Robert A. Landino is CEO of Centerplan Companies, an eight-year-old Middletown-based real estate acquisition, development, construction and investment firm. The firm maintains a principal ownership in over $150 million of real assets, accumulated over the last eight years, with a focus on retail, health care, urban mixed use and residential opportunities.
Its affiliate, Centerplan Construction, LLC, which Landino started in 2008, is charting an impressive growth trajectory. In 2013 it ranked No. 100 on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies, with 70 full-time employees and 3,000-percent aggregate three-year revenue growth, posting 2012 revenues of $56.4 million. Most visibly, Centerplan Construction is at the center of the redevelopment and construction of all 23 service plazas in the state of Connecticut, a five-year, $178 million public-private partnership that is transforming the face of I-95 and the Merritt Parkway.
But Bob Landino is nothing if not well diversified. He is also chairman of and an early investor in Greenskies Renewable Energy, a photo-voltaic (PV) solar integration development company founded by Westbrook entrepreneur (and Republican state senator) Art Linares Jr. (Today Greenskies operates out of the same Main Street Middletown building as Centerplan, on the former site of the Middletown Press.)
Further afield Landino is also chairman of Dolan, a Los Angeles design and manufacturing company that creates and sells women's contemporary fashions to some of the most prestigious retailers in the world.
So far, at least, everything the man has touched has turned to gold.
Still a relatively young man at age 53, Landino to date has known nothing but success in his professional career.
And his Elm City roots run deep, with a family background that bears particular significance.
"My father [Al Landino] grew up in tenement houses on Grand Avenue that were demolished as part of the I-91/I-95 interchange construction," Landino says. "He grew up in public housing that was an extension of the Wooster Street neighborhood. After World War II he went to UConn on the GI Bill and chose civil engineering as a profession. As a first-generation Italian-American he was the first member of his family to go to college."
Fortuitously, some time following college Al Landino landed the position of city engineer during the administration of Mayor Richard C. Lee (1954-70) when the city embarked on a bold but controversial "Model City" experiment of urban renewal during the early 1960s.
Lee leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars from the state and federal government to raze whole center-city neighborhoods to clear a pathway for the interstate highways that Lee was convinced would be New Haven's salvation, as well as to accommodate construction of major public accommodations such as Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Chapel Square Mall.
"At that time New Haven was receiving more dollars per capita than any other city in the country - much of that having to do with Mayor Lee's connections with the Kennedy administration and later with President Johnson," recounts Bob Landino.
It was a dynamic time in the city's history, and much of the rest of the nation was watching Lee's bold experiment in urban transformation.
As an elementary-school-aged boy soaking up details of this revolutionary experiment in urban planning around the family dinner table, Bob Landino recalls, "My father was a talker and a debater and challenged us [about] the good and the bad of urban renewal and what it meant to the city of New Haven." After Lee left office the elder Landino would leave New Haven for an economic-development stint in New York City but later return to the Elm City to become development administrator for Mayor Frank Logue (1976-79).
With the 20/20 vision that a half-century's hindsight allows, how does Bob Landino today synthesize the legacy of Lee's and his father's bold experiment in urban renewal?
"It's easy to second-guess," he acknowledges. "But I absolutely think it was an ideologically noble attempt to transform urban blight and mitigate poverty and mitigate some of the sociological challenges that seemed insurmountable to the urban population. It worked in some cases and didn't work in others.
"As it relates to the demolition of what today would be considered architectural jewels, we would criticize it today, when we have greater appreciation for old buildings," Landino adds. But at the time "They were building high-density public housing with modern amenities that created safe and secure environments for young people to grow up in - not really understanding that those would deteriorate over time and that the high density and nature of those developments would be some of the causes of crime and decay."
The youngest of three children by a considerable margin, Bob Landino considers himself "kind of an only child" who was compelled to communicate with his parents by default in the absence of siblings.
As a child growing up in the Beaver Hills neighborhood Landino characterizes himself as "precocious but a little bit of a troublemaker - but at the same time always interested in real estate and construction."
