By Bill Squier
Sep 1, 2007 - 5:23:59 PM
Notes on the trials and tribulations of getting the future highest building in Stamford off the ground
It’s a sticky, hot day toward the latter end of July, and in the pocket park at the southeast corner of Washington Boulevard and Broad Street, the trees are starting to turn yellow. The tiny forest is supposed to be moved so that a building can be put there, but there seems to be no rush to do it. So a week later, the 12 good-sized birch trees still wait, half in the ground, their root systems bound in burlap sacks.
|Real estate develoopers Donald J. Trump, Louis R. Cappelli and Thomas L. Rich next to a scale model of the future Tump Parc tower in Stamford|
Not a bad metaphor for the building that’s planned as their replacement: Trump Parc.
Like the trees, the luxury condominium spent much of last year in a state of suspension. Although development partners Louis R. Cappelli, Thomas L. Rich and Donald J. Trump see their building as ushering in the next phase of growth for downtown Stamford, the process of negotiating the city’s Planning and Zoning boards proved to be so lengthy that it appeared as though it was going to become another of the many residential projects that have stalled at the starting gate.
“Everything takes time,” states Thomas Rich in a surprisingly blasé manner, considering that he spent better than half a year before Stamford’s various review boards. “It added four or five months to the gestation of the building,” he concedes. “It was laborious, and complicated, and costly. But, [the Planning and Zoning boards] really have the citizens’ best interests at heart. And it has resulted in a spectacular building.”
|Thomas L. Rich|
All the same, Thomas Rich must have been eager to complete the process after having personally been involved with the property for what he guesses to be 25 years. “There have been 15 different possible plans since 1980,” he estimates, some of which even included a hotel. Rich formed 33 Broad Street Associates in partnership with Robert Kahn to develop the 2.7-acre lot, and they eventually succeeded at interesting the Target Corporation in building a store on the majority of the of the site.
“We sold them a portion of it, reserving the Trump Parc development parcel for a housing tower,” Rich explains. “It was always intended to be a two-phase, mixed-use development.” Once the Target store opened its doors in October 2004, Rich and Kahn turned their attention to the quarter acre next door.
|Donald J. Trump|
It was at this point that Westchester-based developer and general contractor Louis Cappelli entered the picture. “Tom and I met socially through friends about two years ago,” he recalls. Cappelli was not only experienced at building the kind of high-end, residential tower that Rich had in mind, but he also had an established relationship with real estate icon Donald Trump, whose participation was seen as a key ingredient. So, Cappelli purchased Robert Kahn’s interest in the property and arranged a meeting between Rich and Trump. “Donald liked Tom when he met him, and so we did the deal in about two weeks!” he reports.
Just as construction of the Landmark Tower in the early ‘70s signaled the city’s period of urban renewal, Cappelli and Rich envisioned their new building as a symbol of its exciting revival. The gleaming 37-story glass and cast stone structure would rise 425 feet, 400 of which would be usable living space, making it one of the tallest residences between New York and Boston. Every unit would feature nine-foot high floor-to-ceiling windows that offered panoramic views of the Connecticut hills, the Long Island Sound and the Manhattan skyline. Six duplex penthouses would share the top two floors, where even the master bathrooms would have a view of the same spectacular vista. And emblazoning the building with the name Trump would be the crowning touch.
Jessica Dee Rohm, Senior Managing Director, Cappelli Enterprises, Inc., describes the building’s intended residents as the “barbell market,” with well-to-do young professionals at one end and affluent “empty nesters” at the other. She sees Trump Parc as being of particular appeal to employees of large, nearby corporations, like the Untied Bank of Switzerland and the soon-to-be built Royal Bank of Scotland, and to Manhattanites who are looking for a bit more building for their “buck.” “A comparable building in Manhattan would be two and a half to three times more expensive,” Rohm points out. “And without the gorgeous views.”
Lori Levine is a marketing manager for a New York-based firm who lives in Springdale. She and her husband, a local food writer, represent the sort of couple that Trump Parc was hoping to attract. “There’s a part of me that’s a bit urban at heart,” Levine explains. “I moved here from New York in the early ‘80s and would have loved to have found an apartment that was walking distance from the theaters, restaurants and the train station.”
|Louis R. Cappelli|
Early indications were that the project would coast through the approval process. When Rich went before the city’s Environmental Protection Board in January 2006, the initial plans for the site were unanimously approved. A month later, the developers submitted their initial application to the city’s Planning and Zoning boards. Members of the Planning Board voiced some reservations about the height and bulk of the building, along with worries about how it would affect traffic in the downtown area. However, a detailed presentation by Cappelli and Rich led to the desired approval. And, once again, it was unanimous.
Cappelli and Rich made their first appearance before the city’s Zoning Board in April. The members of the board expressed concerns similar to those of the Planning Board about the building’s design. Despite general support from local businesses, along with a list of civic organizations that included the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Special Services District, the Stamford Partnership, the Regional Plan Association and the Mill River Collaborative, another hearing was scheduled and public comment was solicited.
