The COVID-19 Crisis Is Now Over – What Is Next For Retail Real Estate?

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If you are like we are, you’ve been receiving dozens of COVID-19 emails or other messages each DAY. On the “law” side, they discuss and dissect the legal rights and remedies implicated by the current crisis – force majeure, impossibility, impracticality, material adverse changes (effects), foreclosure moratoriums, and on and on. On the “business” side, they opine on holding off the payment under mortgages or leases, or the applicability of insurance coverage, and on and on. The late Newton Minow, when last to speak on a panel, is reported to have said something like: “By this time, everything to be said has already been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it. Now is my turn.” That’s the feeling we are getting about the nearly 200 messages we are receiving weekly.

 

Some “advice” is well thought out; some is authoritative; some is important; some is trivial; some are well-meaning but dangerous. To us, the common factor is that all (that we have seen) are backward-looking. What about tomorrow? In the words of Bishop T. D. Jakes, “Never make a permanent decision based on a temporary storm. No matter how raging the billows are today, remind yourself: ‘This too shall pass!’” [Read more…]

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Today, Hubris And Existentialism, Not “The Missing Comma”

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Hubris (hu·​bris), n. [Gr. Hybris].wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or from passion. That’s what it would be if we were to present today’s blog posting as if our subject matter was important in the current situation. It is also what all of us, unknowingly for sure, have demonstrated in thinking that our agreements could cover every possibility. If any reader had a COVAD-19 provision in their documents before January, we invite you to share it with the rest of us.

Countries have shut down walk-in commerce. In the states and Canada, stores, large and small, are closing “temporarily.” Restaurants, the “saviors” in today’s shop-on-line world, are closing “temporarily.” Hours are being cut back. Rents won’t be paid. Some, mainly marginal, tenants won’t be coming back. Some (pretextually) will use their co-tenancy right to “skinny down” their portfolios. We’ll all fight about the meaning of “force majeure.” We’ll be picking through our leases, open purchase agreements, and loan documents (including loan commitments) in an effort to “get out.” [Read more…]

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Landlords Can Be Retailers And Never Sell Any Goods

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At one time (and even today), when you saw a closeout bookseller or a Halloween store at a shopping center, a good guess was that the property was sucking wind or its functional equivalent. Though these are generally unattractive uses, they do bring revenue and customer traffic. So, the impact of their presence lies in the eyes or the pockets of the observer.

Temporary uses don’t have to tarnish a shopping center. If you call the Halloween store a “pop-up,” its image improves. There’s an idiom from as early as 1833, adjusted to 21st Century English: “Call me anything you want, just don’t call me late to dinner.” That would seem to apply to filling a property with rent-paying, foot traffic generating tenants.

Temporary tenants don’t have to be solely discount or low brow ones. Landlords have the power to create a shopping environment. Seemingly perennially vacant spaces can be converted to above-market rental opportunities. And, this isn’t just for the large properties. Permanent pop-up spaces can be created. Outfit a single store or more for use by a continuing series of fashion retailers. That would be like having a regular tenant that turns over its inventory every month. Just as furnished houses rent for more than vacant houses, “furnished” stores can rent for more than empty ones. Earn money on more than real property. Rent the improvements and the fixtures as well.

Fashion doesn’t tickle your fancy? Then, how about pop-up restaurant space? Invest in a fully equipped, first-class commercial kitchen with front-end restaurant fixtures. Then, rent the space out for a month at a time. Be even more adventurous, outfit a kitchen that can be rented every Tuesday by one “chef,” and every Friday by another. That’s seven tenants each week on a rotating basis. With a single day in the space, a once a week tenant could pay more than 1/7 of what a full-time, long-term tenant would pay. How about creating incubator space just like the high tech people do. You might even want to exchange use of the space for a percentage of any permanent restaurants growing out of your shared kitchen (or any shared retail space).

You can call the spaces “pop-up” or call the spaces “concept,” but whatever you choose, call them Kaching-Kaching, the sound of a cash register. Restaurants, art, jewelry, fashion, shoes, whatever – create a permanent marketplace of your own.

Think out of the box. When you’ve got an empty space and can’t easily rent it, you get hurt, and, importantly, so do your tenants. Quality traffic rises all boats.

These kinds of opportunities aren’t just for property owners. There’s a business in operating shared spaces. After all, many mall food courts are “that” business. One master tenant providing fit-up space to a variety of operators. The master tenant pays “wholesale” rent and charges “retail” rent to the restaurants. Why not be a tenant operating time-shared space?

What brought this to mind was Macy’s announcement last week that it would be bringing its brand to community shopping centers (strip malls) and closing about 125 mall stores over the next three years. Supermarket-based properties, especially ones with drug stores, remain stable, somewhat (but not wholly) insulated from today’s evil villain: THE INTERNET. They have decent foot traffic because people keep running out of food and toothpaste. We can’t speak for Macy’s and its planned 15,000 square foot “Market by Macy’s” stores (carrying apparel, accessories, home goods, and beauty products), but we think its thought is that customers, once at the property, will visit these smaller stores. Sephora and others are thinking the same thing.

