CBIA BizCast: Zelman Real Estate Redevelops Connecticut
Brian Zelman took what he calls a “circuitous” path in real estate.
“I’ve always been interested in real estate from a young age,” said Zelman, principal of Zelman Real Estate.
The Bloomfield native, who now lives in West Hartford, began his career as a residential broker, before shifting to commercial real estate and land development.
Those developments started in the retail and healthcare spaces, but migrated to multifamily housing.
Zelman said that began with an opportunity to develop a piece of land in Bloomfield.
“No one could really figure out what to do with that land,” he said.
“At the time, several multifamily projects had been developed in the area, and one specifically in that town, leased up very quick and sold very quick.
“It just kind of planted the seed that this could be a good opportunity to do multifamily.”
Zelman said that project led to a lot of other opportunities in the same space.
Currently, those opportunities include a mixed use project on Farmington Ave in West Hartford, with 48 high end units.
They are also hoping to break ground on a 400-unit project at the old Showcase Cinema site in East Hartford.
“There’s a big shortage of housing across the entire country, and in Connecticut, so you know, geographically and then demographically, there’s just a lot of different product types that can be built,” he said.
Zelman said that an important part of what he does is creating an environment that helps build communities.
“You’re creating housing for folks, but you’re also creating something that, you know, is going to last several lifetimes, hopefully,” he said.
“To be able to have an impact on the landscape, literally, you know we have to take that seriously, and make sure that what we’re designing is something that fits the greater community.”
Zelman said an important part of the discussion is the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut.
“I think that conversation is bubbling to the surface a little bit,” Zelman said.
“I mean, there’s thousands and thousands of units that need to be built, and we’re losing units as time goes on.”
Zelman said it’s important to provide housing for people so they can live in the communities in which they work.
“It’s really workforce housing,” he said. “Police officers, teachers, firefighters, you know, folks who are just starting early on in their careers.”
Zelman said the company had a lot of success with public-private partnerships.
He said they’ve received incentives from towns or the state, often around long-term tax deals or infrastructure support.
However, some projects still face challenges.
“You still have a lot of NIMBY-ism in Connecticut, whether it’s for market rate housing, or affordable housing,” Zelman said.
His goal is to partner with towns to create developments and communities that fit the landscape, both literally and figuratively.
“We have to read the tea leaves and figure out what this town is looking for, what the community is looking for, and navigate that,” he said.
“A lot of it is being open and listening and reading even early on before we go in, and maybe educating them on what they really need, as opposed to maybe what they think they need.”
The current market poses a number of challenges from the supply chain, to interest rates, taxes, and infrastructure.
Zelman pointed to property taxes as a big challenge to successful projects and developments.
“I think if there was more predictability and sort of more engagement from towns on setting tax-fixing deals, I think you’d have a lot more multifamily housing being planned,” he said.
For Zelman, it all comes down to that predictability.
“Predictability on all of these things is really key,” he said.
“If someone could tell us what the landscape would be two years from now, and we could calculate that in today, you know, we’d be hitting the starting line, and then the finish line, you know, more often than not.”
Despite challenges and uncertainty, Zelman and the teams he works with have been able to find success.
The Hartford Business Journal featured Zelman and one of his partners in its Power 25 Real Estate class.
He credited collaboration, and the shared vision of his partners for that success.
“I couldn’t do any of that on my own,” he said.
“We’re all sort of growing together and constantly learning from each other, and as a result, we’re all having successes.”
Reshaping Main Street
As he looks to the future, Zelman said there is a unique opportunity to reshape main streets around the state.
“A lot of our communities were built in the 50s, and 60s, you know, the main streets, and they were the places for, you know, for shopping and congregating,” he said.
Zelman called the people who built those communities trailblazers, because they created something from nothing.
Now, as towns grow and evolve, Zelman sees a chance to add to some of that history.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of really reshaping these towns for the next 50-60 years.
“Being able to have a hand in shaping that future, you know, that’s super rewarding.”
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