loomed unfinished, a concrete emblem of economic wreckage.

Subsequent years witnessed an economic uptick in Ireland, propelled in part by the tech industry's burgeoning demand for workspace, which spurred a development frenzy to accommodate this skyrocketing appetite. However, as these tech behemoths now pivot towards stringent cost-saving measures after a surge of recruitment during the pandemic, the once-reliable stream of demand has begun to wane.

Tech Sector's Remote Advantage—A Double-Edged Sword

"Due to the pandemic, the tech industry entrenched a culture of remote working more than many other sectors," explains Sue Munden, a senior research analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Therefore, she suggests, tech hubs like Dublin may be particularly exposed to the vagaries of the industry's shifting space requirements.

Troubled Waters Along the Docks

The docklands of Dublin, transformed over recent years from an economically challenged quarter to a bustling nexus of businesses and residences, are showing signs of property distress, particularly in the North Docks area. The information pointing to these troublesome times stems from confidential discussions with over ten investors, asset managers, and brokers.

Even seasoned players in the market are feeling the heat. Veteran developer Johnny Ronan has witnessed a consensual restructuring process for several of his assets, including an office block in the North Docks, in the latter part of 2023. Ronan, maintaining silence over the issue, offered no comment.

Pacific Investment Management Co. (Pimco) has stepped in as a receiver for a project in the North Docks that had been developed by a collaboration that included the National Asset Management Agency—the country's bad bank. Brokers with intimate knowledge of the matter speculate that the sales price could fall below the €120 million ($130 million) senior debt financed by Pimco. In an atmosphere marred by the encroaching troubles, both Nama and Pimco decided against making any comment.

To add to the distress, a building leased to Meta in the same area was overtaken by a creditor last year. Moreover, burgeoning expectations are that more recently-constructed buildings will succumb to receiverships in the ensuing months. These developments are not isolated incidents of decline; they are indicative of a broader global downturn affecting commercial real estate markets from high-profile urban hubs like New York, London, and Hong Kong.

Banks Brace for Impact

On Dublin's office-leasing front, the first quarter has seen activity plummet to the lowest levels in 10 years, not accounting for the period impacted by the pandemic. Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. reports this downturn vividly. Despite the ominous clouds, Gabriel Makhlouf, Ireland's central bank governor, has expressed confidence in the resiliency of the system to withstand the falling valuations, as per comments made earlier this year.

One silver lining to the current situation is that the repercussions for Irish banks could be considerably milder than the serious blows experienced back in 2008. Today's loans, in contrast to the past, come predominantly from private credit firms, providing a cushion of sorts to traditional banking institutions.

Presently, some lenders are taking a passive approach to breaches in loan covenants directly related to the value of the property. This optimistic stance partly hinges on the prospect of upcoming interest rate cuts, which may invigorate a recovery. However, an insolvency expert predicts an expiration date for this leniency as the second half of the year might usher in a wave of receivership sales, shedding light on real valuations.

The Culture Shift in Workspace Dynamics

Landlords, along with lenders, find themselves at an impasse, outmaneuvered by the growing acceptance of remote work among tech employees in the post-pandemic era. Tech companies slashed space rentals by almost 90% in the final quarter of last year, compared to figures from the first quarter of 2019. Lisney, a brokerage firm, has laid these statistics bare for all to see.

James Mulhall, managing director at broker Murphy Mulhall, paints a clear picture of the evolving landscape: "With Big Tech now largely absent from the pre-letting market, we're witnessing a surge in demand from small to medium-sized enterprises which typically accommodate 20 to 80 people, a sharp contrast to the massive spaces for tech lettings of the past." He adds, "The shift towards hybrid work models means office spaces will witness a slower pace of occupancy."

Developers in Dublin, in their quest to maximize values, prioritized increasing building density at minimal cost rather than focusing on long-term desirability for tenants and workers. This strategy is proving counterproductive now that tenants, presented with an abundance of choices, can afford to be choosy.

Compounding the issue, tech companies are looking to jettison surplus office space they no longer need, triggering additional pressure on rental prices. Dublin is currently experiencing an all-time high in unutilized office segments, according to JLL's findings.

Salesforce Inc., which continues on its hiring trajectory, is deliberating about subleasing 80,000 square feet in the North Docks, based on information from insiders. In line with the general cautiousness of the sector, the company has withheld comment.

In an unfolding act of reshuffling, Ireland's central bank, which breathed new life into the erstwhile Anglo Irish building by reinventing it as its headquarters, is exploring the sublease of about 105,000 square feet of office space. Furthermore, the bank is in the process of offloading some of its space in the district, according to a spokesperson.

Uncertain Horizons

Forecasting the future path of Dublin's office market is proving to be difficult. With Allied Irish Banks Plc envisioning a 2.5% dip in commercial property prices this year, and their rivals at Bank of Ireland Group Plc bracing for a more pronounced 11% fall, the outlook varies considerably. AIB has already acknowledged absorbing a "large charge" of €327 million ($355 million) last year, partly attributing it to office-related valuations and noting that property and construction loans with escalating credit risk have doubled to €2.8 billion. An AIB spokesperson suggested that the worst of the downturn might be behind them, with a glimmer of recovery possible from 2025, provided monetary policy relaxes later in the year.

Real estate experts agree that the market could see a rebound, although it might take a couple of years. This anticipated recovery would come as a boon to the owners of buildings vaunting green credentials, particularly with looming targets to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions before the decade's end.

"In the medium-term, there will be demand, but for smaller lot sizes accommodating the new normal of work culture," states Aoife Brennan, a senior director at Lisney. "Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) commitments will be a crucial differentiator, with the demand centering on top quality, energy-efficient buildings."

As Dublin's office market navigates these turbulent times, the evolution of work habits, coupled with the eco-consciousness of modern business, proves that green credentials alone are no panacea. Dublin's real estate future hinges on its ability to adapt to the new normal, where quality and sustainability must live in harmony with pragmatism and market realities.

For full details on the Dublin office market and further analysis, please visit Bloomberg.