Tuesday, December 1, 2009, 12:01pm EST
The Business Review (Albany) - by Michael DeMasi and Adam Sichko
The leader of a real estate development company that lost the competition to develop the state’s massive Harriman office campus in Albany, N.Y., claims political influence won out over the best plan.
Howard Carr, president of The Howard Group, said the relationship between Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and the winning developer, Columbia Development Cos., played a part in the decision by the board of the Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp.
“If...Columbia and BBL are always going to get the projects in the city then tell us all so we don’t waste our time and effort,” Carr said.
Columbia and BBL are affiliated companies in Albany that have tackled several large-scale projects in the city, including redeveloping historic Wellington Row downtown and the run-down Park South neighborhood. The companies also built the Patroon Creek office park across from the Harriman campus.
Calls to Jennings and several other board members were not immediately returned. Joe Nicolla, president of Columbia Development Cos., also couldn’t be reached for comment.
Carr’s accusations are unusual for Albany, where private sector developers typically shy away from publicly criticizing local elected officials. Carr, however, said he wasn’t concerned about burning bridges.
“What are they going to do?” he said. “Not give me this job?”
His claims came after a closed-door session Nov. 30 in which Harriman’s nine board members, including Jennings, unanimously picked the team led by Columbia as the preferred developer for the 330-acre office campus. No reason was given for the selection.
Reached later for comment, Peter Wohl, president of the Harriman Research and Technology Development Corp., cited Columbia team member M+W Zander U.S. as one of the reasons its proposal was preferred.
M+W Zander is the general contractor for the $4.2 billion computer chip plant that GlobalFoundries Inc. is building in Malta, N.Y. M+W Zander also built most of the Albany NanoTech complex near the Harriman campus.
“Their experience in these large-scale technology and R&D projects ... obviously bode well for them,” Wohl said. “You can’t discount having a member like M+W Zander, which has connections in the technology and R&D fields worldwide and can market this worldwide, well beyond the capabilities of some traditional developers we’ve seen.”
The state is targeting 139 of the Harriman campus’ 330 acres for redevelopment. The remainder will continue to be used by state agencies that employ 7,300 people.
The competing redevelopment proposals have not been released to the public since they were first given to the Harriman board in September 2008.
Carr said he felt free to disclose his team’s plans now that Columbia has been picked, and hopes the public will pressure the Harriman board to reconsider.
“My attitude was the state kept this under lock and key,” Carr said. “They never brought in any outside players. We were prohibited from speaking with the university due to procurement issues, or to any other stakeholders.”
Carr said his team, which includes Turner Construction Co. in Albany and C.T. Male Associates in Latham, spent more than $250,000 on its proposal for the site. Calls to officials at Turner and C.T. Male weren’t immediately returned.
Their plan envisioned nearly 8 million square feet of new buildings over a 15-year period, including retail, offices, research and development space, recreational areas, a hotel, performing arts venue, student housing and residential homes.
Carr said the $2 billion-plus development would link the Harriman campus to the adjacent University at Albany and the high-tech workforce at Albany NanoTech.
He said the state would reap more than $150 million through the sale of land and profit-sharing over 15 years without having to spend any taxpayer money on the project.
The selection of Columbia as the preferred developer means the Harriman project is now farther along than ever before in the seven years since former Gov. George Pataki started the process.
Throughout this decade, the state has pursued an ambitious plan to renovate the campus to lure high-tech companies and build retail shops and residential units. The initiative stalled repeatedly amid changing state leadership, the recession, tight credit markets and the state’s problems with multi-billion-dollar deficits.
Negotiations with Columbia Development will begin immediately, Wohl said. Among items to be negotiated are how much the state will invest in the project, who will pay for necessary zoning changes and site evaluations—and how long Columbia Development will have to secure tenants before the state intervenes.
Other members of the Columbia team are BBL Construction Services LLC, of Albany; CHA, of Colonie; Toll Brothers Inc. (NYSE: TOL), the nation’s largest luxury home builder; and Ocean Hospitalities Inc., of New Hampshire, part of the firm that purchased The Sagamore resort in Bolton Landing last year.