Hartford’s latest, and greenest, downtown tower runs into a snag
April 14, 2010
Abul Islam, the relentlessly optimistic Pakistani immigrant who built a thriving civil engineering firm in Middletown and now wants to build a 12-story tower in downtown Hartford, has run into yet another challenge to the LEED-certified “technical center” he believes will lead the city into an era of “green” growth.
Islam’s property at 3 Constitution Plaza — recently cleared of the former Broadcast House — is bordered on Columbus Avenue by the old Clarion Hotel, the long-abandoned eyesore owned by the Maharishi Global Development Fund of Fairfield, Iowa. About six months ago, Islam began negotiating with the Maharishi fund for air rights at the border of their properties that will allow him to situate his building in the most efficient way possible, and still go up 12 stories.
Islam explained in an interview with the Advocate this week that a restriction going back to the 1960s would limit his building to three stories on a “sliver of land” commonly owned by him and the Maharishi fund because of a complex set of air rights controlled by the fund.
The Maharishi fund could grant Islam the right, however, to build to the full 12 stories he is planning — or perhaps even 13 stories depending on how things go — on the commonly owned land, a strip about 40 feet wide, according to Islam.
“We are having a very good dialogue with the [Maharishi Global Development Fund],” says Islam. “We should be able to conclude in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping it gets resolved and we come to an understanding. We’ll go from there.”
Islam says he will have to compensate the Maharishi fund for their air rights, and that the terms of that deal are being discussed. Islam is also talking to the Maharishi fund about the impact of his building on their property.
“It is mutually beneficial,” says Islam. “Once the [AI] building is done, their building becomes more valuable.”
The multi-billion-dollar global enterprise of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — the famous guru to the Beatles — bought the abandoned Clarion Hotel for $1.5 million in 1994. The Maharishi’s representatives claimed the hotel would be restored, or perhaps remade into a Maharishi Vedic University where students of transcendental meditation, originated by the Maharishi, could come to study.
Instead the hotel was left empty and allowed to deteriorate to the point where the taxable value was dropped from around $7.3 million in 2007 to $2.75 million in 2008 after an appeal by the MGDF. Taxes on the property plummeted from $400,000 annually to about $225,000, leaving MGDF with a $73,000 tax credit on the books.
Hartford Chief Operating Officer David Panagore says the city, which last year threatened to take over the 12-story hotel through eminent domain, has been approached by the Maharishi Fund, which wants to unload the building.
Panagore says he has had “decent” conversations with a representative of the fund, but that given the various demands on the city’s thin capital budget, and the tens of millions of dollars of red ink in the city budget, he has not been talking price with MGDF.
“If the government doesn’t have to do urban-renewal activity, but instead just assists the private market, that’s the better way to do it,” says Panagore. “Besides, the American people still want to see the private sector do the work rather than the big hand of government.”
The MGDF did not return a call for comment.
Abul Islam stresses that he already has the air rights he needs to build his $45 million to $50 million tower, as originally conceived, on the property he owns outright, but that utilizing the property commonly owned with MGDF will allow him to optimize the interior spaces of the building for his tenants.
In fact, Islam says his biggest challenge is not negotiating air rights for his building, but is rather getting tenants to fill it. The building is currently 28 percent leased, according to Islam, whose own engineering company will occupy two floors.
But he needs to have it 70 percent leased to get an immediate green light from the bank on a mortgage. Islam would prefer his tenants are engineering, technology, and research and development firms, but “if somebody has a deep wallet I will take it.”
“We need 70 percent [occupancy] for the bank to write a big check tomorrow,” says Islam. “It boils down to getting that magic 40 percent. We’re working hard but nothing has materialized yet.”
Yet Islam’s enthusiasm remains undimmed. He believes that if he builds the state’s only commercially leased LEED Platinum building — the greenest “green” you can get, with photovoltaic power, gray water treatment for toilet flushing and much more — they will come. He still expects to break ground late this summer.
“I have never given up on Hartford,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”