The building’s projected height was the feature that drew the greatest amount of scrutiny. Several other projects had been approved for the downtown area at 350 feet, including an office tower originally planned by Houston-based Hines Interests for the site of the former post office at Atlantic and Federal Streets, so Cappelli and Rich hadn’t anticipated that asking for an additional 50 feet of “usable” height would inspire quite so much resistance. “Whether a building is 350 feet or 400 feet is meaningless to the person at grade level,” Cappelli notes.
Nevertheless, the development partners were prepared to offer the city something in exchange for granting them the extra height. “Developers get bonuses if they provide the city with amenities,” reports Director of Planning & Zoning, Robin Stein. “There’s a formula that applies mainly to office buildings that says for certain “bonus” square footage and height, one of the “amenities” can be a donation of land or money to purchase land for the Mill River greenbelt. An example of that is the RBS, where they actually bought properties along the west side of the Mill River.” In the case of Trump Parc, Cappelli and Rich proposed a donation of $580,000 to the Mill River Collaborative.
They also sought to satisfy Stamford’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance with a $2.9 million contribution for the creation of below market rate or “affordable” housing offsite. These kinds of “fee-in-lieu” contributions are typically held by the city until enough have accumulated to finance an affordable housing project. The Zoning Board also works with the Housing Development Fund to spend some of the money to purchase existing condominiums, which are resold at a reduced price.
The development partners also committed to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of downtown traffic-related improvements and sewer connection fees, along with a building permit fee of approximately $1.5 million and real estate transfer taxes of better than $3 million. “Are we up to $10 million yet?” asks Rich, running down the list.
Yet despite the enormous expense, Louis Cappelli believes that these sorts of payments—sometimes referred to as “community give-backs”—are essential to the development process. “Developers have a civic responsibility to partner with the community or ‘be a good neighbor,’” he stresses. “These sound like clichés, but they stand for the fact that we need to build public benefits and amenities and gain community trust.”
Discussion of the proposed building’s merits came to an almost immediate halt in June when Zoning Board member Nick Aivalias asked to recuse himself from the deliberations. Aivalias owns 84 Park Place West, which is on the same block at the Trump Parc site, and he believed that posed a conflict of interest. Further discussion was tabled until alternate board member David Stein could be brought in as a replacement.
In attempt to head off some of its specific objections to the design, Cappelli and Rich returned to the Zoning Board with revised plans. The changes included reducing the height by 20 feet, raising the parking lot overhang from 15 to 25 feet, widening the sidewalks by reducing the size of the ground floor and eliminating one of the entrances to the parking garage. Still, the Zoning Board rejected the revised tower as too large for the half-acre parcel. For the moment, the project appeared to be at an impasse.
It was a surprising turn of events for Louis Cappelli. “I expected an easier time,” he admits. “I was used to being courted a bit by municipalities where I was investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the revitalization of a downtown.” Rather than immediately returning to the Zoning Board with a third design, the development partners met privately with members of the board and the land use office to clarify their concerns. Then, it was back to the drawing board for the architectural firms of Costas Kondylis and Partners and Lessard Group.
Revised plans were submitted to the Zoning Board in September. The building was now 50 feet shorter than was originally planned, reducing its floors from 37 to 34 and whittling total number of condominiums from 184 to 170. One level of the parking garage was now below ground, and a valet parking system was added to allow more cars to be parked in less space. The only real grumbling on the part of the board was about the use of Donald Trump’s name on the building, but that was set aside in favor of a four-to-one vote of approval.
“Would we have wanted it 50 feet higher?” Rich asks, pondering the final design. “Yes. Is it fine at 350 feet? Yes. Are we going to make money at 350 feet? I think so.” So far, his optimism seems to be well placed.
Since the Trump Parc sales office opened a few months ago in the base of the neighboring Target building, Jessica Rohn reports that better than 30 units have been sold. A fully furnished “maintenance free” model apartment installed in the office proves to be every bit as luxurious as promised, although the décor is bit quieter than you’d find in the interior of Donald Trump’s other namesake buildings. And amenities like a screening room, a car spa, and very possibly, an onsite masseuse on Friday nights appear to be helping to close the deals.
Still, Lori Levine says she feels “passionately ambivalent” about Trump Parc. She admits to lingering worries about the building’s height and size and adds a concern for the lack of affordable housing that is actually located in the downtown area. “The middle class is completely squeezed out of Manhattan,” Levine notes. “My concern is that Stamford could very well become a mini New York, where only the rich can take advantage of living in an urban environment.”
Yet despite any residual misgivings, on a hot, sticky day at the beginning of August, someone is finally doing something about those trees at the corner of Washington and Broad. They’re being carted off, donated toStamford parks, to make way for the building’s foundation.
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