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You can own a piece of the Empire State Building via plan for public stock offering

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POSTED February 13, 2012 8:13 p.m.


NEW YORK (AP) - Soon investors can take after King Kong and grab a piece of the Empire State Building.

The company that runs the Depression-era skyscraper, the tallest building in New York, is planning to go public in a stock offering that could raise $1 billion, according to documents filed with regulators Monday.

That means that even if you can't afford to buy a home, you can buy a stake in perhaps the nation's most iconic office building. At least until the government sells shares in the Pentagon.

The planned IPO comes about 10 years after real estate investor Peter Malkin bought the 102-story Art Deco landmark from Donald Trump and a business partner for $57.5 million.

It's the latest chapter in a saga that dates to 1931, when the building was completed, establishing it as the city's tallest skyscraper. It regained that standing after the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Millions of tourists visiting New York ascend its heights to gape over the city from its observation deck, made famous in films such as "Sleepless in Seattle." It was 1933's "King Kong" that showed a giant ape clutching Fay Wray and fending off airplanes atop the tower.

The building's star turns in Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows and its dominant presence in the New York landscape have made it among the most beloved structures in the nation. And the opportunity to buy stock in a company that owns such a landmark doesn't come up often.

Some of the nation's marquee buildings are owned by publicly traded companies. Boston Properties owns the General Motors building in New York and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco's financial district. But neither has the history that the Empire State Building has.

"You have a trophy property that is irreplaceable," says Hessam Nadji, managing director for research and advisory services at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial real estate services firm.

In its regulatory filing Monday, Empire State Realty Trust Inc. didn't say how many shares might be involved in the IPO or what price they might fetch. The $1 billion figure isn't final, either. It's subject to investor demand.

The company, the predecessor of which is Malkin Holdings LLC, plans to use proceeds to pay investors, repay loans and cover the expenses of the IPO and the company's formation last summer, as well as for possible future acquisitions.

Empire State Realty, which owns and operates 12 properties in Manhattan and greater New York, expects to trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the stock ticker symbol ESB.

By going public, Empire State Realty will be able to tap the equity markets for capital, something real estate investment trusts have had a lot of success doing, even in a wobbly economy. Marcus & Millichap's index of REITs has doubled since the bottom of the recession.

Commercial real estate has also been improving, particularly in New York. The city's office market bounced back after the financial crisis in 2008 led to sweeping job losses on Wall Street and companies pulled back on space.

The office vacancy rate stood at 10.5 percent at the end of last year, down from a peak of 13 percent in 2009, Nadji said. That is still well above the 6 percent vacancy rate in 2007, but New York's office market remains the lowest in the nation among major metropolitan areas, he said. Rents also have been rising, particularly for prime office buildings.

Still, there's a difference between a unique, historic building and a property that can draw the highest rental rates, says Rob Stevenson, head of U.S. REITS at Macquarie Capital (USA) Inc.

"You can't find too many buildings in this country that are more iconic than the Empire State Building," Stevenson says. "But if you're talking about a trophy building — that's definitely not the Empire State Building."

He says that the skyscraper is not well suited as space for financial services companies and other large tenants, who typically prefer more modern buildings. He adds that its location is not as desirable as a building in the Plaza District, an expensive zone in midtown Manhattan.

The Empire State Building's owners have sought to modernize the 80-year-old tower. In 2009, they embarked on a $550 million renovation aimed at making it more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. The owners said they need $55 million to $65 million beyond 2013 to finish upgrades.

Apart from the novelty factor, will investors see the Empire State Building as a good real estate investment?

John Fitzgibbon, founder of IPOScoop.com, which tracks IPOs, says investors won't get a good sense of the value of the IPO until the company provides more complete information on the offering. But he says IPOs by real estate investment trusts generally don't make much of a splash.

"REITs seem fairly valued when they're priced. You don't see any moon shots in the crowd," he said. "I wouldn't expect it to behave as people were talking about Facebook."

 

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