Thursday, August 22, 2013 - By Richard Lee, Staff Writer, The Advocate
Whether it's a well-groomed head of hair or a manicured lawn, appearance is an undeniable factor in making a good impression.
In the competitive market of commercial real estate in Fairfield County, landscaping is an important contributor in attracting a top-flight tenant to a Class A property, experts say.
"First impressions are critical," said John Angel, president of Angel Commercial in Fairfield. "It's like dating. You only have one opportunity to make a first impression. Otherwise, you might not have a second date."
High respected, high-achieving companies expect a property to reflect their image, he said.
"An astute building owner recognizes the importance of a neat, clean image," Angel said, adding the grounds surrounding a commercial building give potential buyers or tenants an indication of what they can expect when they step inside. "If an owner is not taking care of the outside, they are not taking care of the interior."
Neglected landscaping surrounding a building has led to some of Angel's clients declining to follow through on a deal, he said.
But if a company is driven solely by finding an inexpensive property, the appearance of the grounds does not carry much weight, Angel said.
It is unlikely that owners of those properties would be clients of Eastern Land Management, a Stamford-based landscaping firm that focuses on commercial operations -- most Class A properties in Fairfield and New Haven counties and Westchester County, N.Y.
The company, one of the largest landscaping businesses in the region, employs about 72 full-time workers during the warm weather months, it's peak season, and it has seen an uptick in its client list since the recession in 2008, said Bruce Moore Jr., vice president of operations.
"We're seeing more RFP's (requests for proposals) coming out," said Moore, whose father, Bruce Moore, started the business in 1976. "Landscaping is important in attracting and retaining tenants. Tenants appreciate the quality of landscaping. It sends a message. You may never see the mechanical room, but you see the landscaping."
The business has 150 corporate clients and some have more than one property, keeping its crews busy moving from site to site.
Hurt by cutbacks
"There was a slowdown after the crash. Clients wanted to maintain what they had, but they weren't willing to do more," Moore said.
Eastern Land Management is one of 1,200 members in the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association, and Bob Heffernan, its executive secretary, said many were hurt by the recession.
"The recession had an impact on the 'green' industry. However, the landscaping part has seemed to have weathered it much better because a lot of it involves maintenance," Heffernan said. "The outlook is quite good."
The downturn did not cause RFR realty, which owns several office buildings in Stamford, to reduce maintenance of its grounds, said Margaret Carlson, manager of the Stamford properties.
The ability to maintain the grounds of an office complex during an economic downturn indicates to a potential client the building owner's commitment to the structure and services, she said.
"You want to create an environment where the employees are comfortable and surrounded by beauty to enhance their work experience," said Carlson, noting RFR is a client of Eastern Land Management, the largest company in the region serving commercial properties.
An impressive landscaping scheme at an office park can pay dividends for a landlord, according to Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D., a researcher who created the University of Washington's Urban Forestry/Urban Greening Research website.
Commercial offices with high quality landscapes have 7 percent higher rental rates, Wolf said, and on the retail side, shoppers claim they will spend 9 to 12 percent more for goods and services in central business districts having a high quality tree canopy.
Boston-based Marcus Partners, which has a regional office in Wilton, has been a longtime client of Eastern Land Management.
Its work has impressed residents and business operators, said John Busby, Marcus Properties property manager, who maintains its properties at Wilton Corporate Park, 15 Old Danbury Road in Wilton and Merritt 7 in Norwalk.
"We get calls from local people. It's very important, particularly in a suburban location," he said. "Often, tenants want a park-like setting. It's an indication of how well your park is run. We want to capture you as you drive by with landscaping at the entrance. We make the whole experience pleasant from the street to the seat."
A combination of well-manicured shrubs and two rotations of seasonal flowers, along with perennials like tulips and daffodils make for an attractive mix, Busby said.
While Marcus Partners understands the importance of a well-manicured property, some commercial property owners need convicing, according to Tom Greene, vice president of Ryer Associates, a Danbury-based commercial real estate brokerage firm.
Greene said he advices his clients to regulary maintain the grounds.
"If they want to sell or lease, they listen. The issue is how motivated is the owner, and financially is he able to do it.
The cost varies wildly based on the size and condition of the parcel and type of vegetation.
"Curb appeal is important -- just like a house." said Greene, who like area landscapers, is seeing a rebound in the sale and leasing of commercial properties as the economy improves.
Coincidentally, he said he is hearing from property owners considering improving their landscaping.
"They're willing to listen, but some are still unwilling to spend their money. The smart ones do," Greene said. "We don't like wasting time with properties whose owners are difficult."
The economic downturn provided some companies with an opportunity to upgrade their facilities and move to more attractive properties at more affordable prices, said John Hannigan, a principal at Stamford-based Choyce Peterson.
For many of those businesses, their relocations have meant seeking space in business parks.
"I've definitely seen three major office complexes, and all three have upgraded their landscaping, signage and building exteriors -- Greenwich Office Park, High Ridge Office Park (in Stamford) and Merritt 7 (in Norwalk)," Hannigan said. "The owners have done a great job in the past couple years in upgrading their exteriors."
Perhaps one of the most unique business parks in the region because of its size and variety of vegetation is The Matrix, a sprawling 1.2-million-square-foot office complex on 100 acres in Danbury.
Keeping tenants happy
"The building is so large that every tenant has a window view. It's very important that we keep our tenants happy," said Mike Brown, general manager and head of leasing, noting that many windows provide a view of surround woodlands and lawn.
"We have a lot of perimeter wetlands and walkways," he said, adding the property is so expansive that Matrix has a seven-person crew that maintains the grounds and does other maintenance work. "We use outside services for large projects."
Continual maintenance is essential, Brown said.
"If it goes bad," he said. "It doesn't come back quickly."