It seems like every day another retailer files bankruptcy.  Many more have frozen new deals, cancelled scheduled openings and even closed open stores. A shopping center landlord must monitor tenant monthly gross sales reports and tenant public filings to anticipate which of its tenants are or could become problem tenants. The landlord should also act quickly to declare a default of a tenant which is not paying rent and other charges timely.  One strategy for a tenant is to withhold rent to build a war chest before it files bankruptcy. A landlord that terminates a lease prior to the tenant filing for bankruptcy protection has significantly improved its leverage.  A well drafted lease, including tight permitted use clauses, can also increase the landlord’s bargaining power.

A relatively new development is "designation rights." A tenant with multiple locations files for bankruptcy. The tenant then has the right to accept or reject its leases. The tenant sells this right to a "designation rights acquirer."  The acquirer seeks a return on its investment by finding new tenants to purchase the leases. In a successful center, the landlord may become vulnerable to having the lease assigned to a party the landlord would prefer not to have in its center, or at rates less than the landlord could otherwise obtain. So another potential income stream to the designation rights acquirer is payment from the landlord  in exchange for the designation rights acquirer rejecting the lease because the landlord does not want to take the chance of having a bad assignment. As more and more retailers are stopping expansion plans, it is possible that designation rights will become less valuable because the designation rights acquirer will both have a smaller universe of potential assignees and because the landlord may be more willing to accept a larger universe of assignees.

The new Bankruptcy Code amendments to Section 365(d)(4) which effectively shortened the period for a tenant to accept or reject a lease was supposed to give the landlord more leverage (120 days/extenable to 210 days).  However, sticking to the rejection period and taking all of the other steps will do no good if there is no demand for the space. The economic reality may still cause the landlord to extend the rejection period and work with the designation rights acquirer. So the real question is whether there is simply too much retail space built and how do we absorb the existing space? One answer seems to be mixed use – adding office and residential into the retail center. In any event, it is clear we will see a shake up in the retail industry in 2009.