The cost of land has dropped precipitously as commercial property values slump. Today, retail developers and investors can pick up land at prices not seen since the late 1990s. Sellers, too, have also relaxed their requirements and terms favor patient investors.

As both residential and commercial developers pull back on new projects, land prices have decreased by as much as 40 percent in some regions of the country. The caveat: interested investors must put up a significant amount of cash and be prepared to hold onto the parcel of land until the market recovers. In the worst-case scenario, they could end up owning the land for several years and not derive any income from it.

“Today you have the ability to buy land at below-market and distressed prices,” says Derek Thornhill, managing partner of Longview Capital Group, a Fort Worth, Texas-based private equity firm that is raising money from individuals to acquire land across the nation. The strategy, he adds, affords opportunistic developers and investors the chance to “get out in front of the next wave of development.”

For much of this decade, land was in great demand. From suburban greenfields to urban tracts, land prices increased as development boomed across the United States.

In the three years between 2005 and 2008 more than $80 billion in land sales of more than $5 million each were closed in the United States, reports New York City-based research firm Real Capital Analytics. While most of the transactions were for suburban greenfields, prices for urban parcels were much higher.

In 2005, the average price for a tract of urban land was $137.50 per square foot compared to $65.50 per square foot for suburban acreage. The price for land in the suburbs peaked in 2006 at $97.50 and then fell as single-family home construction ground to a halt. In contrast, urban land plots continued to rise until the fourth quarter of 2007 when they peaked at $302 per square foot. In 2008, the total volume of land deals over $5 million dropped significantly — only $8.3 billion in deals closed compared to $35.4 billion in 2007.

“Land prices got too hot,” says Jeff Fuqua, president of the Sembler Co., a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based developer with several projects under construction in the Southeast. Fuqua doesn't expect prices will inflate for some time because of the abatement in retail development.

“If you're doing any land deals, you're probably using mostly cash,” says Fuqua, “and you really have to feel good about the real estate to do that.”

In Southern California land prices are 25 percent to 40 percent lower today than they were a year ago, says J. Scott Fawcett, a principal with Marinita Development Co., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm that specializes in grocery-anchored centers. “Sellers who haven't come down on the price for their land aren't able to generate any interest,” he says.

Sellers are even willing to renegotiate deals that are already under contract, Thornhill says. Moreover, sellers are willing to extend the time for buyers to close a deal. Today, buyers are asking for 18 to 24 months to close, whereas in the past they were given as little as three months, and sellers are more than willing to oblige.

In fact, some sellers have decided to make it even easier for buyers and offer financing, says Thornhill. Longview Capital Group is also involved in the acquisition of a large tract of land in California and the seller has offered to finance the deal for three years, citing the income to pay the interest is better than none at all.

Buyers have not been able to command this degree of concessions in years. Sellers have realized buyers, retail developers in particular, cannot pay the prices they did 12 to 18 months ago. The drop in land prices doesn't automatically translate into better returns for developers as more retail tenants demand increased rent reductions, says Fuqua. “If land prices hadn't decreased, you wouldn't have a chance of making the deal work.”

Stanbery Memories

To celebrate Valentine's Day, shoppers at Stanbery Development's centers were eligible to win a digital camera/camcorder to capture their post-holiday memories. The promotion, “Valentine Memories a Gift at Stanbery Centers,” awarded 10 shoppers at each of its seven lifestyle centers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Participating retailers at the centers had entry ballots available for visitors to fill out through 9 p.m. on Valentine's Day; no purchase was necessary. Shoppers could enter at all participating retailers' stores; however, they were limited to one entry per store. The ten winners were drawn at each of the centers from the combined ballots. Winners were notified the week of February 15 by phone and e-mail.

LEEDing Drugstore

Elephant Pharm, in Walnut Creek, Calif., has been selected as the first drugstore concept to be certified as LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council. The 12,000 — square — foot interior was developed by McCall Design Group. Elephant Pharm, which embraces a holistic approach, boasts a grid of skylights and the entry light shelf permits an abundance of natural light in, reducing the need for artificial light. The design features will be the model for future stores. Additional green building elements also include recycled and renewable materials, paints and finishes.

Forest City Stimulus

Forest City offered a bailout of its own for shoppers. A “Credit Card Bailout” was available at 12 of its U.S. shopping centers to help patrons pay down their credit card debt. The grand prizes, ranging from $1,500 to $2,500, were awarded to shoppers who registered at one of the participating centers. Among the winners were a college student and someone who had lost their job the day before. The promotion that was rolled out in January was intended to drive foot traffic to centers during what is traditionally a slow month. The enter-to-win dates of January 1 through 18 were selected so that at least one winner from each center would be chosen ahead of the arrival of their holiday credit card bill. To increase their chances of winning, shoppers were encouraged to return to the centers daily during that time to reenter. A database will be constructed from the hundreds of names collected at each center and used for future marketing efforts.

Simon's Solar Savings

Simon Property Groups' the Shops at Mission Viejo has been retrofitted with a 173-kilowatt solar facility. The roof at the center in Mission Viejo, Calif., has been outfitted with solar panels as part of its sustainability strategy. The panels will provide the Shops with 130 kilowatts of savings, even on a cloudy or rainy day. It was the largest solar installation by a mall owner in the United States. Simon has entered into a power purchase agreement with Element Markets, a Houston-based developer of clean energy. Simon is poised to be among the leaders in renewable generation in the country. The construction of the solar facility began in December and was completed in 20 days. It did not disrupt business for the center's tenants or customers.