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Pfizer Says Wyeth Acquisition, Economic Factors Drove Decision to Scuttle Mission Bay Deal

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This is a second revised version of a story originally published July 8.

By Alex Philippidis

Pfizer's decision to scuttle its plan to lease 105,000 square feet at the Mission Bay campus in San Francisco — less than a year after agreeing to the deal — is a setback for Mission Bay and the Bay Area's lab-space market, which has slumped with the economy over the past year, but not a crippling blow to either, two real estate professionals agreed this week.

Pfizer said its decision not to lease the space for its Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center reflected a study of the company's space needs in light of its planned $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth, as well as simple economics.

"As we look at our global real estate assets, we're considering our future expected assets. In that respect, it did play into the decision," Pfizer spokeswoman Joan Campion told BioRegion News on Tuesday.

Also weighing in Pfizer's decision, she added, was a factor the company cited when it first disclosed its lease termination to the San Francisco Chronicle — the potential for cost savings, which the company is not quantifying, of not moving the BBC and its employees from their current offices at 230 East Grand Ave., within the HCP-owned Britannia Pointe Grand Business Park, a site it inherited from Rinat Neuroscience when it acquired that company in 2006.

Pfizer and BBC will remain at 230 East Grand, Campion said. "Our colleagues have been operating in there, and they will continue to operate in there."

Pfizer and Mission Bay developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities staged a ceremonial groundbreaking with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when they joined in announcing the lease on Aug. 5, 2008. Pfizer was to move the BBC and some 100 employees from a South San Francisco, Calif., lab-office park to 455 Mission Bay Blvd. South, the third building set to rise at the campus formally named the Alexandria Science & Technology Center at Mission Bay.

At the time, Pfizer issued a statement saying that a key factor in moving the BBC to Mission Bay was the presence on the same campus of several research partners, notably the University of California-San Francisco and FivePrime Therapeutics. In addition to the space it agreed to lease, the pharma giant signed an option to lease another 50,000 square feet in the 210,000-square-foot building [BRN, Aug. 11, 2008].

But late last year, as the financing and credit markets all but froze, Alexandria told analysts it would suspend plans to break ground on new buildings pending improvement in the economy. The freeze stopped plans by Alexandria to start construction on two buildings that would have been built for tenants it had already lined up.

"Our assumption in the current unprecedented environment is that there will be no equity or debt capital available for the next year, or possibly longer,” Dean Shigenaga, Alexandria's chief financial officer, said on an Oct. 30, 2008, conference call [BRN, Nov. 3, 2008].

Pfizer maintained it was committed to the lease deal as late as this past April, three months after announcing the Wyeth deal and days after Corey Goodman, the executive who ran the BBC and spearheaded the move to Mission Bay, left the company [BRN, May 1].

"While we're disappointed by Pfizer's decision, we believe that the fundamentals for Mission Bay remain strong. The city will continue to work closely with Mission Bay leaders to support the growth of new life-sciences companies in San Francisco," Todd Rufo, director of business development for San Francisco's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, told BRN on Wednesday.

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Construction of the building's shell has been completed. Pfizer was set to begin work on tenant improvements to its space by now, and complete the building by March 1, 2010.

L. Leland (Skip) Whitney, an executive vice president and partner with GVA Kidder Matthews, the broker marketing 455 Mission Bay Blvd. South for Alexandria, told BRN he has seen "A tremendous amount of activity" by other prospective tenants interested in leasing space there.

"We don't feel that's that's going to be a particular hiccup in the pipelne for Mission Bay," Whitney said.
"The market right now is very, very buoyant ... There are five to six tenants in the 15,000 to 50,000 square-foot range that are actively looking at the space. If anything, what [Pfizer's pullout] is going to do is, it's going to provide more space. There was a limited amount of space available."

Indeed the only space available till now at Mission Bay, according to Whitney, was the 50,000 square feet Pfizer had not leased or optioned at 455 Mission Bay Blvd. South. Demand from bioscience tenant prospects is strong enough, he said, for Alexandria to continue positioning Mission Bay as a life-sci campus, rather than broaden its appeal to other tech employers, as the REIT once hinted it might do.

Whitney said he had yet to speak directly with Pfizer about whether it would be willing to sublease its space in the building, as has been speculated in real estate circles: "We have calls in to Pfizer. We don't know where we stand yet."

455 Mission Bay Blvd. South accounts for much of the 348,200 square feet, all of it life-sci space, under construction in the city's Mission Bay section. The section has 1.26 million square feet completed, and 1.3 million square feet either approved or under review by San Francisco officials.

While the Bay Area has been known as a life-sci mecca for about a generation, most of that activity has taken place in the Peninsula region anchored by the city of South San Francisco, and on the East Bay in and around Emeryville. Only in this decade has a sizeable biocluster emerged in San Francisco itself, the result of tax breaks and other industry-friendly policies, plus the emergence of the Mission Bay campus and several other developments. At present, 47 life-sci companies are based in the city.

"Five years ago, we had zero companies," Meade Boutwell, a senior vice president with the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, told BRN. "We probably have four to six new tenants located outside the city that are looking to move into the city.

