NY realty developer Avner Krohn helps lead New Britain’s comeback
November 13th, 2017
Special to the Hartford Business Journal
Visit downtown New Britain and you'll see a change. The city of 73,000, consigned to the New England rust belt after most of its factories closed and two highways split the city, is making a comeback.
Business leaders cite the CTfastrak rapid bus system, transit-oriented developments and pedestrian-friendly streets as signs of a nascent, but visible rebirth. They also credit Avner Krohn, a 35-year-old developer from Long Island.
New Britain's Economic Development Director Bill Carroll wonders, "If Avner were not part of downtown, where would we be?"
Krohn stumbled on New Britain in 2006 when he took a wrong turn while passing through Connecticut. Though the story may sound apocryphal, Krohn acknowledges that when he discovered New Britain he found the city charming; he was impressed with its potential, historic architecture and the desire of residents he met to turn things around.
He has chaired the New Britain Downtown District where he participated in urban planning, streetscape design and promoted a "gentrification" of the city. To Krohn, this means buying decaying properties to revitalize neighborhoods and, wherever possible, do historic rehabilitations.
Though Krohn's company, Jasko Development, owns multiple properties in Connecticut and New Jersey, his five buildings in New Britain cover over 100,000 square feet worth more than $10 million.
Working with three city mayors, Krohn's efforts have resulted in a more active downtown and a pro-development attitude among city leaders, officials said.
"Avner saw a community he could invigorate," said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart. "Together with three different administrations he worked to preserve the city's historic past while focusing on its future."
His most recent project, the Raphael Building on 99 West Main St., is a mixed-use retail and residential building, a project he calls the culmination of his work in the city. Sixteen above-market luxury apartments are available. They include one- and two-bedroom units with rents ranging from $1,075 to $1,500 a month.
"To me, it's my most gratifying, most beautiful project, something that should have a positive effect for future projects downtown," Krohn said.
Working with Central Connecticut State University Professor Leah Glaser and her historical preservation class, the Jasko team used more than $400,000 in historic tax credits to complete the project. The city received a grant in 2015 from the Connecticut Main Street Center program to determine the project's feasibility in turning the decayed 1925 building into residential housing above commercial space.
Though Krohn declined to reveal the total cost of the Raphael project, he said like most of his projects in the city, tax credits were a small portion of the financing mix. The building was redeveloped mainly using private equity and traditional bank loans.
Approximately 14,000 square feet is retail and 11,000 square feet residential. Retail is close to 100 percent occupied. Krohn calls apartment occupancy "a work in progress. I anticipate full occupancy in a couple of months."
"The Raphael building was boarded up with tree branches growing out of it," Carroll said. "It was an eyesore. Some city officials wanted it torn down and the space used for additional parking. But, Avner took a chance where other developers might have walked away."
New Britain's Downtown District Director Gerry Amodio said that if not for Krohn and Jasko, a reclamation project like the Raphael building would never have happened.
"That and other buildings would have remained vacant or would have been lost forever," Amodio said.
The keys to development projects in New Britain, Krohn said, are patience and persistence.
"Few of these projects are easy; they're complicated and take time," he said. "But I have a full team of construction professionals in-house with in-depth knowledge of the building component."
In addition to the Raphael Building, Krohn's business owns:
• 450 South Main St., (Jasko Shopping Plaza, 19,800 square feet), anchored by Columbia Dental;
• 136 Main Street (the Andrews Building, 29,000 square feet) used by attorneys and retailers;
• 160 Main St. (the Rao Building, 18,900 square feet). Krohn bought it from the city in 2007 for $1; it now houses offices and the Grand Pizza restaurant, which opened in 2016;
• 165 East Main St., (the T-Mobile Building, 4,200 square feet), which Krohn said will be completed in January.
In 2016, Jasko sold off one of its New Britain properties, a 3,200-square-foot commercial building at 135 East Main St., to a New York buyer for $705,000, city records show.
West Hartford real estate broker and developer Brian Zelman, who has worked with Krohn on several projects, is impressed with his energy and drive. In some projects Zelman acts as partner; in others as broker/consultant.
"We complement one another," Zelman said. "Our skills are compatible."
One critic of Krohn's, who asked not to be identified, questioned his entrepreneurial skills. Though 160 Main St. is considered an ideal retail location, since 2006 five establishments have closed. Patrons are lunching at Grand Pizza, though restaurateur Tommy Qoku would like to see an increase in his dinner crowd. Krohn insists that the location is still right. Qoku, he said, is an experienced restaurant owner and with the police station across the street and more parking available, evening customers will come.
Rarely is Krohn deterred. Faith is paramount in his life.
"Faith makes me strive to do better, especially with my team," he said. "Real estate is a complicated business with challenges every day. What makes life easier is knowing there's a God who expects me to try harder and do the right thing."
Krohn grew up in Lawrence, Long Island with its large Orthodox Jewish community, kosher restaurants and businesses on Central Avenue.
As a boy, he watched apartment houses and professional buildings being built.
He was fascinated by the process, seeing a project come out of the ground and become a building.
At age 10, he started playing drums.
"My parents thought it would be good for my energy." By the time Krohn was 13 he was playing bar mitzvahs and weddings, 40 gigs a year.
"I still love playing though I have less time now," he said.
Krohn commutes to his New Britain office three days a week from Lawrence where he lives with his wife, Moriel, a former El Al airline flight attendant. Moriel Krohn is currently studying business and beginning a residential real estate career in Manhattan.
Though Jasko has done projects in Enfield, Waterbury, Bristol and Vernon, Krohn said "the real opportunity is in New Britain. I won't tell you it's a walk in the park. My biggest challenge is tenanting, attracting residents who will support local restaurants and businesses."
He said New Britain's assets include accessibility to major highways and a vibrant arts community. He's also bullish that the city's main college, Central Connecticut State University, will eventually have more of a downtown presence.
Competition for both retail and residential tenants often comes from Hartford. When this occurs, Krohn reminds them of the cost advantage.
"In New Britain a $1,400-a-month rental goes for $2,200 in downtown Hartford," he said.
Ian Fishkin, counsel for HJ Development in New York City, is a longtime friend of Krohn's.
"Avner is great for New Britain," Fishkin said. "The city should pick his brain about redevelopment. He took major steps forward; now he's waiting to see where the city will go before he does any more projects."
Krohn said Jasko is currently busy with projects in other cities and looking for development opportunities in other states. Connecticut is attractive because its real estate prices are much cheaper than New York City.
"I'm not saying we wouldn't buy anything else in New Britain," said Krohn. "What I am saying is that we're focusing on what we have while always looking to the future."
His main focus now is getting the best tenants into his New Britain properties.
"I don't expect a home run," he said. "Not yet. But, I'm seeing a younger generation more dependent on public transit. In New Britain, that will make a difference."