His father's success allowed the younger Landino to attend parochial and private schools (St. Brendan's, Hamden Hall and Choate), beginning during the late 1960s, when the Elm City was roiled by the Weather Underground and the 1969 trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale. During that turbulent period public secondary schools were considered anathema to many parents of middle-class white students.
After graduating from Choate, Landino attended the University of Connecticut, intending to major in English. But some time during his junior year, with the harsh light of graduation waxing on the horizon, Landino decided to switch his major to civil engineering. Unable to meet UConn's strict standards for transfer into its full-time engineering program Landino transferred to the University of Hartford, where he completed his undergrad degree. (He would return to UConn for a master's in engineering but didn't complete the program.)
Why the switch?
"I loved building buildings and I loved the whole concept of building public infrastructure and private real-estate development - of roads and bridges and transportation networks," he says. Like father, like son.
Upon graduation in 1982 and earning his engineering license, Landino went to work for Vollmer Associates, a New York City design firm that at the time was planning Westway - coincidentally (given his family connections) the "ultimate urban renewal project" involving burying Manhattan's West Side Highway south of 40th Street. Landino worked on the (never-completed) project for two and a half years.
In 1987 personal and family reasons presaged a return to Connecticut, where he worked briefly for New Haven civil engineering firm FGA before striking out of on his own.
After doing some consulting work Landino decided to take the bold step of starting his own company with his then wife, a transportation planner. The firm, Barakos-Landino (a pairing of the couple's surnames) performed transportation planning and civil engineering but grew into something of a powerhouse by diversifying into offering integrated architecture, engineering, environmental and related services to public- and private-sector clients.
"From one desk and one computer, by the time I sold it [in 2003] to employees it had nine offices and 250 design professionals." That firm, now known as BL Companies, remains employee owned and has offices in seven states nationwide.
Selling out gave Landino the financial freedom to carefully calculate his next career move. In the meantime he backed into a second career, this one in politics. Landino had been asked to run for selectman in his then-hometown of Old Saybrook. The first-time office-seeking Democrat won election in what was then "a sea of Republicans," as he recounts it.
That was as far as Landino says he ever intended to go in politics, but when a state House seat opened up in 1994, he ran for it and won. He remained in the House for three terms before retiring in 2000 following divorce from his first wife but with three young children demanding his time and energy.
Politically speaking, Landino describes himself as "a moderate to conservative Democrat who took some contrary positions - I voted against Adriaen's Landing; I voted against the Patriots" - a failed plan to offer vast incentives to lure the NFL's New England franchise to Hartford from Foxborough, Mass.
In 2004 he was one of three Democrats vying for his party's nomination for secretary of the state when incumbent Susan Bysiewicz launched an abortive bid for the governor's mansion. When that didn't pan out Bysiewicz elected to stay put as secretary of the state, and Landino's possible window for statewide office closed.
Other than that, Landino was essentially retired. But before long, "I got bored and started Centerplan" out of a tiny office in Hartford in 2005. "I had made a few dollars from the sale [of BL] so I was renting some space and buying a desk and basically just looking around" for opportunities, he recalls.
Landino saw the new company as a "boutique" venture allowing him to pick and choose development projects that struck his fancy. Among those, "One of my first passions was to build a residential mixed-use building in downtown New Haven." So in 2006 he acquired the block bounded by College, Crown and George Streets and set about developing what was originally dubbed CollegePlace.
A product of what the developer now calls "pre-2008 euphoria," the original CollegePlace plan envisioned a 19-story luxury condominium with street-level retail and underground parking. "It was a bit of a reach for me," Landino acknowledges in hindsight of the $200 million project.
Then, in the summer of 2008 the economy collapsed, Republican nominee John McCain "suspended" his Presidential campaign and investment-bank titan Lehman Bros. went the way of the dodo. Landino was forced to pull the plug on CollegePlace and go back to the drawing board. "The loan [to execute the project] was big enough to bury me if the asset didn't perform," he explains.
