First Citizens’ Chris Niederpruem Takes Star Turn With Yonkers Film Studio Financing
When National Resources landed a $40 million construction loan from CIT Group on March 31, 2020, to fund the first first phase of its Lionsgate Studio project, known as iPark, in Yonkers, N.Y., the deal underscored a longstanding connection that the development firm and lender had forged over the past 15 years.
The transaction, which closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic after being in the works for six months, proceeded on schedule despite much uncertainty in the marketplace due in large part to CIT’s bond with the developer. CIT, which has since been acquired by First Citizens Bank (FCNCA), continues to work with the Westchester County developer as it looks to scale its iPark Hudson campus into one of the largest film studio complexes in the Northeast, spanning 1 million square feet.
“We’ve done countless, countless deals over the last decade with National Resources, and I would say 50 percent of our business is recurring with existing clients,” said Chris Niederpruem, head of real estate finance at First Citizens, who previously held the same role at CIT before the two firms merged in early 2022. “It is a relationship business focused on spending a lot of time getting to know the people that we’re lending money to and doing business with, and when we find comfort we like to repeat that.”
A $230 million refinance loan supplied by Credit Suisse affiliate Column Financial in April 2022 enabled National Resources to retire the First Citizens construction debt issued in 2020 for the first phase of the project. That first phase, at 28 Wells Avenue, debuted in early 2022.
Just before the construction loan for Lionsgate Studios was set in motion, Niederpruem, 48, had assumed a starring role at CIT as head of real estate finance in July 2019. He was part of a six-person team hired by CIT in 2011 to jump-start a real estate finance business from the ground up, with a heavy focus on relationship lending.
First Citizens’ merger with CIT added $32.71 billion of loans to First Citizens’ portfolio. The bank then further scaled its lending platform in March 2023 by acquiring more than $72 billion of Silicon Valley Bank’s loans for a discounted price of $16.5 billion following the regional bank’s collapse. Under Niederpruem’s leadership, First Citizens originated $2.3 billion of lending volume for calendar year 2022 despite the many headwinds buffeting commercial real estate from rising interest rates.
Tarrytown, N.Y.-based National Resources is an investment partner in the Yonkers studio venture with Lionsgate and , a media-focused investment fund run in the U.K. by Hallmark Channel founder Great Point Capital Management as well as Fehmi Zeko, a former vice chairman of Bank of America. Phase one’s January 2022 debut was in conjunction with Great Point announcing plans for a $500 million expansion of the campus. iPark, an entity of National Resources that invests in redevelopment corporate properties, is also a big player in the project.
One of First Citizens’ biggest deals last year involved a $34 million debt package led on behalf of iPark and Great Point Media — part of Great Point Capital Management — that will add 73,000 square feet of studio space to the Yonkers film development. The transaction closed in November, six months after CIT supplied a $12 million acquisition loan for the JV to purchase a property at 130 Fernbrook, one mile from the iPark campus that houses Hudson Scenic, a scenery, automation and production company. First Citizens is now working on executing a construction loan for the project.
iPark’s continued expansion with the goal of transforming Yonkers into “Hollywood on the Hudson” took another step with its acquisition in December of a nearby 28-acre campus called Leake & Watts for $52.6 million from nonprofit group Rising Ground, with plans to develop the property into another film studio and performing arts school.
National Resources first acquired the 24-acre iPark Hudson property in 1999 from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey when it was 50 percent leased to Kawasaki Rail Car, which established an assembly plant there in 1986. The site was largely industrial, but today it includes a mix of businesses to go along with its surging studio development led by Kawasaki Rail Car and Westchester County, which both have offices there.
After landing Lionsgate as an anchor film tenant, National Resources also lined up Mediapro and Syracuse University with long-term leases at iPark. MediaPro, a European film and television production company, is leasing a production facility on the property, while Syracuse is utilizing the campus for its Newhouse School of Public Communications’ New York City program for prospective film, radio and television students.
Joseph Cotter, president of National Resources, said there has been very strong interest since the development opened from streaming platforms, with a pop-up studio now on the site to accommodate overwhelming demand. The leases have been set up largely in five- to 10-year intervals, which Niederpruem noted is longer than normal for the film studio sector historically and has prompted the bank to explore more deals with the sector in other markets.
“You get some exposure to an industry that you would not necessarily otherwise have in the media, and you are getting a more traditional CRE developer and lease behind it,” Niederpruem said. “The demand for streaming content is driving demand for these studios.”
In addition to a desire to work for a longtime borrower client in an emerging asset class, Niederpruem was also drawn to the studio project’s location in a federally designated opportunity zone. That gave the developer tax benefits and a long-term reason to stay invested.
Cotter credited CIT with taking on a project that has provided numerous benefits to Yonkers in generating both economic activity and community engagement. He noted that the performing arts school planned for the Leake & Watts site will cater to local students in grades six through 12 and feature a curriculum developed by Syracuse’s Newhouse program.
“It’s all about partnership, it’s about engagement, it’s about making things happen, and it’s working with communities and making sure that everyone can get involved. And I think the bank has been smart and astute to continue to work in these areas because not every bank wants to be part of these kinds of deals,” Cotter said. “We felt great and validated that they supported us.”