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July 15th, 2010

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April 11, 2010

S.J. developers remain nimble in tough market

By EILEEN SMITH
Courier-Post Staff

A two-acre slice of scrubby trees sandwiched between a gas station parking lot and an office building on Chapel Avenue is a rare break in the concrete landscape of the suburbs.

To developers Henry Gorenstein and Peter Lazaropoulos, the plot is a fertile field ripe with opportunity, accessible by car from Route 38 and by foot from Plaza Grande, the 55-plus community in the Garden State Park development.

"We saw it as the place where people would pick up their newspaper and drop by for a cup of coffee," Lazaropoulos recalled.

But with retail in the doldrums, the partners quickly re-evaluated their strategy.

"We thought "eds and meds' because education and health care are still doing well -- and we are now building an office for a pediatrician who will occupy 40 percent of the space," Lazaropoulos said.

LazGor LLC, the firm he and Gorenstein founded 23 years ago, buys real estate, designs and builds space, then leases or sells the properties.

In the worst commercial real estate climate in years, LazGor is staying in the game by being nimble, striking small deals and finding the right match between property and tenant.

The vacancy rate for office space in South Jersey is 17.4 percent, according to CB Richard Ellis. LazGor's vacancy rate is less than 5 percent, the partners said.

"They have always been happy hitting singles and doubles," said Adam Rose, owner of Rose Commercial Real Estate in Marlton. "They might not make a killing but they don't get hurt."

Each week, the partners meet with brokers who handle national accounts for updates on businesses that might be in the market for space, sifting through their inventory of properties and raw land for a good fit.

Gorenstein points to a rendering of a Wawa that LazGor is building at Route 70 and Marlkress Road.

"Wawa didn't come to us," he said. "We went to them."

LazGor built a 12,000-square-foot medical facility for Virtua Surgical Group, a 14-doctor practice on Route 70 in Cherry Hill.

Joan Staas, the group administrator, said LazGor got the job done with surgical precision, on time and on budget.

"Working with them was easy, even when we decided to make a major change and move the second floor from the center of the building to the end," she said. "When there is a problem, they address it readily."

Lazaropoulos, 52, is a licensed architect, engineer, planner and interior designer, who is certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Gorenstein, 49, owned and managed the St. Charles Hotel in Philadelphia and now operates a parking lot on the site.

He also developed a chain of car washes.

"There is no one who works harder than these guys," Rose said. "Henry can look at a piece of ground and visualize what will go there. Pete is a full-service guy, as well as a developer."

Both partners are the sons of immigrants. Gorenstein's parents are Holocaust survivors. Lazaropoulos was 15 when he came to the United States with his parents from Greece.

Both are married with three kids, work at least 50 hours a week and have a low tolerance for debt.

At the height of the real estate boom, when developers were getting financing with 5 percent down or less, the partners' target was 50-percent equity.

"What if the music stops? Who is going to get the chair?" Lazaropoulos asked. "We weren't going to risk everything for greed."

Carrying minimal debt has helped LazGor to keep the lights on at its buildings by enabling the company to give occasional breaks on rent to struggling tenants.

When a mortgage broker who occupied 6,000 square feet at a property in Marlton went out of business, LazGor divided the space into four 1,500-square-foot blocks and leased the smaller offices to former mortgage workers who were starting their own businesses.

"We have eggs in many baskets," Lazaropoulos said.

They also are willing to float new concepts, including a suggestion that Moorestown and Maple Shade save money by constructing a joint municipal building on land that straddles both communities.

The partners have struck deals to trade buildings and have bought and sold the same self-storage facility on Route 38 in Maple Shade twice, reconfiguring the property to accommodate another structure.

Gorenstein keeps his ear to the ground, listening for parcels that whisper "convenience store," "quick casual restaurant" or "supermarket."

He recalled driving down a stretch of Route 38 in Hainesport and spotting a small stretch of land.

"It called out to me," he said. "It was screaming "bank.' "

Today, the parcel is the site of The Bank, a regional community bank.

The partners have been on both sides of the table with the financial institution. In addition to developing projects, they also have gone to The Bank to borrow money.

Even in an era of easy lending, Gorenstein and Lazaropoulos set themselves apart with hefty down payments, said Brad Skiles, senior vice president.

"Henry and Peter have always been willing to put their money into projects," he said. "They are good people who do what they say they are going to do, the kind of customers you want at a bank."

LazGor's current projects include a building for Susquehanna Bank on Route 73 in Marlton and an endoscopy center on Cooper Landing Road in Cherry Hill.

The partners also will upgrade the building that houses their headquarters on Greentree Road here, taking advantage of government incentives to install solar panels on the roof.

"It's a project that we are looking forward to," Lazaropoulos said, "good for us and good for the environment."

Reach Eileen Smith at (856) 486-2444 or esmith@courierpostonline.com

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