"It was a gut feeling" to put the development on hold, Landino says. He acknowledges that "The mayor [then John DeStefano Jr.] wasn't thrilled with me, but we felt that we needed to cut our losses, hold onto the property and wait for a better time."
That "better time" finally arrived last year when Landino announced a new, scaled-down proposal for the downtown block. "College & Crown," now a $65 million project that broke ground in January, features upscale apartments (Landino says rents will not be announced before the end of the year), amenities including a clubhouse with private screening room, de rigueur "green" features, underground parking, street-level retail and more. The project is slated for completion in August 2015.
Centerplan is also at the center of another urban mixed-use project in New Haven's city-center: Continuum of Care, a 600-employee-strong non-profit that operates group homes and provides home health services.
In the meantime Centerplan completed another major development, a 138,000-square-foot corporate office and manufacturing facility in downtown New Britain for the company that makes Carvel ice-cream cakes.
After that project was completed some three years ago, Continuum of Care approached officials of New Haven's Livable Cities Initiative and the city's then-economic-development head, Kelly Murphy.
"We need to find a way to partner you with a for-profit, so they called us in and introduced us to Continuum of Care," Landino explains.
The $11 million project, known as Route 34 West, will include a new 30,000-square-foot headquarters for Continuum of Care at Dwight Street and Legion Avenue, a pharmacy, space for medical personnel and labs and a surface parking lot.
State funds for the project were garnered with assistance of then-State Sen. (and now Mayor) Toni Harp. As of now a land-disposition agreement is being finalized with the city, which Landino hopes will be finalized by late spring.
Like his father before him, Bob Landino is irrepressibly boosterish on downtown New Haven.
"The city of New Haven is poised to do extremely well. I believe New Haven is experiencing a renaissance - and I don't use that word lightly," says Landino. "It's got great 'bones'; Yale has made an extraordinary investment in the city.
"In many ways its time has come," he adds. "Alexion [Pharmaceuticals, which will relocate to downtown New Haven next year] is part of that. More than just [creating] jobs, it's a symbol that large companies think that proximity to Yale, and locating in an urban environment within Yale's envelope, is a good thing for them."
Landino also points to the success of developer Bruce Becker's 360 State Street high-rise apartment project, which "has been a phenomenal test in the market to prove that we can build new construction at a level equal to any place else in the country, and that there are people eager to live there and pay the rent necessary to support that type of asset." Which naturally bolsters his confidence in the residential component of Landino's College Street development.
Landino likewise points to the opening of Yale's new School of Management on Whitney Avenue as a potent statement - not just of Yale's commitment to training business leaders, but even of New Haven's stature on the world stage.
Of the business climate in his native state, Landino is sanguine. "I'm not one of those folks who talks about how you can't do business in Connecticut, because clearly we have done business in Connecticut," he says. "There are four or five companies I've been involved with, and the've all made money."
Having said that, he acknowledges, "It is more expensive than most other places in the country" to operate a business. In addition, Connecticut "can't use as an excuse that it has a better quality of life" than elsewhere.
Choosing his words carefully as the former state legislator he is, Landino says, "Government - not just Democrats and not just Republicans - has not taken the reins to reduce or control the cost of living [in Connecticut] and ultimately the cost of doing business here.
"As a Democrat - someone who believes in social change and helping those in need, and who believes that government has a role and a responsibility to do that - I believe we have done many things to create an environment that lessens our ability to help others that need help because we've driven our costs to a point where we can't compete with other states," Landino says.
To compensate, "Companies need to be heavily subsidized [through tax incentives, state-backed loans, etc.] in order to compete and [operate] here," he concludes. "That's become a reality. That's not a criticism of Gov. Malloy; that's the reality of what he has to do. Connecticut is the way it is; that's how we keep jobs here and that's how we grow companies here."
True or not, certainly Bob Landino never had to rely on the largess of state government to be successful or to execute projects that transform urban spaces.
Al Landino would have been proud.
Landmark Square is Middletown's premier downtown office and retail spaceLandmark Square is Middletown's premier downtown office and retail space located in the historic section of Main Street.
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