Gregory Van der Elst
Country Director Portugal
ATENOR

14 December 2021

ATENOR is a listed international real estate company specialized in developing sustainable urban large scale and mixed-use projects in 10 countries across Europe, including Portugal.

ATENOR has been gaining speed in Portugal, what is your footprint here at the moment?

Overall, ATENOR has 1,3 million square meters under development in ten countries around Europe, roughly 40% in residential, 55% in offices, and 5% in others projects. In 2019, we acquired our first project in the Expo area in Lisbon. I have been living here and heading the subsidiary for two years now, and I am loving the experience. The choice of Portugal fits in the first stage of ATENOR’s development strategy, which consisted in an expansion at European level. We always choose cities where we invest carefully with a view for the long term, and build a local team.

Our objective is always to contribute to the attractiveness of the city in all its dimensions by bringing our know-how. As such, we always invest in locations where the market is of a certain size and has proven to be very dynamic. 

 

Lisbon, which was a forgotten capital city a decade ago, has now proven its attractiveness as a fantastic place to live but also work. Although Lisbon offered an office market of approximately 4,3 million square meters, there were more and more international companies looking for space to establish or to expand their business in the city, whilst there was clearly a scarcity of offices. Moreover, the current stock was aging and could not meet the habitability and sustainability requirements.

 

The WellBe project in Lisbon’s Park of Nations seems to be coming together very well, what has been your experience bringing it to life?

As a first step in Portugal, we decided to invest in a plot of land in the consolidated area of the Parque das Nacoes. This area is a prime example on how Portugal and Lisbon successfully reconverted an industrial land to accommodate the World Exposition of 1998, and afterwards turned it into a prime business and residential area perfectly connected to the city center and the airport. This is where we decided to build the WellBe project, a mixed space of offices and retail of approximately 30,000 square meters.  With WellBe, we are really striving to set a new market standard in terms of usability and sustainability and to confirm the quality of the building with Passive House, WELL and BREEAM certifications. WellBe is the first construction in Portugal to be pre-certified by the IWBI and once delivered, it will be certified shell and core BREEAM "Excellent" as well as WELL “Platinum”. 

How high is sustainability on the list of priorities when it comes to consumer and industry demand?

Sustainability is a must-have feature nowadays when developing office spaces. On the one hand, sustainability is now high on the agenda of large occupiers whether from the private or the public sector and on the other hand, most institutional investors will now only invest in buildings with a high proven level of sustainability. We have been focusing on sustainable developments for two decades now and easily incorporated the guidelines from the SDG’s of the United Nations and the EU Taxonomy. Last year, ATENOR published its first sustainability report and issued its first Green Bonds dedicated to finance sustainable projects. Portugal is closely following into this trend, especially since its office sector is in need of a strong modernization.

ArchiLab is a tool that helps you envision the “office of the future” - how do you think this sector will look like in Portugal?

ArchiLab has indeed been our ThinkTank where we share our international experience and exchange with external specialists our vision of the city in all its dimensions.  We address issues related to architecture, technology, social trends and sustainability. But ArchiLab is not only used to generate new ideas and visions, but also to concretely develop our strategy and methods for future ATENOR developments. 

In Portugal, like in the rest of the world, right now, things are a bit uncertain. Everything has been accelerated by the pandemic, which has really been an eye opener for certain companies and for others allowed them to put into practice their “New Ways of Working”. This being said, the fact that large tenants are reviewing their policy in terms of occupation have caused a slowdown of the take-up in 2021 as compared to 2019 and even to 2020. For us the most important element is providing flexibility – allowing people to fit out the building to their needs. The pandemic showed us that, although partial home-working may become a must, the office sector remains relevant because people need human interaction and social contacts, they want to be part of a company or a team and, consequently, will be more productive and creative. Companies will need to reorganize their offices and make them more employee-oriented, with, for example, larger collaboration spaces and lounge areas. We also strongly believe cities are the future because that is where people live and work, and office buildings should be located within good reach of public transportation.

What are some of the main challenges a new developer encounters on the Portuguese market?

When coming to a foreign country, the local culture is the first aspect a newcomer will need to adapt to. What we have observed is that Portuguese people have difficulties to say “no”. As a consequence, people here tend to be too approving and sometimes this can be a misleading approach, and external factors can get in the way. When in Portugal, it is important to have a local team in place in order to understand the cultural environment and market. The latter is still gaining maturity and may not be as transparent as in countries from the northern part of Europe. 

In Portugal many transactions are still speculative, particularly as far as land is concerned. Many projects cannot be developed because land or building owners often have expectations that do not match reality. This is partially because rents and prices have been increasing greatly over the last years, and owners often extrapolate this same growth rate for the future. Fortunately, things are changing for the better and good practices are being instituted. Then there is, of course, the challenge of lengthy licensing, but this issue can be found all over Europe, truth be told.

What is the main objective you want to achieve in Portugal over the next two to three years?

In Portugal, as in all our other countries, we are now entering the second phase of our development strategy – consolidating local presence and projects. We would like to take part in urban rehabilitation programs and transform obsolete buildings into grade A, modern offices and, to help rejuvenate Portugal’s main cities.

What would be a final message regarding the real estate market in Portugal?

Portugal and Lisbon have been evolving very rapidly in the past decade, with a lot of improvements both in terms of refurbishments and infrastructure. They are on the radar of real estate investors, but also a variety of companies looking to move offices here. Whilst we previously saw lower value-added services such as call centers moving to Portugal, there is now great variety. This, of course, is also possible thanks to the high level of education. Although we must not forget that the country really opened its doors to the world only in 1974, the young generation is slowly but surely shaking up the establishment. This reverberates in the way people live and work, which is not without consequence on the real estate market. Portugal holds immense potential and now is the best time to capitalize on it.

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