Wednesday, May 23, 2007

BOOM TOWN: Houston, the Oil Town, Is Sharing in a Boom - New York Times 

Houston, the Oil Town, Is Sharing in a Boom - New York Times

Despite the collapse of Enron, the energy market in Houston is running full steam ahead. The city is benefiting from the boom in the energy business with a boom in the real estate market.

Some energy companies are expanding and putting up new buildings. Others, like Citgo, Schlumberger and Halliburton, have moved their headquarters to Houston. Oil and natural gas companies have helped reduce office vacancy rates to 15 percent, a five-year low, according to Grubb & Ellis, a real estate company. Job growth is double the national average — 97,400 jobs were created in 2006. The National Association of Realtors says the housing market in Houston is one of the strongest in the country.

“The increase in the oil business has made Houston,” said Randall Davis, a Houston condominium developer. “It feels a touch like the 1980s — everyone is out, the restaurants are full, the bars are full. It’s like New York.”

The good news extends across the city. The port recently opened a $1.4 billion container terminal to tackle soaring traffic. In 2006, it handled 1.6 million 20-foot containers, up 29 percent from 2003. At the Texas Medical Center, hospitals and universities are investing billions in new facilities. Residential and mixed-use developments are going up downtown.

The Houston economy has been growing since 2004, when energy companies started investing more in big-ticket projects and hiring thousands of employees to run them. Before that, oil companies had been hesitant to pour more into exploration and production, because they had lost millions in the past when oil and natural gas prices collapsed.

“There was always a real reluctance to buy into the commodity cycle,” said Robert W. Gilmer, vice president and senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Those fears are long gone. Real estate investors, enticed by rising rents and occupancy rates, are returning. Over the last five years, sale prices for office buildings in Houston have climbed by 34 percent, to an average of $129 a square foot in 2006, according to Real Capital Analytics, a national research and consulting firm. Compared with other large cities nationwide, like Chicago and San Francisco, where prices average $191 and $338 a square foot, respectively, Houston is still a relative bargain.

“The office investment market has taken off,” said Ariel Guerrero, Texas research and client services manager at Grubb & Ellis in Houston. “If you look at the price per pound, there’s still value.”

Brookfield Properties, a New York-based real estate investment trust, seems to think so. Last October, Brookfield became the biggest landowner in downtown Houston when it joined with the Blackstone Group to buy Trizec Properties for $8.9 billion in cash and debt. The deal gave Brookfield eight buildings in Houston, for a total of 7.4 million square feet.


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