What’s the connection? Why did the Macy’s announcement drive today’s blog posting? That’s simple. Foot traffic is the key to brick and mortar success. Tenants create foot traffic, but they don’t have to be the only ones. Landlords can do the same and make money doing so. Some tenants own their own properties. More landlords can own their own retail businesses and not even have to run them.

Why does Ruminations think today’s topic belongs in a blog focused on retail real estate law? Here’s our thinking. There was a time before condominiums, cooperatives, time shares, fractional ownership, and commercial mortgage-backed securities. Entirely new real estate industries and practice areas have been built on these concepts. Smart readers, especially those fearing declines in brick and mortar real estate, need to think outside the box. Retail real estate, and by extension, retail real estate law, doesn’t have to be stagnant. There are new ways to think about drawing customers away from their desktops. So, by example, some of the simple ideas we’ve tossed out today might work better with licenses, not leases. Or, perhaps, with an entirely different way to structure an occupancy agreement. Our readers can make that happen. Go for it!

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Words Are The Skin Of A Living Thought

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“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.” [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418 (1918).] We have loved that quote for nearly 40 years. It tells a lot about the agreements we write.

Consider the word: “maintain.” We looked at how web-based dictionaries define it. According to www.merriam-webster.com, it means: “to keep in an existing state (as of repair, efficiency, or validity).” https://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary offers that “maintain” means to: “look after something: to keep a machine, building, etc. in good condition by checking and repairing it regularly.” www.collinsdictionary.com similarly offers: “If you maintain a road, building, vehicle, or machine, you keep it in good condition by regularly checking it and repairing it when necessary.” www.lexico.com (powered by Oxford) agrees when it tells us that “maintain” means to: “keep (a building, machine, or road) in good condition by checking or repairing it regularly.” [Read more…]

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Read It Or Lose It, Or How Access Was Lost

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You don’t have to be in the retail property industry for very long before you first come across an access agreement. After all, not all properties are sitting right out there on a prime highway. A plot might be developable if it could be moved to a spot right along the “best” road, but it doesn’t work that way. So, deals are made allowing those traveling to and from one property to cross over an adjoining property. Often, these arrangements are mutual; sometimes they are not.

When we come across such an arrangement for the first time, we probably read the documents pretty carefully. Likely, when we get to our fifth or tenth such agreement, we skip over the boilerplate. One of those provisions is the one that reads something like: “will be binding upon and inure to the benefit of ….” After all, these provisions aren’t much more than, “blah, blah, blah.” We’ve seen them many times before and they are always the same – until they aren’t. That’s what a car dealer discovered about a combined access and sign license with the following provision: [Read more…]

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Why? Why Not?

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Many have a tradition of making (and breaking) resolutions at this time of year. In fact, many have a tradition of making (and breaking) the same resolutions every year. So, why not try a new one this time?

Ruminations suggests that we all resolve to ask two questions, over and over: “Why?” and “Why not?” Let’s stop mindlessly copying and pasting from documents in our files. Let’s start by reading them carefully, something we think most of us haven’t done for a long time, if ever. We’re not just suggesting that the provisions be read as if being proofread. Instead, let’s really read them. Why does this work this way? Why wouldn’t it work another way? [Read more…]

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Co-Tenancy Rights – Use Them Or Lose Them

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It’s been a while since we wrote about rules of contract construction or about the consequences of dilatory behavior. Now, we’ve just seen a September court decision from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota that gives us a good opportunity to cover both. As a bonus, it deals with a lease’s continuing co-tenancy provision.

The co-tenancy provision was pretty typical. In principle, to be an “Anchor Tenant” meant almost any “large, well-known national or regional retail store.” A co-tenancy failure was where certain identified space at the shopping center lacked such an Anchor Store for 120 days. Absent such an Anchor Store for that period, and if certain other conditions existed, the tenant with the continuing co-tenancy right could begin to pay “Alternative Rent” equal to the lesser of the lease’s stated rent or 3% of its gross sales. None of that was at issue at the Minnesota shopping center. The landlord agreed that the tenant’s co-tenancy right had been triggered and that it would be entitled to pay Alternative Rent, but for one issue. It claimed the tenant waited too long to exercise its right to the reduced rent. It wasn’t because an Anchor Tenant was found for the empty space. It was because the now-gone Anchor Tenant had vacated at the end of July 2016 and the claiming tenant, after paying full rent for 30 months, made a $250,000 retroactive claim in January 2019 for excess rent paid. [Read more…]

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Zero-Based Thinking And Our Leases

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Recently, a 7- year old asked us a couple of questions. The first was: “How old will you have to be to drive a self-driving car?” The second was: “Will you need a driver’s license.” Our immediate, gut thought was that one won’t really “drive” such a car. You’d be a passenger. We’re not thinking about transitional vehicles; we’re thinking about fully-functional ones without driver controls. Then, upon reflection, all of this taking place before we uttered a response, we “knew” that states will set a “driving” age and require a license. Even after we get to control-less vehicles, those requirements, already in place, will exist for at least many years. [Read more…]

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