Photo: Toll Brother’s Bill Lovett.
After more than two-and-a-half years of delays and broken promises, the long-troubled Cushing Village multiuse development entered a new chapter Tuesday, March 22 as national real estate firm Toll Brothers announced its purchase of the project’s development rights and two land parcels from original owner Smith Legacy Partners completed on March 14.
With Smith Legacy’s lead partner Chris Starr sitting quietly in the front row, Toll Brother’s Bill Lovett was introduced to the Board of Selectmen during a joint meeting of the Planning Board held at Town Hall.
“We’re very excited as we see this as a perfect location in a perfect community,” said Lovett, a senior development manager at Toll’s Apartment Living, a relatively new whole-owned subsidiary within the Horsham, Penn.-based firm.
With the sale, the project and town moves from an “endless loop of uncertainty” that prevented any work from commencing at the site for 969 days under the previous owner’s stewardship, said Selectmen Chair Sami Baghdady.
Lovett said Toll Brothers was initially interested in Cushing Village about a year ago when Smith Legacy was actively seeking a deep-pocket investor to partner with but did not pursue the offer then.
“So we actually selfishly very excited when it came back around [at the beginning of the year] because it is such a terrific asset,” said Lovett, saying Cushing Village “checks many, many boxes” of a project it is seeking such as retail on the location, walkability, and a lifestyle community.
“[Cushing Village] really fits the bill,” said Lovett.
The price Tolls Brothers paid for the rights and the parcels was not revealed.
As part of the agreement, Toll will pay the town $1 million for the parking lot and an additional $150,000 in fees to complete the transfer.
After the announcement, the selectmen voted unanimously to approve a one-time only extension of the purchase and sale agreement to August 26 for the sale of the municipal parking lot at the corner of Williston and Trapelo roads to Toll Brothers.
Lovett said this will allow the firm to do its due diligence of the property – which once housed a dry cleaning store – before committing to its development of a property Smith Legacy’s attorney Mark Donahue called “extremely complicated.”
Lovett told the board it is taking the project “as is” with no plans to ask for changes to the massing and basic design that the Planning Board took 18 months to create in July 2013.
“There will be no refiguring of the project,” said Lovett.
As for financing the project which bedeviled the previous owner, Lovett said Toll Brothers “is fortunate that we have a very large balance sheet” with $1.5 billion in cash on hand which will allow the project to be self-financed with available liquidity.
Founded in 1967, the firm is the country’s largest luxury housing “brand” said Lovett, known for its upscale communities in 19 states – mostly on the coasts – and ability for clients to “build” their house. It was also named one of the most admired companies worldwide, according to a survey by Fortune magazine in 2016. It is also known as the company that in 2005 rescued the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (now in its 85th year) after longtime sponsor Texaco dropped out a year earlier.
The Apartment Living division was created after the 2008 economic crash, said Lovett. With ownership in upscale apartments nationwide, Toll Brothers receive a consistent cash flow as a hedge to protect its financial position if the core business of residential housing construction falters. As of March 2016, Toll has just a few apartment buildings under profile, but several are in the pipeline including a few in Massachusetts.
Lovett reassured Baghdady that the firm is not looking to “flip” the project – place it on the market – once it is completed.
“We are long-term holders of our assets, and we also manage [them],” said Lovett, calling Cushing Village “a core asset.”
Lovett said once its due diligence is complete, the firm will hire a general contractor and begin to move the development “cautiously but quickly.”
“Our business model is to move people in, to start construction and move them in as quickly as possible,” said Lovett, describing it as putting “heads into bed.”
Pressed on a timeframe in which the project would be completed, Lovett said due to some difficulty in the underground parking; he expects the project to be completed “in less than 30 months.”
The purchase of the site and the special permit was the inevitable finale of a nearly 1,000 days of grand designs that could not match the business reality of a small-time developer in Starr – his previous real estate experience was as a partner in a modified strip mall in his hometown of Bedford.
Like Sisyphus, Starr’s dream of leaving a lasting monument in the town from where his family hailed led to frustrating and futile labor that in the end all his work and effort was all in vain.
With the sale, Starr leaves the scene as a cautionary tale for developers and town officials to take care before committing to a builder’s dream.