In addition to Alexandria's project, the Mission Bay section's life-sci presence includes FibroGen, which late last year moved into 239,000 square feet at 409 Illinois St., one of two former Esprit warehouse buildings totaling 250,000 square feet that were redeveloped for life-sci use by Shorenstein Properties. FibroGen has an option on the second building, 499 Illinois St.

Another option for life-sci users within the Mission Bay section is China Basin Landing, where a venture of McCarthy Cook & Co. and RREEF, Deutsche Bank’s real estate investment unit, have converted to life-sci use the 500,000-square-foot, six-story Wharfside Building, built in 1922 as a warehouse and converted to office use in the 1960s. The venture partners also built a 175,000-square-foot addition above their Berry Building, at 185 Berry St., also with life-sci as well as corporate tenants in mind.

"There are several other buildings that have looked at converting. Demand will drive whether they convert from office to life science," as well as whether they possess floor-to-ceiling heights of 13 feet or higher, Boutwell said.

"I would say demand for life science and the activity in the marketplace is above average. It's better than any other industry group right now" in San Francisco's commercial real estate market, he added.

Of Pfizer's decision, he added, "Certainly we'd all love to see them here. It's a setback in that sense. But most likely, their space will be put on the market for sublease. It's in a building that subdivides really well."

Specifically, he said the facility can supply some of the additional space especially needed by startups now crowded into six facilities totaling all 2,500 square feet of the current QB3 Garage, the incubator run by the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, which consists of the University of California's San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campuses.

"Something we desperately need is small incubator areas. We're lacking in that right now. In that particular market, if you’re a small tenant, it's very difficult to find small lab space," Boutwell said. "One would argue that in a perfect world, that if Pfizer does sublease their space, that smaller tenants would have a great economic opportunity."

As a result, he said, Alexandria's Mission Bay campus should draw enough life-sci tenant prospects to fill 455 Mission Bay Blvd. South and any future buildings when they finally break ground: "There's a tremendous amount of synergy of intelligence; of capital, which is key; of workers; and of operations."

Those synergies will be enhanced, Boutwell said, if as expected UCSF — a key tenant at Alexandria's Mission Bay campus — breaks ground later this year on a $1.6 billion, 289-bed complex of hospitals set to occupy 869,000 square feet when work is completed in 2014. UCSF recently expanded within Mission Bay when it opened the $135 million, 163,000-square-foot Diller Family Cancer Research Building, which brought all of UCSF's Brain Tumor Research Center researchers under one roof [BRN, June 12].

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Another hurdle for tenants interested in the Mission Bay section is rent. According to CBRE, spaces in San Francisco can cost as much as $4 per square foot per month, triple-net, though rents vary significantly in the sub-region, Boutwell said. By comparison, rents in South San Francisco are closer to between $2.15 to $2.25 per square foot per month, triple-net.

The rent differential is a key reason why it will be hard to find one or more tenants to replace Pfizer at the Mission Bay campus, Robert Schwartz, a senior vice president with Colliers International based at its Redwood City, Calif., office, told BRN.

"It's expensive space, and there are not a lot of people doing expensive life-science [construction projects] in the area these days. It's all that simple," Schwartz said.

Schwartz cited surveys by the Biotechnology Industry Organization and other groups, in which majorities of life-sci companies said they had only less than a year of cash on hand. "They're not getting funded. There's going to continue to be major adjustment and shakeout in the industry," he said. "It's the combination of the economy, especially on the biotech side as opposed to medical devices, and people are much more focused these days on what's the timing of a liquidity event."

That may explain why in late 2007, as the economy began to sour, even Alexandria appeared to be hedging its bets on an all-life-sci Mission Bay: An executive for the REIT told the San Francisco Business Times the REIT would pursue a broader mix of tech tenants rather than strictly life-sci occupants for its Mission Bay campus. The Alexandria executive — Stephen Richardson, a senior vice president and the director of its San Francisco Bay Area regional market — did not respond this week to an e-mail message and a phone message from BRN.

Alexandria's zoning is permissive enough to allow class A office use as well as R&D and lab space, though until now the presence of UCSF has been a draw to numerous life-sci tenants, from FivePrime to the J. David Gladstone Institutes, to Merck, which joined the campus after acquiring a tenant based there, Sirna Therapeutics, in 2006.

As a result of UCSF's anchor presence, Schwartz said, Mission Bay "has got the nucleus of a strong, biomedical, life science academic world there. That's the core and foundation on which the whole bioscience master plan is dedicated for that area.

"But the thing that is needed to be done there is new construction — not one or two-story; it has to be multi-story, and it's expensive. People are not putting up expensive spec[ulative] buildings in this market," he added.

So while basing Mission Bay on UCSF is "a wonderful concept, timing-wise, so far it's taken a lot longer [to fill space] than had been in anybody's business plan," Schwartz said.

In announcing the Pfizer lease last year, Alexandria said it proved the wisdom of its strategy of re-anchoring its presence in the San Francisco Bay Area around new buildings at Mission Bay, rather than several older East Bay buildings. To that end, last year the publicly traded lab developer sold off five Alameda, Calif., properties totaling 272,730 rentable square feet for about $46.4 million, a sale that shielded the company from exposure to the scheduled rollover of several near-term leases.

"We did it at a very good price, and at a $20 million gain," Joel Marcus, Alexandria chairman and CEO, said on an Aug. 7, 2008, conference call with analysts.

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