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California Developer Breathes New Life Into Troubled Colt Gateway


April 07, 2009

A year ago, Lance Jay Robbins had never even set foot in Hartford.

Now, the California developer has taken on the financially troubled Colt Gateway redevelopment project, a massive undertaking that has languished for two years.

Robbins, a former real estate lawyer, hopes to finish the $120 million restoration of the former factory complex known for its blue onion dome after the last developer, Homes for America Holdings Inc., ran out of money.

Robbins, 62, aims to borrow from the success of his similar, recently completed Hope Artiste Village mill makeover in Pawtucket, R.I., which is getting glowing reviews and could serve as a model for Colt.

Even during a recession, Robbins and his development company, Urban Smart Growth, sees encouraging signs at Colt: All but one of the 44 apartments in the partially renovated south armory are now occupied. Eventually, plans call for 238 apartments in three buildings.

"People want to live there," Robbins said. "It may not be the hip locale of Hartford, but there's a real sense of history."

Robbins has a broad vision for creating a community bolstered by artists and entrepreneurs inhabiting large "live-work" spaces and serving as a draw for tourists. Already a national historic landmark, there is a push to have the property designated a national park.

To win back the confidence of public and private investors, Robbins said he will first have to clear out a slew of liens for unpaid bills. Homes for American Holdings found itself in a bind beginning in 2006 when a major lender, USA Capital, filed for bankruptcy.

Robbins declined to discuss the financial terms of the deal that allowed him to take over the development. Homes for America Holdings did not return a call asking for comment.

Robbins said he's up to the challenge, having begun his career as a real estate lawyer dealing with stalled real estate developments.

"I represented clients putting deals back together that had fallen apart," Robbins said.

While the project in Rhode Island has been well received, Robbins ran into trouble in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. He and a partner were cited for health and building code violations, according to published reports. Robbins told The Courant that the trouble was politically motivated. He said he pushed for the removal of "rent control" restrictions on landlords if they improved their buildings. That led to a backlash from affordable-housing advocates, he said.

It doesn't appear that the controversy from the West Coast followed him east after he turned to historic rehabilitation projects five years ago, most recently in Rhode Island.

Work could resume on Colt later this year, Robbins said, but acknowledged: "There's no question the economy will impact the project."

Robbins said there have been discussions with a major commercial tenant but declined to discuss details.

City and state officials say they are encouraged by the new leadership, and are now awaiting plans for development and financing. So far, the state has committed about $6.5 million to the project, and there is a chance $12 million of the state's economic stimulus money could go to the restoration.

David B. Panagore, Hartford's development director, said it is not uncommon for large redevelopments to move slowly.

"You look across the country," Panagore said, "and centerpiece projects don't happen overnight."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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