|By Elizabeth Kim, The Stamford Advocate,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 24, 2009--STAMFORD -- At a time when most real estate developers have been laying low, Randy Salvatore has been on a roll, unveiling completed projects and laying the groundwork for future ones.
A 39-year-old native of Stamford, Salvatore is quickly forging a reputation as one of the savviest competitors on the city's development scene.
"In light of everything that's going on, he's a really interesting case study," said Martin Nirchel, a real estate agent for Sotheby's International Realty. "This guy has been right on, giving people a good product at the right price. He's weathered the storm as well as anyone."
Earlier this month, Salvatore opened Hotel Zero Degrees, a "New York-style" boutique hotel at 909 Washington Blvd. The project, a roughly $5 million conversion of the former YMCA hotel, represents Salvatore's first foray into the hotel business -- a brave move, considering the industry's struggles amid the recession.
"It's the next wave, more modern, more hip," Salvatore said recently.
The building was originally slated to become a Comfort Inn and Suites, but after studying the marketplace, Salvatore decided to take a different tack.
Each of the 97 guest rooms at Hotel Zero Degrees are outfitted with a flat-screen television, high-speed Internet service and an iPod docking station. The latter was an item that Salvatore was certain no other hotel in the city had.
"In markets like this, the key is that you have to be able
to differentiate yourself from the competition," Salvatore said.
Otherwise, he added, "you're dead."
In an industry where the players are known to overreach, Salvatore has made it a habit of targeting a niche market that is more interested in value and modern aesthetics. In that way, he has kept up with a city that has grown more vibrant -- and young.
"I've kept things affordable," he said. "You've got to give someone a lot and keep it reasonably priced.
"The key is to stay in touch with the buyers."
Salvatore credits his knowledge of construction with helping him control costs. He learned how to perform site work "from the ground up" by building his first house. His company, RMS Construction, employs 20 people, including a sales and marketing team.
"I get involved in every last detail," he said.
Last year, he completed an $85 million condominium development in Springdale called the Village at River's Edge, in which all 170 townhouse units sold, a noteworthy feat in a disastrous market. Prices started at around $519,000.
River's Edge won him accolades from Home Builders and Remodelers Associations of Connecticut. He garnered the "Builder of the Year" award in 2007.
Word about Salvatore's knack for sizing up the market continued to spread this summer with the opening of a $25 million apartment complex at 100 Prospect St. that he built with Seaboard Properties.
According to Salvatore, 75 percent of the 82 one-bedroom units are now occupied. Rents range from $1,600 to $3,000 a month.
In City Hall circles, Salvatore has earned a reputation as a developer who cooperates with the city and "gets things done and completed," according to Robin Stein, Stamford's land-use bureau chief.
"We think highly of him," Stein said.
Stein cited two factors: his willingness to comply with the city's affordable housing ordinance by agreeing to build the below-market-rate units on site, and his ability to take on projects that involve difficult sites or rezoning plans.
In the case of the YMCA, Salvatore purchased the eight-story building last November for $4.65 million. The deal was seen as rescuing an important downtown community organization that had accumulated a $200,000 annual deficit and closed some of its facilities.
The hotel conversion, Stein said, required "skill and creativity." In the long run, he said, it saved the YMCA "at least in downtown Stamford."
Despite the city's backing, Salvatore has not entirely escaped
This summer, construction workers picketed the YMCA site because Salvatore had hired a nonunion subcontractor, a practice common among developers in Stamford.
Salvatore responded that he employs both union and nonunion contractors and gives them equal opportunity to bid on the jobs.
"They have the right to (picket)," Salvatore said. "It's their prerogative, but nor should we be pressured to use them. That's not the American way."
More recently, his plan to construct a $25 million, 94-unit residential building on Washington Boulevard ran into complications having to do with a historic rectory on the site.
In July, Salvatore scored a development coup when he brokered a deal with St. Andrew's Episcopal Church to buy its long-coveted property. At the hearing, preservationists clashed with church members, who said the development was critical to St. Andrew's survival.
The Zoning Board approved a rezoning and final site plan, but a few weeks ago, a group called Save Old Stamford filed a lawsuit against the parish and Salvatore to halt the demolition of the rectory.
"I don't think that all the solutions were looked at," said Joseph Connetta, one of the group's
Salvatore declined to comment on the delay, saying the matter is being handled by the church.
Tim Schantz, a treasurer for St. Andrew's, called the lawsuit "the height of disingenuity."
"The key thing to keep in mind is that the whole intention of this development is to restore the church itself," he said.
If the church and Salvatore do prevail, the project would be located in a busy stretch of downtown that Salvatore considers a key development area.
"I think that's where the growth of Stamford is," he said about the corridor beginning at the train station along Washington Boulevard.
Asked about his ambitions, Salvatore gave a measured response, saying he preferred to proceed "project by project."
"If you have a goal, then you let ego get too much in the way," he said. "You have to be diverse."
But he readily confessed that he had no designs on building a skyscraper or conquering new cities.
"There's so much in Fairfield County," he said. "To struggle to do something in Boston and Manhattan is a recipe for disaster."
Growing up in an era in which Donald Trump became a household name, Salvatore set his sights on becoming a developer as a teenager.
After getting an undergraduate degree at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he saw his peers opt for high-flying jobs on Wall Street, while he stayed in Stamford and became a commercial broker at William Pitt.
The two industries are known for volatility, but real estate still felt like the more secure choice to Salvatore, he said.
"When I drive down the street, I know that I don't own a piece of paper," he said. "I own a building."
Staff writer Elizabeth Kim can be reached at email@example.com or 203-964-2265.
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