Emerging Europe

Poland’s property developers reach for the sky

City skyscrapers are seen from the Palace of Culture and Science building on the skyline of Warsaw, Poland.
Bloomberg/Contributor | Bloomberg

Warsaw's central business district skyscape veers between twenty-first century skyscrapers to dingy residential blocks from the Communist era.

There are plenty of cranes on the skyline as foreign investors have returned to Warsaw and investment levels have reaches pre-credit crisis levels. The value of real estate deals in Poland this year have exceeded those in the rest of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region.

"Yields are becoming better than before Lehman, and it's a more mature market," Pawel Debowski, head of Central Europe for law firm Dentons and a well-respected figure within the Warsaw property world, told CNBC.

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The market in core city centre office buildings is dominated by German companies like Allianz, with U.S. and British investors more interested in the slightly riskier (but potentially more profitable) developments, according to Debowski. Yields on prime developments average 6.25 percent for offices, 5.75 percent for retail, and 7.75 percent for industrial development, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

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Rents are still pretty cheap compared to major European cities like Paris or Berlin, with a square meter of prime Warsaw office space coming in at between 22-24 euros per month, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, which calls Warsaw "the key destination for commercial real estate development in the CEE region."

There has been relatively little high street development, mainly because many Polish consumers seem to be leapfrogging the traditional Western style high street into e-commerce. Planning laws also make it difficult to develop large pile 'em high-style shops. As a result, the amount of retail space per Warsaw resident is lower than anywhere else in Poland, according to Savills.

"Unless we see a serious improvement in the economy, there will be space," Debowski said.

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Trophy buildings are likely to continue to perform well, Debowski said. The Norman Foster-designed Metropolitan building is one such example.

Warsaw's property market is still scarred by its troubled past. The issue of expropriation is loaded with sentiment and symbolism, after occupation by both Germany and Russia. After the Second World War ended, many plots of land in Warsaw were expropriated by the Warsaw borough under Communism. Today, more than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still buildings, including several major hotels, whose ownership is disputed.

That makes it difficult for investment – particularly for German companies, who want to avoid the PR nightmare of looking like they have taken land which might belong to Poles.

"A line needs to be drawn under this," Debowski said.

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There are currently close to 50 office buildings under construction in Warsaw, or over 672,000 square meters of office space, according to Savills. This should mean that the amount of office space available will increase by around 25 per cent in the three years between 2013-16. Without a raft of new demand, this could put pressure on rents. Savills projects vacancies will be 12.4 percent in 2015, compared to a forecast of 10.1 percent for the end of 2013. An alternative to the central business district at Mokotow, closer to the airport, is seeing continued downward pressure on rents.

The highest returns are to be found in cities outside Warsaw, like Wroclaw, Krakow and Gdansk, where companies like Buma andSkanska are building offices to house the outsourced back office workers of the future, according to Debowski.

"Back offices are looking for locations with big universities and a young, educated workforce," he said.