Greenwich Developer Sees 'Social Goals' And A Good Business Opportunity
July 18, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer
Thirty-six years ago, Yale University graduate Bradley Nitkin
won an award given to a member of the Class of 1969 expected
to follow a career in public service, and set out with the rest
of his generation to change the world.
Several careers later, the 58-year-old Greenwich real estate developer
stood alone this year at the plot of land that was supposed to be
a lynchpin to the future of America's second-poorest city. On a March
morning, Brad Nitkin had driven up to Hartford to take a look at
a business opportunity the state of Connecticut was shopping to developers:
To build the shopping, entertainment and housing district at Adriaen's
As he walked the empty lot between
the Connecticut Convention Center and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum
of Art, Nitkin said he had "an
He could do this. And in so doing, he could unite several threads
of his life: the Eagle Scout who attended Yale on an academic scholarship
and set out to make a better world; the lawyer who built his own
real estate company after learning real estate through his law practice,
rather than having the knowledge and connections handed down from
his family; the developer with a passion for vibrant urban places
and a relationship with one of America's foremost architects.
Nitkin said he pulled out his
cellphone and called his office as soon as he got back to his car. "I want to do this project," he
told them in Greenwich.
Four months later, Nitkin has emerged as the third - and possibly,
the last - developer in the state's tortured five-year search for
a private-sector partner who could build the housing, shops, restaurants
and entertainment attractions at Adriaen's Landing.
A year after the state ejected
Richard Cohen, the second developer it had tapped to build the "Front Street" district,
Nitkin and state officials hope to execute an agreement by the
end of the summer that would give the Greenwich developer the reins
to the $150 million project.
"A lot of the things I've done in my life have prepared me
for this," Nitkin said last week in his first extensive interview
on his plans in Hartford. "It fits in with so many of my social
Listening to a developer talk about his social goals might sound
a bit like a wolf trying to sell you on the ecological benefits of
predation. But Nitkin doesn't deny that he intends to make money
in Hartford. As a developer whose company is in the middle of a $100
million-plus development project in the center of Greenwich with
celebrated architect Robert A.M. Stern, Nitkin says there are many
places he could make money.
The place he says he is passionate about doing that is Hartford,
in part because of the impact that he believes a successful Front
Street could have on such a beleaguered city.
"There are so many strands in my life, all of which come together
in this project," Nitkin said. "I've made the commitment
to the state that I will be personally involved in all aspects of
this project. I think this is the sort of project you can't do halfway."
The developer also is exploring
the possibility of building at least 200 owner-occupied condominiums,
instead of rental apartments as Cohen had planned. Nitkin also
says he's negotiating with several local television stations about
building a "Today" show-type
studio in the center of the district that could be a base for local
telecasts as well as a public attraction.
ESPN is still planning to build an entertainment attraction as part
of the Front Street district, and some details of the television
sports network's plans have begun to emerge.
"The ESPN Experience" is the working title for an attraction
that would combine elements of a sports hall of fame with interactive
electronic games. "It's something like a sports museum and an
interactive experience, where you get to see sports historical memorabilia
on display, but you also get to interact with different kinds of
displays," Nitkin said.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez said he likes what he has heard from Nitkin,
especially the developer's interest in building condominiums instead
of apartments. The city controls federal loan money and a property
tax deal, financing crucial to the project's success.
"Everything I've talked to him about is right on the money," Perez
said. "Those [loans and tax deals] are things that are on the
table, and they are more on the table with a guy like this who's
talking my music. We're [singing] off the same music sheet."
Strengths And Weaknesses
A look at the experience and record of HB Nitkin would give anyone
handicapping Nitkin's chance of pulling off the project reason for
optimism, as well as concern. Many real estate experts say urban
projects that mix residential, shopping, restaurants and entertainment
on one site are among the toughest development challenges.
They are difficult to engineer because of the physical density of
the site, which also must incorporate multiple uses. They are difficult
to finance because lenders are used to financing one type of project,
such as retail or residential, but rarely finance a single project
that mixes both. But where they have been completed, in Bethesda,
Md., and Arlington, Va., they have been successful.
The state struck out, however, in trying to attract developers who
have built those projects to Hartford.
"That would worry me," said Michael Beyard, a senior resident
fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., an information
clearinghouse for the real estate industry. "It tells me that
there is a risk here that the city and state are not recognizing,
to the extent that they may have to kick in more to make it happen.
