Luxury condos not luring buyers yet

FAIRFIELD -- Seven years ago, Southport Village Partners, LLC paid $5.28 million for 4.4 acres near the Southport Railroad Station.

The vacant property, across from Wakeman Boys/Girls Club, was sold in an auction in the town's Probate Court by the estate of Frank Dawid.

SVP, a group of Fairfield residents who wanted to control how the property was developed, outbid United Properties, which wanted to build a 75,000-square-foot office building.

Stuart Baldwin, SVP's manager, had high hopes for the 275 Old Post Road property, envisioning a 200,000-square-foot development that included condominiums, office space and an inn.

But the next seven years proved hard for SVP, as its proposed development sparked lawsuits, conflict-of-interest allegations against the Sasquanaug Association neighborhood group, members of which were in SVP, and complaints from longtime Southport residents that it was too cluttered and big.

SVP also has been in default on a bank loan since October, but SVP still owns the property, according to land records in the Town Clerk's office.

Today, SVP's development, built by A.P. Construction in Stamford for $32 million, is nearly finished, but none of the properties have sold.

Tom Fiffer, who lived behind SVP's property before moving to Westport in 2004, wasn't surprised.

Fiffer said asking prices for the condos, which range from $1.4 million for a 1,900-square-foot, single-level unit to $2.7 million for a 4,500-square-foot, three-level unit, were too high and the overall development was too dense.

"I'm just amazed, still, at the density of it, that they could put that many buildings in that amount of space," Fiffer said. "It's completely out-of-scale with the rest of the things in the village Everything's just crammed in."

Margaret Zellers, of Main Street, said SVP's development was "reasonably attractive" but "far too dense for the property."

"I have never been enthusiastic about doing a 'Disney Southport,' right next to Southport, right next to our very special village and community," Zellers said. "It's a copy of the real thing, right next to the real thing."

While no condos have sold, Baldwin on Friday said sales contracts totaling $25 million have been executed and that closings should start taking place next month. Baldwin said SVP doesn't have certificates of occupancy from the town's Building Department for properties under contract.

Five condos received COs in January, while another 14 structures, including condos and garages, received COs in June, according to the Building Department.

While none of Southport Green's properties have sold, developer Louis L. Ceruzzi Jr. in April signed a 15-year lease with SVP for 6,500 square feet in the inn. The lease, which includes two five-year renewal options, does not include a purchase option.

Baldwin said Ceruzzi has partnered with Jean-Pierre Rudaz, owner of the former La Colline Verte on Hillside Road, to open Bacco, a restaurant. The inn and restaurant should open in September, Baldwin said.

Research into town land records indicates SVP is struggling to meet terms of a $49.6 million loan it received from Hudson United Bank in Mahwah, N.J. on May 20, 2005, a day after SVP borrowed $14 million from a limited liability company.

SVP originally had three years to repay Hudson United Bank's loan, but amendments to the loan agreement filed in September gave TD Banknorth, successor to Hudson United Bank, the ability to declare SVP in default if $20 million was not repaid by last June 30.

SVP had until last May 19 to repay its loan from the LLC.

Amendments to the TD Banknorth loan agreement also included targets for condo sales and conveyances that SVP had to meet, though SVP was allowed to satisfy an "event of default" by paying $150,000 for every condo that hadn't sold by the specified date.

TD Banknorth required SVP to sell at least four condos by last Jan. 20 and another four on March 31 and June 30. If it didn't, it had to pay $150,000 for each unsold condo.

Baldwin said SVP has been "in technical default" on its bank loan since October because it did not meet sales targets due to construction delays.

But Baldwin said SVP still owns the property and that the default did not prevent construction from continuing.

SVP's financial struggles extend in another direction as well.

On July 13, New England Stone Inc. in Milford, a subcontractor of A.P. Construction, claimed a financial interest in SVP's property. New England Stone filed a lien on SVP's property, saying it's owed $93,862 for work dating back to last July.

Baldwin said New England Stone's dispute is with A.P. Construction. "We anticipate that being cleared up shortly," he said.

Connecticut Tank Removal filed a lien on SVP's property in May 2005, saying it was owed $1.3 million. But Joseph Palmieri Jr., the company's president, released that lien on the same day SVP got its loan from Hudson United Bank.

SVP's development may be viewed as too big by its neighbors, but it did win recognition earlier this year from the Congress for the New Urbanism, which gave it an award for "almost imperceptibly blending into the historic neighborhood."

Baldwin said he's heard "a steady stream" of compliments on Southport Green's architecture and that SVP appreciates "the oft-repeated comment that much of it looks like it has always been there."

"This was exactly the effect we sought to achieve, to honor the classic architectural traditions of Southport Village," Baldwin said.

Construction of Southport Green appears to be finished, but Baldwin said it's 95 percent done and "full completion" is expected in two months.


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