Developer Snubbed By Hartford Moves On, Taking Toad's Project With Him
September 19, 2006
Column By DAN HAAR
Toward the end of 1999, the owner of Toad's Place signed a letter saying, sure, he'd love to open a branch of his gritty, iconic New Haven music venue in Hartford's planned retail and entertainment town square.
Adriaen's Landing was young then and Front Street, the 6-acre square that would bring the giant redevelopment project to life, was the subject of bubbling enthusiasm.
Brian Phelps, owner of Toad's, had befriended John Elkington, who was helping to lay the plans for Front Street. Having built Beale Street in Memphis into a wildly successful blues mecca, Elkington wanted to shape Front Street with Toad's as a cornerstone.
Today, Toad's is expanding to a mid-size state capital an easy drive from New York - a city on a river, with a minor league hockey team, with several upscale apartment projects on the rise, and with hopes that subsidized retail and entertainment on a 6-acre parcel will lure people back from the suburbs.
The developer is John Elkington, who signed a $40 million deal to build 100 apartments, a 702-space parking garage and 140,000 square feet of stores and music venues on land controlled by a quasi-public authority.
But the city isn't Hartford - it is Trenton, N.J.
Elkington was snubbed as the Front Street developer not long after he reached out to Toad's and others. Since then, he has not looked back, taking on regional, mixed-use projects in Virginia, Mississippi, Memphis and now, Trenton.
Hartford's project, meanwhile, has eaten through a string of developers. A lawsuit is pending between one of the formerly anointed developers and the agency doling out money, and there is still no sign of a groundbreaking.
The people behind Adriaen's Landing insist these sorts of projects take time, and that it's better to do it right than rush. Adriaen's does have a convention center and hotel up and running alongside a science center under construction. The Front Street site is all prepped.
Still, Hartford can learn some lessons from the success of Elkington - who was flabbergasted when I told him about Front Street's woes a few days ago.
"I thought it was built," Elkington said. "That's a crime. There's no question that the property should be developed, and you can overcome the barriers."
Elkington said the numbers worked "perfectly" in Hartford - better than Trenton, which offered him a subsidy that appears thinner than the deal being dangled before the latest Front Street developer.
"That is one of the best pieces of property in the United States of America," said Elkington, principal of Performa Entertainment LLC. "It lays out perfectly."
As for Phelps and Toad's, Elkington said, "He could have done fabulously. The Hartford Times building was going to be the entrance to his club."
No two cities, no two projects, are the same. There is no way to know whether Elkington would have made good if he was chosen for Front Street. After he left the Hartford scene, there were questions about whether some of the retail and entertainment purveyors on his list of possibilities ever had a realistic chance of coming here.
But the cold fact is, Trenton, a city with less to offer by many measures, has a project further along than Hartford's, even though the New Jersey capital didn't launch its plan until 2002. That was four years after Adriaen's Landing had its splashy coming-out party.
Phelps, for his part, says he fully intended to bring Toad's to Front Street, even after Elkington was gone. There were various schemes, including a partnership with the Webster Theater. But that deal was just part of a foundering project; it's hard to agree on an appetizer when the kitchen is on fire.
"We tried for a long time. It just didn't happen," Phelps said. "It went on for a couple of years."
Elkington was hired as a consultant by Waterford Group, Adriaen's master developer, in 1999. He was immediately taken by Arch Street, site of the barroom haunt of then-Mayor Mike Peters and other colorful locals. His ideas helped sell the legislature on a $750 million public subsidy for downtown Hartford.
"After we got through the whole process of going to the legislature, we said, `We really want to develop this,'" Elkington said.
Elkington said it was Brendan Fox, the right-hand man of then-Gov. John G. Rowland, who wanted a different developer. "It was just too much politics. I don't know if you've ever worked with Rowland. There were certain people he wanted to be involved with," Elkington said.
Yes, Mr. Elkington, we've heard that.
Fox, a lawyer now in private practice, and Len Wolman, head of Waterford, both said this past week that Casden Properties - the developer chosen over Elkington - prevailed in a consensus opinion, in an open process.
It certainly wasn't purely politics. Elkington, by his own accounting, has far more financial strength now than he did six years ago. Also, he was more interested in retail and entertainment venues than housing - in fact, his proposal called for Casden to build the apartments.
Whatever the history, all these years later, Adriaen's Landing has no deal in place even though the plan has shrunk repeatedly.
Casden lasted a heartbeat and was followed by Richard Cohen, who signed an agreement but did not build and is now fighting with the state in court. Bradley Nitkin, the latest developer, signed a preliminary deal only this past February and is still haggling with the city and the Adriaen's Landing authority.
Risk is the heart of the issue. Naturally, developers of these sorts of multifaceted deals want taxpayers to pony up so much money that even the partnership of Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden could make a killing. But for the deal to really work, the developer has to feel it in his gut - enough to ink his or her name on bank loans in the millions.
The authority running the show must pick a developer it will follow into battle - not micromanage.
And the tenants, such as Toad's, must sign leases to go where no one has gone before.
In Trenton, Elkington will receive a $10 million, low-interest loan from the Garden State; full use of a parcel valued at $1.2 million; a $4 million subsidy for the condominiums; contracts for some daytime parking; and city tax abatements that are modest compared with the Hartford offer to Nitkin. The rest is on him.
Toad's - which is also licensing its name for a new location in Richmond, Va. - will sign to occupy 15,000 square feet of space in Trenton, at market rates - hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in rent.
The deal appears to be a triumph of private investment sweetened by public subsidy.
In Hartford, it remains to be seen whether private money even wants a piece of Front Street.
Elkington says he could still make it work in Hartford. For now, it sure looks like a good possibility went south.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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