New Britain's iconic office tower — formerly One Acmat Plaza, now The Plaza — would seem an unlikely prospect to bear the weight of the city's economic revival on its bronze-glass and concrete shoulders.
But officials of the suburban Hartford community, nicknamed "Hardware City,'' and others, including the New York owner of the seven-story, 75,000-square-foot building, have proclaimed it can do just that.
Manhattan office- and luxury-condo developer-investor Henry Justin in early 2011 paid $2.8 million, or some $37 a square foot, for one of New Britain's only two Class A office buildings. On June 19, Justin met with Mayor Timothy O'Brien to hear his pitch for revitalizing downtown with at least $52 million for a new police station, revamped municipal parking garage and streetscape improvements, and came away with a fortified belief in both his efforts and the city's.
"I have no reason to believe my first [Connecticut] project won't be successful,'' said Justin, a former singer-songwriter active in New York City real estate for four decades.
His HJ Development LLC is spending $150,000 replacing exterior marble sheathing on the ground level of the 47-year-old building, plus $150,000 more on heating-cooling upgrades, and another $50,000 for exterior painting. Justin also has earmarked $75,000 for a covered walkway — if the city approves — linking the municipal garage to his building. That's just for openers.
Justin and others also see as a plus the city's terminus to the $572 million commuter busway, which will stretch 9.4 miles into Hartford. New Britain's commuter terminal, to be blocks from The Plaza, is seen as a traffic generator for downtown offices, shops and restaurants.
William Millerick, a former New Britain newspaper publisher who runs the city's chamber of commerce, says The Plaza, 233-235 Main St., and its new owner are the latest economic development jolt for his hard-luck city.
"This is like a guy who had all his teeth removed,'' Millerick said during a break from greeting visitors at a recent brokers' open house on the vacant fifth floor. "One by one, we're putting in new implants.''
Through The Plaza's wide windows, much of what promises and plagues New Britain is clearly visible. It's a short walk up Main to the soon-to-open police station, copying Middletown's by housing police upstairs and retail on the ground floor. Next door is Central Connecticut State University's downtown campus quarters.
Across the street, a pair of buildings at 134-136 Main houses shops, offices, apartments and a new live jazz venue, Tools Bar & Grill. Another New York investor, Avner S. Krohn, bought those buildings six years ago and extensively renovated them.
Further up Main Street is the long-vacant former Burritt Mutual Savings Bank property that is for sale. Over on Columbus Boulevard sits the police department's current forlorn home.
But New Britain's issues extend beyond bedraggled real estate to concerns for the quality of its school system and municipal services to property taxes that are among the state's highest.
Henry Nozko Jr. is enthusiastic about what the edifice brimming with a half-dozen or so fresh tenants could mean for downtown. His late father, Acmat founder Henry Sr., bought their building in a foreclosure from a New York bank in 1989.
Currently, the building's only other occupants are a Bank of America full-service branch, on the ground floor, and the state's Workers Compensation Commission offices and the Social Security Administration.
Within weeks, the Nozkos' Acstar Insurance surety-bond operation will vacate the upper two floors where Henry Sr. and Henry Jr. once filmed their firm's TV commercials, plus a third used for storage, for newly built quarters on South Road in Farmington.
Over time, as Acmat (formerly The Acoustical Materials Corp.) shrank its commercial-office interiors business to focus on insurance, the owners were uninterested in becoming landlords. Those few tenants practically demanded their leases, Nozko Jr. said.
"We didn't do that business,'' he said. He said his family never regretted paying $3.1 million for what at the time was a forlorn property that required gutting it down to its shell and spending $14 million more to refurbish with all new wiring, heating-cooling systems, elevators and more.
Its proximity to Route 9 and I-84, Nozko said, plus its status as the only available Class A space beyond the nearby fully-leased Tomasso Building, gives the new owner a leg up repositioning The Plaza for new tenants.
"They've got a great idea. I think it'll work,'' he said.
Justin is just as confident. Indeed, he says New Britain is almost chapter and verse a replay of what he experienced decades earlier as a realty neophyte.
He started in New York real estate in the early '70s, he says, just as the city was falling on hard times that included the threat of bankruptcy. Justin witnessed more rollercoaster realty cycles since then, including slumps in '86 and '93, and the Great Recession of '07-'10. He not only survived but thrived in each, he says.
"I bought in all of those cycles,'' he said, "because I believed I could rent in those cycles. I'm a dealmaker. That's what I do.''
His portfolio today includes about 1.5 million square feet of commercial space in Manhattan, including an office building at 130 West 30th St. designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert that is now an eponymous residential condominium.
Justin says none of his deals involve bank financing or outside equity, such as real estate investment trusts, mostly because properties, once they land in his lap, tend to stay. The rents they generate fund his future deals.
"It's not easy to be me. But it's good to be me,'' said Justin, who also plays guitar and piano and collects contemporary art.
Justin says he's hiring Connecticut contractors and subs — a departure for his vertically integrated operation that typically does it owns repairs and upgrades — to tackle The Plaza's improvements. He also hired Newington broker, Reno Properties, to recruit tenants.
First task, said Reno broker and principal Michael Gallon, is finding a single tenant, possibly a law firm, to replace Acmat on the two upper floors.
Originally listed at $3.5 million, the $2.8 million the Nozkos accepted reflects that soon 20,000 square feet on the two upper floors will be empty, says Ian Fishkin, Justin's in-house counsel. The other handicap is that the property is virtually unknown to the Connecticut realty community.
"The problem we realized after seven months trying to market the property,'' Fishkin said, "is that no broker had set foot in the building in 20 years.''
The upper floors, featuring white carpeting, light wood paneling, and individual office suites with floor-to-ceiling glass doors and partitions that offer sweeping, three-quarter views of the city, are the building's crown jewel and practically in move-in condition.
Thus, it will command the highest rent compared to about $17 a square foot for the rest of the space, a bargain compared to $20 in Farmington/Avon, $24 in Glastonbury, and $30s and $40s in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, Gallon said.
Gallon says Justin's 18-month timetable for filling up The Plaza with tenants is doable, with the city's support.
"The city of New Britain is engaged,'' Gallon said. "They may not be invested in this property, but they're vested in the community.''