November 6, 2017

With Middletown HQs set, is Hartford on developer Abul Islam's radar?

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
Abul Islam, founder and president of AI Engineers Inc., recently expanded his Middletown headquarters. Now, his stalled downtown Hartford development project awaits.
Photo | Contributed
AI Engineers expanded its office footprint by a third with its recent expansion.
HBJ Photo | Greg Bordonaro
The old Broadcast House space in downtown Hartford remains vacant.
Photo | Contributed
AI Engineers promotes an open workspace.

With his state-assisted headquarters expansion done and his book of civil-engineering orders on backlog, Abul Islam had plenty to smile about on a recent October afternoon.

With a camera-equipped drone hovering overhead to memorialize the Oct. 18 occasion, the governor along with other state officials and dozens of AI Engineers Inc. (AI) staffers watched as Islam and wife Rubina cut a red ribbon to debut their firm's expanded Middletown headquarters at 919 Middle St., home to 132 employees. AI employs 182 total in its seven East Coast offices.

The 8,000-square-foot addition to his previously 16,000-square-foot building, Islam said, will accommodate a growing workforce and workload from civil engineering design-build and construction projects on roads, bridges and other infrastructure — AI's design billings, estimated to rise 12 percent from 2016 to $36 million, will continue to climb in 2018, he said. Nearly half of the 2017 billings growth come from AI's Connecticut work.

The firm has already hired the first 20 staffers as part of its commitment to hire 29 new workers — mostly engineers — by 2020, in exchange for the state providing a $1.6 million low-interest, forgivable loan to the project.

"We're growing,'' said Islam, whose firm's Northeast offices stretch from New York to Virginia. "If we're going to grow at the same rate, we'll need to add more space.''

Islam admits there is one other Connecticut location where he still hopes to install a greatly modified version of his aborted commercial high-rise development in downtown Hartford's Constitution Plaza.

Nine years earlier, on a dreary December day in 2008, Islam and then-Mayor Eddie Perez announced Islam's ambitious plan to raze the former Broadcast House building that formerly housed WFSB Channel 3, and replace it with a 12-story, $40 million office tower. The still vacant tract is 3 Constitution Plaza, at the corner of Columbus Boulevard and State Street, next door to The Spectra Boutique Apartments.

Originally tagged the AI Technical Center, it was to serve not only as Islam's headquarters but expose a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) environment to a new generation of engineers, architects and technologists. It also was to have space for street-level retail.

But the project, to the surprise of few local real estate experts at the time who voiced skepticism about the need for more downtown Hartford office space, never materialized, especially after the economic slump dimmed prospects for filling the building with other office and retail tenants.

Islam eventually shelved his original vision for an office tower. By Oct. 2013, he had put forward a replacement plan, calling for a $55 million, 195-unit apartment building, Residences At River View, with about 18,000 square feet of commercial space. That plan stalled as well, said Capital Region Development Authority Executive Director Michael Freimuth, because it relied heavily on public funding, including from the state Department of Housing and the city.

In 2014, Islam won city approval for a third site proposal, this one for a smaller, $17 million tower, with 17,000 square feet of retail and 49 upscale apartments. That one, Freimuth said, envisioned $4.9 million of CRDA financing, $8 million in bank financing, and the rest from other sources. When that project also stalled, CRDA channeled its funds into other downtown and regional Hartford developments, Freimuth said.

There have even been talks about turning the vacant former Broadcast House space into a temporary park, but that too never materialized.

But Islam still isn't giving up his hopes of making his mark on downtown Hartford. He said he now envisions a two-phased development, starting with a three-story parking garage initially on the Broadcast House site, with at least one of the levels below grade. With 120 to 140 spaces, the garage would fill downtown's need for convenient parking, he said.

Down the road, Islam said, the sturdily designed and built garage could accommodate several tiers of apartments and street-level retail space.

However, whether there is a need for another center-city parking garage remains a question.

Outgoing Hartford Parking Authority CEO Eric Boone said that, while overall the city currently has more than enough parking capacity, it isn't evenly spread. There is, he said, limited but heavily used public parking available in Constitution Plaza South and State House Square.

"Adding a garage at the foot of a major entrance to the city,'' Boone said, "could be a very positive addition to help reduce congestion and encourage walking."

Sara Bronin, chair of the city's planning and zoning commission, noted city zoning rules bar construction of free-standing parking garages in downtown. Bronin, too, pointed to the city's aim to promote mobility options other than cars in the center city.

In response, Islam said he is aware of the city's parking-garage prohibition, but his vision matches feedback from neighboring landlords whom he said have told him the area needs more parking spots. He said he has yet to approach the city about his vision.

"My plan,'' he said, "would include a phased-in approach to the entire project and meet all city zoning requirements."

Bid pricing

The reason for shelving in 2016 his redevelopment of 3 Constitution Plaza into 49 apartments, Islam said, had less to do with support from the city and the Capital Region Development Authority to erect the tower than it was overpriced construction bids. Both, he said, pledged significant financial support to go with his $8 million in bank financing.

"It was the lack of competitive contractors in the market," Islam said.

Only two contractors submitted building bids, he said, one of which was Centerplan Cos., the Middletown contractor whom the city hired — and later fired — to build its Dunkin' Donuts minor-league ballpark. Centerplan did not respond to requests for comment.

Centerplan's $21 million construction bid for the tower was $5 million more than Islam's in-house estimate, Islam said. The other bid from a contractor Islam did not name was just $16,000 below Centerplan's.

The overestimate, Islam said, was yet another example of the wide, often uneven range of bid pricing in the U.S. construction sector, where large and mid-sized firms compete against each other and smaller "mom-and-pop" builders. He said he wasn't surprised when Hartford's ballpark experienced cost overruns. Centerplan was the stadium's original contractor before the city fired the company and hired a new one.

With $4 million of his own money invested to buy and raze Broadcast House, Islam said, "it didn't make economic sense for me to put in another $5 million. Stupid me. ... I thought somebody was out to get me. That's why I bailed out.''

Despite those setbacks, Islam said he has always believed that his tower could be an asset to the city. For now, though, it's an idea that will have to wait.

He said he has rejected several offers to sell the tract. Hartford's development office declined comment. A CRDA official said the quasi-public agency has not been in contact lately with Islam.

"I could build a parking garage one, two, three, no problem," Islam said. "But I'm not selling the property. Why would I sell when I've put in all that time and money?"

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