Revamped ‘Big Red’ selling for $370 million

Danny Ecker, Jan 22, 2020

Developer John Buck is set to cash out after a massive turnaround of the former CNA Center.

A New York investor is making a bet that has recently scared off some others: buying a big office building in the heart of downtown Chicago.

In a deal that would complete a lucrative turnaround for prominent Chicago developer John Buck, a partnership led by New York-based real estate investor Michael Shvo has agreed to pay around $370 million for the former CNA Center building at 333 S. Wabash Ave., a source familiar with the deal confirmed.

The pending sale stands to net a big return for John Buck, which paid CNA Financial $108 million in 2016 for the 44-story tower, known for its bright red facade. The deal also would give downtown office landlords a shot of confidence after sales of commercial properties in Chicago plummeted last year.

Buck’s purchase of the tower was part of a broader deal with CNA that included a commitment from the insurer to anchor a 35-story office tower Buck was developing at 151 N. Franklin St.

With a plan to overhaul the Wabash building with a revamped lobby, auditorium, conference center and a new food hall, Buck then backfilled more than half the space CNA was leaving behind with Northern Trust, which is consolidating some of its downtown offices there. It’s unclear how much Buck and investment partner Morgan Stanley put into the renovation, but Cook County records show they are carrying a $195 million mortgage on the property.

Now Buck is successfully cashing out at a time when many landlords haven’t been able to. Despite rising property values and an onslaught of demand for downtown office space from companies moving to and expanding in the city, many real estate investors have gone cold on Chicago amid uncertainty about property taxes and other potential pain points tied to city and state pension deficits.

Office building sales volume in the Chicago area through the first half of 2019 was down 71 percent year-over-year to the lowest mark for that period since 2011, according to research firm Real Capital Analytics. A couple of large transactions broke that cold streak late last year, but Cook County’s overhaul of the way it values property could put a larger tax burden on commercial properties, and it’s making it harder for many prospective buyers to underwrite deals.

But Buck found an atypical office investor in Shvo’s real estate firm, SHVO, which is better known for developing luxury condos in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The Wabash building would be Shvo’s only Chicago property, according to research company Real Capital Analytics.

Shvo, who is buying the 1.2 million-square-foot property in a venture with Deutsche Finance and BLG Capital, is set to take over a building that is now 92 percent leased, according to industry newsletter Real Estate Alert, which first reported the deal. In addition to Northern Trust, the building’s tenant roster includes the Chicago Housing Authority and CNA, which retained some of its space there after moving out.

Neither Buck nor Shvo could be reached for comment on the deal. The Chicago office of real estate services company Jones Lang LaSalle marketed the building on behalf of John Buck.