Cerberus has had its fair share of headlines in the Northern Ireland media throughout the last year – and the US investment fund was once again at the forefront of the news agenda last week.
The majority of these recent headlines headlines, of course, focused on the revelations from a TV documentary examining the £1bn acquisition by Cerberus of the NAMA loan portfolio in Northern Ireland in 2014.
However, later in the week, much more positive news emerged when the fund announced that a London property group has purchased a strategic, 11-acre Belfast city centre site which has been earmarked for major regeneration.
Castlebrooke Investments has taken control of the Royal Exchange site, which includes a collection of properties between Royal Avenue and the Cathedral Quarter.
The site has been the subject of various proposed projects for more than 16 years. There had been planning permission for an ambitions £360m mixed-use retail and development scheme, but the Department for Social Development rescinded the development agreement in December.
However, this purchase by Castlebrooke brings with it exciting new plans for the site which have been warmly welcomed by Belfast City Council. Quite rightly, too, as this purchase is hugely significant for Belfast city centre in general and somewhat indicative of the direction in which the local commercial property market is heading.
Cautious optimism was very much been the outlook adopted by most making forecasts for 2016 at the turn of the year. As 2015 drew to a close, the market was in somewhat of a pregnant pause as I’s were dotted and T’s crossed while Cerberus finalised the disposal of various Belfast assets including the 15 Acre Sirocco Site which is also part of Belfast City Centre . Indeed, in years to come, 2015 will no doubt be viewed as something of a transitional year.
Now, as we edge towards the end of the first quarter of 2016, the cautious element of the optimism is beginning to wane as we are starting to see a steady flow of deals which is expected to increase over the coming months.
The Royal Exchange deal in addition to the sale of Sirocco is a sign of the underlying confidence in the market which has been building steadily with 2016 being seen as the start of the development cycle’, with the assets which have been sold now actually starting to be developed.
This rise in confidence is also buoyed by returning growth in many sectors, which is resulting in increased rents, therefore making development more attractive in commercial sectors.
In autumn last year we predicted that the market for hotels and student accommodation was set to become a major driving force, due mainly to the building of the new Ulster University campus and the expected increase in business tourism generated by the new conference facility set to open soon at the Waterfront Hall.
The £300m project to regenerate Belfast’s Northside has continued to gain momentum and the new university campus has played a significant role in the renewed demand which the area has attracted from investors, occupiers and developers.
A further point to consider when assessing the condition of the commercial property market is the continued lack of Grade A office space, which looks set to ensure that rents in Belfast will continue to rise.
While we are yet to learn exactly what the new plans are for the Royal Exchange site, we can safely predict it signposts the start of the next phase of development of commercial property across a range of sectors.
Declan Flynn is Managing Director of Belfast-based commercial property agency Lisney, which works on behalf of many of Northern Ireland's most significant investors and developers as well as major retailers and businesses.