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Colt Lives

Yet another developer faces the challenge of reviving Hartford's Colt project

Daniel D'Ambrosio

April 07, 2009

When Robert MacFarlane, chief executive officer of Homes for America Holdings, took over Hartford's crumbling Colt factory in 2002, he promised two things. Colt would be reborn as a residential and retail anchor for the city, MacFarlane told the Hartford Courant, and HFHA "absolutely 100 percent" would never sell the property.

MacFarlane is 0 for 2. He has been eased out of ownership in Colt by a new developer Lance Robbins of Los Angeles-based Urban Smart Growth and Colt is still far from reborn, although MacFarlane at least kept it on life support.

Robbins explained in an interview last week that MacFarlane's financing for the $100 million-plus Colt project came crashing down when a key lender Las Vegas-based USA Capital collapsed in bankruptcy.

"Homes for America had a house of cards lined up and if any one card fell they all fell," said Robbins. "USA Capital was the one that fell and then everything had to go."

Which is not to say USA Capital is out of the picture yet, as the company still holds a mortgage on a piece of the Colt property. Robbins left the financial structure MacFarlane created in place because tearing it apart would have caused even bigger problems.

"You got to pick your battles and there are hundreds of them already," said Robbins.

Robbins had some battles of his own more than a decade ago in Los Angeles when he ran afoul of the city and Inquilinos Unidos, a tenants' rights group. In March 2002, the Los Angeles city attorney announced a $1.2 million settlement with Robbins to cover water and electricity bills going back 10 years at a dozen buildings where he was the landlord, and a $200,000 payment to settle with Inquilinos Unidos.

"Under the agreement, Robbins has also provided a list of 29 buildings with which he is involved," stated a press release. "Although he continues to deny that he owns the properties, he has pledged to maintain safe living conditions at the properties, to keep the DWP bills current, and not retaliate against the tenants."

The press release went on to say Robbins had been convicted eight times of criminal slum violations, "far more than any other Los Angeles landlord," with the most recent conviction coming in February 2001.

In December 2005, the state of California revoked Robbins' real estate broker's license, citing three misdemeanor charges at one of his buildings for a blocked emergency exit, a faulty fire extinguisher and a lack of proper fire alarms, according to the Los Angeles Times. The judge also took into consideration that "from 1986 to 2001 Robbins was convicted of at least 27 violations of city building codes involving multiple properties."

Robbins told the Advocate his problems in Los Angeles amounted to retaliation against him for his strategy of bringing private investment into depressed areas of the city by weakening rent controls essentially gentrification.

He said he sued the city of Los Angeles 17 times over what were eventually ruled illegal liens placed on his clients' buildings Robbins is an attorney for unpaid utility bills. That gave him a very high profile, he said, and made him a target.

"These utility bills went back years and years," said Robbins. "Some clients took over bad bills and some didn't. That's what the courts are for, to resolve those issues."

Robbins points out that he hasn't had a housing code violation on anything he owns since 1999 (the 2001 conviction was for an incident in 1999), and that he's had no trouble with Urban Smart Growth projects in Pawtucket, Providence, and North Providence, R.I., Bloomfield, N.J., Columbus, Ohio, Portland, Ore., Marysville, Calif., and Belville, N.C.

"The only place I've had this issue is where I grew up," said Robbins. "It's more about the politics."

In addition to USA Capital, the major lenders on the Colt project are Sovereign Bank (owned by Santander, a Spanish bank), Citizen's Bank (owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is more than 90 percent owned by the British government) and Chevron Corp., which got involved for tax credits, but also has an equity stake.

Robbins declined to say how much of his own money he has put into Colt, beyond a "six-figure deposit to get something going" and a year's worth of his time to get to the bottom of the finances he hopes.

"Going in I figured it was complicated," said Robbins. "I will never know when I've peeled the last layer of the onion back."

Robbins figures it will require another $30 million to $40 million to finish the job at Colt. Still he gives MacFarlane credit for the "creative insanity" that kept the project alive.

"It took some overly optimistic expectations for anybody to have undertaken Colt," said Robbins. "The problems in that place were so deep in terms of structures, market penetration, pollution if anybody researched it all they never would have started."

Robbins cites Hope Artiste Village, a USG project in Pawtucket, R.I., that turned a former webbing mill into a complex of homegrown businesses, apartments, and a farmer's market, as a perfect example of what he hopes to achieve at Colt.

"[Hope Artiste Village] is going along like gangbusters," said Harvey Goulet, chief of staff to Pawtucket Mayor James Doyle. "They probably got about 80 different businesses, retail and wholesale. There are two restaurants and lounges and they're both doing very well."

Goulet said the farmer's market is "jammed" with up to 1,000 people on a Sunday. He credits USG with bringing new life to a factory complex that had turned into "one big mess" after it was abandoned some 30 years ago.

Robbins notes that Colt had developed its own collection of low-rent lamp makers, bakers, artists and dancers before they were squeezed out when MacFarlane took over.

"That's what Colt should be, a gathering place for all kinds of people to do all kinds of things," said Robbins. "When they threw out what I'll call the guerilla artist community there, they made a major mistake. They had an organic, authentic community. They should have built on it. Instead they wiped it out."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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