A Los Angeles real-estate company founded by two former Israeli paratroopers and a Drexel Burnham Lambert executive has emerged as one of the country's most active property buyers. Now it is poised to unveil plans for its main showpiece: New York's tallest residential tower.
CIM Group last year snapped up a prized Park Avenue development site in Midtown Manhattan for $305 million, well below the land's value during the boom years. Developers have considered it one of the most attractive sites in the world because of its location at the heart of New York City.
The firm and its partner, New York developer Harry Macklowe, have been quiet about their intentions. But plans show a more than 1,300-foot tall, slender condo and retail complex designed by Rafael Vinoly, the Uruguayan-born architect best known in New York for designing Jazz at Lincoln Center inside Time Warner Center.
The plans for the project, named 432 Park Ave., call for 128 condos with more than 12-foot high ceilings; a 5,000 square foot, partially covered, driveway to ensure privacy; and amenities like golf training facilities and private dining and screening rooms. The total price tag: more than $1 billion.
There is no scheduled completion date, and the project still faces challenges amid an uncertain economic and market environment. Crucially, CIM needs a construction loan of as much as $700 million. That isn't an easy type of financing to obtain these days, with European banks cutting back because of their debt problems and only a small handful of U.S. banks willing to lend.
Avi Shemesh, a CIM founding principal, said the firm is confident it will get a loan. "We have longstanding relationships with lenders," Mr. Shemesh said. "We anticipate our construction financing to be in place well in advance of any sort of deadline."
CIM's purchase of the Park Avenue site took advantage of the collapse of Mr. Macklowe's real-estate empire. Mr. Macklowe acquired the site, which then housed the Drake Hotel, in 2006. But before he finalized his plans he defaulted on the debt.
Mr. Macklowe is still working on the project, although he no longer has an equity stake, according to people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for Mr. Macklowe declined to comment.
Mr. Macklowe is "involved with the thought process and decision making," Mr. Shemesh said, "but the final decision is ours."
CIM's increasingly high-profile investments are shining new light on a firm that is little-known outside property circles even though it has been around for nearly two decades. New York developers have debated what the three initials represent; CIM says the letters don't stand for anything.
The unusual combination of partners dates back to the late 1980s, when Mr. Shemesh and his childhood friend Shaul Kuba immigrated to the U.S. from Israel and launched a landscaping and design business in Los Angeles. Richard Ressler, a former investment banker at the now-defunct junk bond shop Drexel Burnham Lambert run by Michael Milken, met them after hiring the pair to landscape his garden.
At the time, Messrs. Shemesh and Kuba were beginning to invest profits from their business in West Los Angeles apartments and retail and office buildings. Mr. Ressler, who had recently left Drexel, also was interested in real estate, and the three decided to join forces.
CIM operates like a private-equity firm in that it mostly invests through funds it raises from institutional investors. The firm currently has $9.5 billion under management. Its largest single investor is Calpers, the giant California pension fund, which has about $1.7 billion invested with the firm.
Over the past five years, CIM's Urban Real Estate Fund has an annual return of 7.4%, compared with a 20% annual decline for the universe of 19 high-risk, high-return funds that invest in urban property, tracked by Calpers.
The firm's acquisition of the Park Avenue site kicked off a CIM cross-country shopping spree of apartment buildings in Dallas, a South Beach hotel, a loan backed by the Trump SoHo Hotel and a stake in the Art Deco office building that is home to Credit Suisse Group AG. The firm's total investment since the end of 2009 has been about $1.7 billion.
CIM was able to do this because it pulled out of the market before it hit the wall in 2008. Ted Eliopoulos, head of real estate for Calpers said.
"CIM chose not to invest meaningful amounts during 2006 to 2008. That discipline allowed CIM to invest meaningfully over the past 24 months following the Lehman collapse."
Six of its deals, including the Park Avenue site, are still in the development stage. These bets could pay off if the economic recovery begins to gain traction.
If the economy continues to sputter, CIM may have difficulty lining up financing to complete the Park Avenue condo and other developments—or the finished projects could encounter a weak economy.
Christian Busken, head of real estate research for the consulting firm Fund Evaluation Group said.
"There's a lot higher risk when you're buying something that's not up and running and producing some cash flow."
Even with financing, CIM's tower of Park Avenue trails a competing 1,000-foot residential project on West 57th street from Extell Development Co. That skyscraper is nearly 30 stories above ground and counts an Abu Dhabi fund as a partner.
Most private-equity firms don't act as a ground-up developer, buying raw land and building on it. But Messrs. Shemesh and Kuba, got their start as developers, so they don't shy away from it.
Until recently, CIM has focused on under-served urban areas, resulting in sometimes complex deals. One of its most successful investments was the acquisition of Hollywood & Highland, a retail and hotel complex in a part of Hollywood that had become pockmarked by pawn shops and adult video stores.
CIM aimed to make the tourist destination more appealing to locals. It upgraded an aging office building, renovated the shopping center and remodeled the Kodak Theater so that it could be used for events year-round, not just for the Academy Awards. CIM's $201 million initial investment was valued in December at more than $500 million, according to an independent appraisal.
COMMENTARY: I look forward to seeing that 1,300 foot condo and commercial tower begin construction. It should be a doozey once completed. With only 128 condo's I would think there are more than sufficient deep-pocket millionaires capable of affording a condo in the planned tower. Financing such a behemoth is not going to be easy. I would assume that $700 million will probably be financed through the issuance of bonds or split between several commercial lenders.
Courtesy of an article dated October 19, 2011 appearing in The Wall Street Journal