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Creating Colt

Developer Lance Robbins isn't sugarcoating the challenges that remain to make Colt Gateway a viable part of the community

Daniel D'Ambrosio

August 18, 2009

California developer Lance Robbins keeps one of the 44 completed apartments at Colt Gateway for his use when he's in town to check on his latest effort to bring a dilapidated industrial complex back from the dead. Forty-two of the remaining apartments are rented.

Robbins' employees with Urban Smart Growth, the company he founded, also use the apartment when they're called in from USG projects in Rhode Island to help out with the ongoing effort to rehabilitate the former Colt gun factory. Robbins wants to make Colt Gateway "one of the nicer addresses around."

"You should see it at night," he says, looking out the bank of windows in the apartment at Colt's iconic blue onion dome and downtown Hartford beyond. "All that lights up and the dome lights up and it's just tremendous. I mean it's a million-dollar view."

But before more Hartford residents are able to enjoy that six-figure view plans call for a total of 262 apartments in the North, South and East armories Robbins has a financial mountain to climb, a swirling pool of oil contamination to remediate, and a mystique to build.

At least Robert MacFarlane and his New York-based company Homes for America Holdings, are out of the way. After taking over the property in 2003, MacFarlane finally bowed out last spring when his convoluted financing collapsed with the bankruptcy of his primary lender, Las Vegas-based USA Capital.

"The place was left in such a financial mess that unscrambling the eggs is really a process," said Robbins.

The key to moving Colt forward, says Robbins, is Sovereign Bank, which holds the mortgage on the all-important East Armory, capped by the blue dome. If Colt receives the National Historic Park designation Rep. John Larson, D-CT, has been pushing for, the East Armory will be the focus of the park, housing a Colt museum. Colt was designated a National Historic Landmark last year.

Unfortunately Sovereign is having a hard time deciding what to do with the mortgage they hold on the property, according to Robbins, because it's worth far less at this point than the amount they loaned against it.

"They're in a tough spot, their collateral is badly impaired," said Robbins. "It's a tough decision for them whether to invest more funds or take their loss and try to sell their note."

Robbins declined to say how much Sovereign has invested in Colt. The original amount made available to MacFarlane in June 2005 was $28 million, but USG's David Saadeh said not all of that money was loaned out. Saadeh couldn't say how much was loaned. Sovereign Bank did not return a call for comment.

Despite everything, Robbins says he's optimistic Sovereign will remain involved in the project.

"It literally takes 15 cooperating people to get this place back in one piece and moving again. That's how broken it is," says Robbins. "I've never seen anything this complicated."

Robbins also faces a complicated problem where environmental contamination is concerned. The Colt site is a brownfield, the term coined by the Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1990s for polluted former industrial sites that can't be developed until the pollution is cleaned up or capped. MacFarlane remediated some, but not all, of the contamination at Colt, mostly oil, according to Robbins..

"The oil pollution is just a mess," says Robbins. "In some sense that's still one of the biggest anchors around this project. When Colt left [in the early 1990s] they left a lot of oil in the ground and when the oil is mixed in with the foundations of four huge buildings, you can't just scoop it out."

Brian Dillon, brownfield manager at the state Department of Economic Development, is overseeing an effort to figure out what it's going to take to deal with the remaining contamination at Colt.

"In the coming weeks we're going to dig test pits to evaluate the soil and determine what the extent of the petroleum contamination is," he said. "At this point we're not cleaning anything up, we're just doing due diligence."

Once the financial flotsam is cleared and the environmental pollution is cleaned up, Robbins faces one last big hurdle to making Colt a success: creating a buzz. He sees the artists painters, photographers, dancers, bakers and more who populated Colt before MacFarlane kicked them out, as the key to that success.

"That was a viable artistic community, from what everybody told me," says Robbins.

Robbins wants to recreate that artistic community, and add a restaurant with a bar and "music of all sorts." He wants art openings, and concerts and other events, a real cultural scene. Like everything else at Colt, that may not be an easy thing to accomplish.

Ron Masse, of Dunne & Masse lamps, was one of the artists kicked out of Colt in 2003. Masse made custom lamps for customers around the world, ranging from major casinos and hotels to individual homeowners. He moved first to Parkville after leaving Colt, but now has closed his shop because of the bad economy. He's working part-time at an Apple store to make ends meet. Sadly, another victim of the economy was perhaps Colt's best known former resident, David Glass of Desserts by David Glass. Glass had moved his business to Bloomfield, but announced last week he was shutting down after 28 years.

"My business is essentially in sleep mode and may come back at some point in time," says Masse.

But Masse says he won't be clamoring to return to Colt, despite Robbins' desire to recreate what was once there.

"The place is empty now and he wants back the people who made Colt a success," says Masse. "Look, if he had that place rented he wouldn't give us the time of day. Most of the artists who lived there will feel the same way."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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