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Meir Rinde

 

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The Solaris Group's design for Plaza Mayor looks a lot like a rejected proposal by the Providian Group. Is it all about connections?

 

By Meir Rinde

November 2, 2006

  

Developer Ted Amenta and his financial backers, the Solaris Group, were selected a year ago to build the “gateway” project at Park and Main streets.

But their plan for two cylindrical towers of 11 and 17 stories soon ran into opposition. Neighbors complained about the towers’ height and the shadows they would cast, and historic preservationists said the project’s design was out of scale with the rest of the street.

The city said it could not provide $17 million in subsidies that were called for in the project’s $64 million budget. In fact, officials said they had never promised they would come up with that much money.

So this summer, Amenta cried uncle and abandoned the big towers.

“We went through this public feedback process. It’s been excruciating,” he told the commissioners of the Hartford Redevelopment Agency (HRA). “Just so you know, the towers are gone.”

In the past few months he has changed the design so none of the buildings is more than five stories. It still includes the original design’s plaza, called the Plaza Mayor, and some commercial space. The cost is now $32 million, including $6 million in subsidies.

And yet in some ways the new design is familiar.

When the HRA commissioners selected Amenta as developer in October 2005, they rejected the one other proposal they had gotten, from Joseph and Frank Citino of Providian Builders.

Providian wanted to build 75 apartments, commercial space, and an elevated plaza for $26 million, a bit less than Amenta’s new design will cost.

Originally Providian’s proposal called for $5 million in subsidies, but later the company said it would need no subsidy at all if it were picked.

At the time, the city’s director of development, John Palmieri, told commissioners that Providian’s design was “an attractive one” that “blends comfortably with the architecture and scale of the neighborhood,” according to minutes of the October meeting.

But he also said the company had provided insufficient information about how it intended to finance the work and what residential units would cost, and said he was concerned that Providian did not have experience with such a large project.

At the same time, Palmieri said he was also concerned about the “sheer size and complexity” of Amenta’s more ambitious plan, as well as its high price. But he liked Amenta’s experience and in the end he recommended the commissioners select Amenta’s proposal over the Providian concept. The commission unanimously approved Palmieri’s choice.

 

Even before that vote, questions had arisen about the fairness of the selection process.

The Solaris Group includes Carlos Lopez, a donor to Mayor Eddie Perez who had previously obtained a long-term concession operating a city parking garage under controversial circumstances. There was also a conflict of interest issue with the group’s consultant, Miguel Matos, who was a board member at the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which would provide some of the project’s subsidies. In essence, he would have some authority over a state grant from which he himself would benefit. (The attorney general investigated, and Matos quit CCEDA last November.)

In addition, the HRA appeared to be giving Amenta’s Plaza Mayor more attention than Providian’s proposal. In response to the city’s concerns he offered to scale it down, and the commissioners discussed ways it could be built for less money.

Architects for Providian asked why they hadn’t been offered a chance to get feedback from the city.

Providian “crafted something that is financially doable,” architect Chris Hall said, according to the minutes. “If they had known they could go after $10 million in public assistance that would have had a huge impact on their proposal. …If the other developer is offered a chance to change their design, Providian Builders would like the same opportunity.”

One commissioner, John Harris, initially said he was concerned about voting for a proposal that might have to be altered later on. “[Harris] would not like to select a developer and then have that plan sufficiently changed so it no longer looks like the original proposal submitted,” the minutes say. “That would be unfair to the other developer.”

Palmieri put an end to the discussion, saying he “takes offense when one developer suggests that the other developer has manipulated the system,” the minutes say. “He has been in the development business for 25 years, and the agency may select a developer who will revise his proposal because of community input. It happens all the time.”

Four months later similar issues arose again at another HRA meeting, when Palmieri asked for an extension on the deadline for signing a formal agreement with Amenta. Harris said he was uncomfortable with the request. “In terms of fairness, the commissioners felt that the other developer would not meet the deadlines or the financial requirements for the project,” the minutes say. “Now, the chosen developer is making a good faith effort, but also not meeting those same requirements.”

It’s unclear how Harris was placated; the group went into executive session, a secret discussion took place, and the extension was approved. Harris could not be reached by press time.

 

Despite many months of negotiations with stakeholders and Palmieri’s continued efforts to smooth Amenta’s way with the HRA commissioners, by this summer the project was foundering.

While some in Park Street’s business community liked the towers, neighborhood activists were howling. Part of the site is in the South Green Historic District, and the state’s Historic Preservation Office made it clear the towers were unacceptable. The city told Amenta that, notwithstanding any prior understandings, it wasn’t coming up with the $17 million subsidy he and Solaris wanted.

“Initally I thought we might be at an impasse that we might not be able to get through,” Palmieri told the commissioners in August. “But some very important discussions have taken place over the past month.” Amenta, who is a colorful speaker, made a lengthy presentation explaining his shock at realizing his project was “completely wrong” and agreed to scale it down. And then he presented a new design that looked a lot like what Providian Builders had proposed more than a year earlier.

This week, Providian president Joseph Citino said he wasn’t sure if Amenta’s proposal really resembled his; he’d been out of the country for much of the past month and hadn’t seen newspaper coverage of the new Plaza Mayor. But when he heard about Amenta’s design, with its five-story limit and smaller cost, he acknowledged it sounded familiar.

“We did a lot of research and put a lot of work into the plan we submitted,” Citino said. “We have 20-plus years of experience in the city, so I had a good sense what would work on that corner.

“It’s nice to see that my presentation didn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said with a laugh.

Citino is busy; he just built what he described as the city’s only gated community, a block from the Plaza Mayor site, and he’s planning to build condominiums on Main Street just north of I-84. He said he’s confident he was qualified to build the Park Street gateway too, but he declined to discuss why the HRA picked Amenta instead of him.

“My funding was in place. I had what I needed to pull that deal off,” he said. “As far as why we weren’t picked, that’s the process. It is the way it is.”

  

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