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Many U.S. mall owners say good riddance to Sears

By Herbert Lash

By Herbert Lash

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The real estate investment trusts that own the malls and shopping centers where many Sears stores are anchor tenants have waited years for the retailer's demise to renovate the sites and boost rent, although redevelopment costs may strain some plans.

Most large U.S. malls are controlled by REITs. In recent years, the REITs have cut their exposure to Sears Holdings Corp, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday. Sears said it plans to close 142 stores.

Sears now accounts for less than 1.0 percent of many REITs' base rental income. Gaining control of vacated sites will be costly, while rebuilding the stores can run about $10 million to $12 million, or about $100 per square foot, for each site.

But most REIT shares gained on Monday as investors focused on the potential benefits of a Sears bankruptcy.

The REITs have looked forward to a bankruptcy to remove the eyesore of many Sears stores. They also will be able to raise the rent in contracts sometimes signed more than 20 years ago with extension options that kept leases very low.

Shares of mall REITs have fallen in recent years as investors feared online shopping would eliminate the need for many brick-and-mortar stores and as rising interest rates add to funding costs. Besides Sears, retail bankruptcies such as Toys R Us and Bon-Ton Stores Inc created vacancies.

But rents have risen in the best locations and a bankruptcy like Sears poses an opportunity for landlords to refresh their properties with new or better tenants, provided they win control of the sites during Chapter 11, which can be complicated.

"What they've always said to me, we certainly are happy to get back the boxes," said Haendel St. Juste, a REIT analyst at Mizuho Americas in New York.

Simon Property Group, the largest U.S. mall operator, has 59 Sears Holdings stores in its malls, the most of any REIT, but its exposure to the bankruptcy is "de minimis," he said.

Leases with new tenants could easily double or triple the rent Sears or Kmart now pay, the REITs say. Kmart merged with Sears in a 2005 deal.

A Kmart that was demolished in Staten Island, New York, will result in rents 727 percent higher when the new site opens with new tenants in 2020, Kimco Realty Corp said in a statement Monday, a sign of the upside the bankruptcy offers.

"It's not been a surprise but it's been frustrating that it's taken so long," David Bujnicki, in charge of investor relations and strategy at Kimco, said in an interview of the long-expected bankruptcy.


BANKRUPTCY UPSIDE

Simon Property, Macerich Co and a recently acquired unit of Brookfield Property Reit Inc all tried to buy Sears sites or their leases so they would not become an asset in bankruptcy, said Eric Rothman, a portfolio manager at CenterSquare Investment Management.

The REITs have desired a bankruptcy because it will allow them to vastly improve the properties, he said.

"It is going to be expensive, in some cases, to redo these boxes, but that’s just part of being a landlord," Rothman said.

The S&P 500 traded slightly lower, but Simon Property shares rose 0.27 percent in early trading and the S&P 500 real estate sector gained 0.92 percent. Kimco shares rose 1.1 percent and Macerich stock rose 0.95 percent.

A reorganization will keep rental income flowing but some locations are so valuable that outside investors could gain control of a site in an auction and not the REITs who are now Sears' landlords, Rothman said.

The redevelopment of a Sears site at Kings Plaza in Brooklyn, New York, which opened in August, cost Macerich Co $100 million, including the asset's purchase. But the REIT said the four stores now at the site are doing well and calls the redevelopment a "game-changer."

Kimco has been waiting to "recapture" Sears locations to either put in new tenants and lift rents to market prices or to start a new redevelopment within the shopping center itself, Bujnicki said.

Kimco earned just 0.6 percent of its annualized base rent from the 14 Kmart or Sears stores in its portfolio of 460 open-air shopping centers.

Sears' average rent was $5.25 per square foot, the lowest among Kimco's top 50 tenants. The average tenant pays $15.95 a square foot, Bujnicki said.

Sears' real estate footprint also is one of Kimco's largest, creating the opportunity to add more tenants.

"The economic impact is actually a positive, even though it feels hard to believe that it would be, but it is," Rothman said.


(Reporting by Herbert Lash; Editing by Daniel Bases and Nick Zieminski)