From the Founders: The Miracle of Stamford
One of the most dramatic and successful transformations of an urban area to be found anywhere in America took place right here in Stamford. It’s impossible today to take downtown Stamford for granted, especially for those who were here in the 1950s and 1960s and have witnessed how far it has come from a depressed, post-industrial town to the vibrant metropolis it is today.
Like many other cities in Connecticut, Stamford suffered from the loss of its industrial base as many manufacturers relocated to the South. As a result, much of downtown was a scene of urban blight and neglect. To reverse the trend, a major urban renewal program was needed to revitalize downtown and make it attractive for corporate offices. This seemed an impossible dream.
The roots of the program that created present day Stamford were laid in the late 1950s when the Federal Housing and Urban Development Commission, in cooperation with the state and city, approved a $100 million appropriation for urban redevelopment. One hundred and thirty acres in the central downtown area were condemned and acquired under the right of eminent domain. The money was used to reimburse 1,100 families and 400 business owners for the loss of their properties and to pay for the demolition and re-creation of a vast new infrastructure. What made the project unique and no doubt contributed to its success was the insistence by the federal government that only one firm be in charge of the redevelopment. The idea was to prevent conflicts from overlapping responsibilities, and to assure close control of subcontractors and coordination of all elements of planning and construction.
Enter the F. D. Rich Company, a local but nationally active construction firm led by the brothers Robert N. Rich, who died last November, and Frank D. Rich Jr., who predeceased him in 2007, and the late Lawrence Gochberg, their longtime legal counsel. The company was selected from a field of ten applicants to be the sole redeveloper. Their original contract, dated January 27, 1960, was only seven pages long. Such an agreement could never happen today, admits Thomas L. Rich, Robert’s son and the current president and CEO. He is the third- generation member of the firm founded by his grandfather Frank D. Rich Sr., an immigrant from Italy who established a successful stone masonry company in Stamford.
Under the oversight of Stamford’s Urban Redevelopment Commission, Bob and Frank Jr. commissioned the acclaimed architect and city planner Victor Gruen to create the original master plan. It was a fairly modest plan, says Tom, and though subsequent amendments of the contract allowed for expansion, no one imagined how big the project would become.
The first buildings F. D. Rich built were St. John’s Towers, three cylindrical apartment houses designed by famed modernist architect Victor Bisharat to accommodate families displaced by the redevelopment. This was followed in 1972 by their first office building, the distinctive inverted glass pyramid built for GTE. Also from the drawing board of Bisharat came the spectacular
twenty-one story One Landmark Square completed by F. D. Rich the following year. The graceful sweep-sided office tower was touted at the time as the tallest building between New York and Boston and would become an icon of Stamford. Appreciating the importance of architecture, the brothers commissioned the best in the field, including Cesar Pelli, Hugh Stubbins and Moshe Safdie. The eye-catching buildings they designed created an exciting new city skyline and heralded a new era for Stamford—and for the F. D. Rich Company.
Tom Rich allows that the timing was favorable for the company. In the 1970s New York City was threatened with bankruptcy, and Fortune 500 companies were looking to Connecticut with its lower taxes and attractive lifestyle amenities for their corporate headquarters. However, he is quick to point out that there were no subsidies or tax incentives involved in the renewal project. The one exception was the multilevel parking garage the city built to serve the Stamford Town Center mall, another F. D. Rich creation. The success of the urban renewal project, Tom says, was largely due to political leadership and a public-private partnership that had the single goal of eliminating the blight in the central city and restoring it as the vital heart of Stamford.
By 1992 the company had completed construction of five million square feet of prime retail, office, hotel and residential space. This included the Landmark Square complex with its six office buildings, the Stamford Mall, the 500-room Marriott Hotel & Spa and numerous office and apartment buildings. F. D. Rich was also responsible for major urban projects in Baltimore and Boston but according to Tom, his father was proudest of Stamford, which had earned an international reputation for urban renewal. The original investment of $100 million spawned the creation of the present modern urban complex with a value that can only be measured in billions of dollars and has inspired development throughout the greater Stamford area.
Bob Rich was not satisfied with just the commercial redevelopment of the city. He said that he would not consider it a success until people moved into the downtown area to live. He wanted Stamford to become an important cultural and educational center, with stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities that would attract more people to take up residence there. The nighttime vibrancy of downtown Stamford today is testimony to the success in doing just that. Bob and brother Frank were instrumental in getting UConn to relocate to the former Bloomingdale’s store on Washington Boulevard. The Rich Foundation is a major contributor to Stamford’s cultural organizations, and Frank Rich, as chairman of the Stamford Center for the Arts, was largely responsible for creating the Rich Forum and acquiring and renovating the Palace Theatre.
We asked Tom Rich how he would describe his father. He said that, first and foremost, he was extremely humble. His primary interest was in his ever-expanding family. He was also very people-oriented, would go out of his way to recognize their contributions, and he had a vision for Stamford and an abiding faith in its future. Sandy Goldstein, longtime president of the Stamford Downtown Special Services District charged with promoting retail business, has fond memories of Bob and Frank, both Princeton graduates, describing them as having an intellectual business approach. She credits them for laying the foundation for the extraordinary growth of the city’s downtown area. Goldstein also gives special credit to the third Rich generation, both Tom, along with Frank Jr.’s son Rick, for continuing the work of their fathers and contributing to the economic health of the city.
Tom Rich’s vision of Stamford’s future, like that of his father and uncle, is nothing but positive. After taking the helm of F. D. Rich, he has been responsible in his own right for some important nonurban renewal additions: the Majestic Theater, Target, Courtyard Marriott and recently, the thirty-four story Trump Parc condominium tower, now the city’s tallest structure. Tom shared with us a view of the plans for his next project: a twenty-one story apartment house on Summer Street with 220 moderately priced units designed for younger singles and families who want to call downtown home. It is a project right in line with his father’s mission to create a liveable downtown Stamford community.