... This is not like building in West Hartford. [Downtown Hartford]
is not a proven location at this point."
HB Nitkin, which specializes in breathing life into tired suburban
shopping centers, something it has done successfully for two centers
in Cromwell, has never built that type of complex, mixed-use project
in a city.
"He hasn't done that kind of project. There aren't a whole
bunch of developers who have, frankly," said John F. Palmieri,
the city's director of development services.
But what has impressed city and state officials and other local
observers most about Nitkin is the team the developer has assembled,
including Stern's highly prestigious New York City architectural
firm. Stern is also dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
"I'd like to think if anybody can make this happen, [Nitkin]
can," Palmieri said. "He has collected the people who really
understand these issues. I think that's what we see: a well-balanced
team of professionals to work with them to ensure that he can do
Although the convention center
is now open, the Front Street site still felt very much like a
construction zone last week. Workers were completing the first
parking garage on the site, while across Columbus Boulevard at
the convention center's new hotel, crews had placed "A-R-R-I-O" in large red letters, on the way to
spelling "Marriott" on the hotel, which will open this
Nitkin says he has already flown
a prominent national retailer to the site at his expense to sell
it on the city and the project. He says he is now in negotiations
with that "drop-dead" national
retailer - he would not disclose the company - for a prime slot fronting
on Columbus Boulevard.
"As soon as they saw Hartford and saw Adriaen's Landing, they
said they wanted to be part of that project," Nitkin said. "The
problem was getting them to come."
He said he would even charter a private jet to bring prospective
tenants to the site because he is so confident that once retailers
see the projects in downtown Hartford, they will be sold on the city.
Nitkin declines to give specifics of his plan, but he says he has
been sounding out Hartford political, neighborhood and institutional
leaders about what they would like to see at Front Street, as well
as traveling to major real estate conventions to pitch the project
to tenants and brokers.
Nitkin's retail experience is
his company's greatest strength, say state and city officials.
Nitkin has submitted a list of "representative
national and retail tenants" to the state that includes many
household names: Lilly Pulitzer, Jos. A. Bank, J. Crew, Chico's and
Talbot's, Maggie Moos ice cream, P.F. Chang, Bertucci's, Starbucks,
Borders books and Smith & Hawken.
That doesn't mean that any of those retailers are coming to Hartford.
"This is reflective of the type of people we do business with," Nitkin
said. "Some of the people are people we would be bringing this
project to. But I'm not saying these specifically are the tenants
we would want to bring to Hartford."
One thing Nitkin said he doesn't
know yet is what the formal name for the housing, shopping and
entertainment district will be, although he said "Front Street" is
definitely in the running.
One of the reasons Nitkin said he got into real estate was because
he wanted to make places, in addition to making money.
"I sort of felt that in real estate you could really have an
impact on how people live, and affect people's environments," Nitkin
said. "I think what we're going to be doing in Hartford is to
create a genuine and authentic place."
When Nitkin left Yale, after attending classes with George W. Bush
and other leaders in the first wave of the baby-boom generation,
his professors told him that their generation would shape the nation's
future. Nitkin believed it.
Nitkin left New Haven for West Los Angeles, where he worked for
a Great Society anti-poverty agency as part of his service to VISTA
- Volunteers in Service to America - the domestic equivalent of the
Peace Corps. Nitkin also worked for New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay
and on the staff of Ogden Reid, a congressman from New York State.
But Nitkin ultimately left public service, going to law school and
specializing in tax and real estate law. He and his wife, Helen,
a former commercial real estate broker in New York City, founded
HB Nitkin in the mid-1980s.
In recent years, the Nitkins' philanthropy has benefited Greenwich
Hospital, Outward Bound, the Yale architecture school and other organizations.
Brad Nitkin also serves on the executive board of the Greenwich council
of the Boy Scouts of America.
Ultimately, Nitkin's social goals will have little to do with whether
the Hartford project flies or crashes.
One person who will need to work closely with Nitkin, Wadsworth
Atheneum director Willard Holmes, said he hopes that Nitkin will
be every bit the tough and mercenary businessman that Cohen was,
because the project demands it. Holmes said he is optimistic that
in the state's third courtship with a developer, it may finally have
found a match, especially because Stern's firm is involved.
"I have a lot of respect for Richard
Cohen and I have a lot of respect for Brad Nitkin," Holmes said. "I
think in a funny kind of way, [Nitkin] might be the right person
at the right time, rather than [as Cohen was] the right person at
the wrong time.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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