Thriving in the Space Race

Experience (and a brother’s advice) has kept Farrell aiming high

by Will Lindner

eric_farrell_300_1018Eric Farrell, the owner of Farrell Properties in Colchester, has developed some 900 units of housing over his career.

At the end of the housing development process, be it for single-family homes, apartments, or condominiums, when the new owners and tenants finally move in, they and those who will follow them are, first and foremost, guests. It’s a fact so obvious that it can be overlooked — even ignored.

Eric Farrell, owner of Farrell Properties in Colchester, credits his oldest brother, Gary, with bringing this to his attention.

“He was in the hotel business,” Farrell says. “He owned the Sheraton in South Burlington — and the Ramada [now Trader Duke’s] — for 30-something years. His facilities were immaculate, and he explained to me that that was his way of showing respect for his guests. He always talked about his guests. It was a passion for him. So I got hooked on the same thing.

“It thrills me,” Farrell continues, “when someone says, ‘I live in such-and-such a building and I love it here!’ That’s very rewarding. I appreciate the rent they pay. I’m probably even more excited that we’ve done a decent job and they love living there. That’s what drives me.”

Farrell has developed some 900 units of housing in his career, and profit is certainly a fundamental motive. Particularly now, as he’s spearheading a major and somewhat controversial development in Burlington called Cambrian Rise, Farrell’s assertion that he’s equally driven by altruism might arouse skepticism. But Michael Monte, chief operations and financial officer for Champlain Housing Trust (CHT), which provides and advocates for affordable housing for low-income Vermonters, backs him up.

“He’s a social guy,” Monte explains, “and he’s found work that enables him to be even more productive and engaged with people. He enjoys the energy of folks coming together to accomplish something. Often, either by choice or requirement, he brings in us — the nonprofit folks — to accomplish a level of development that ensures what is being built is not exclusionary.”

CHT has teamed with Farrell Properties frequently to create housing accessible across a range of income levels, as has Cathedral Square, a nonprofit devoted to creating what its website describes as “affordable, service-enriched housing communities” for seniors and people with special needs. There are, indeed, practical reasons for these collaborations.

“In Burlington,” Farrell explains, “25 percent of your units must be inclusionary, 25 percent of your rentals [apartments] have to meet a target income, and 25 percent of your condominiums have to target a certain economic level. I’ve found it easier to partner with the nonprofits because that’s what they do best. I’m probably in a better position to take the early risks, like optioning land and getting the permits. We complement each other, I believe.”

Sometimes the tables are turned. A decade ago CHT and Cathedral Square asked Farrell to join them in a project involving the purchase of six acres next to the Ethan Allen Shopping Center that included the old Thayer School, which had been converted for use by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The complications of working with this formerly commercial building lay outside their expertise, and within his. Thayer Commons — an aggregation of apartment buildings with a diverse clientele — opened in 2012.

Farrell markets his company’s apartment complexes as “communities,” and creates common spaces and amenities designed to bring people together.

“We don’t like to do traditional apartment buildings,” he says, “where your apartment is down the hall and you don’t know who your neighbor is. We do a boutique-style lobby entrance into all our buildings and offer generous common spaces that foster community: fitness centers, a common laundry that we don’t charge for, and a pet wash! All our buildings are pet-friendly.”

Where possible, the buildings include verandas, rooftops, and shared balconies where residents can gather to watch the sun set over Lake Champlain.

“We want people to know each other,” Farrell says. “It enriches your life, you know? And it’s fun having the opportunity to create that.”

With Cambrian Rise, Farrell jokes (with good reason) that he has “moved into the deep end of the pool.” The 21.6-acre project will occupy land formerly owned by the now-defunct Burlington College and the Burlington Catholic Diocese prior to that. When fully built out, which Farrell estimates will be around 2025, it’s expected to total 770 units. Cathedral Square will build senior housing, and CHT’s 76 units of subsidized family housing are under construction. Liberty House, the energy-efficient, upscale reincarnation of the college building and former orphanage, is already open and occupied.

“We’re going to do 370 condos,” Farrell says, referring to his own company. “Of that, 93 have to be inclusionary, which means we’ll sell them at a price that’s affordable for people at or below 75 percent of the median income for our statistical area — which is quite a discount.” A 50-room boutique hotel may be in the works, “and I’d like to get a restaurant, a small pub, some office space … uses that will serve the people who live here.”

The project attracted early opposition in 2015, opponents protesting that it was too large for the neighborhood and would consume precious open space within the city. Thanks to lengthy negotiations brokered by Gil Livingston, then president of the Vermont Land Trust, accords were reached wherein Farrell sold 12 of the original 33 acres to the city, including beachfront along the lake and unused parkland to be folded into Burlington’s Urban Wilds program. This summer, the progressive investment firm Vermont Works announced a plan to develop a co-living, co-working space — the Vermont Innovation Commons — to foster entrepreneurship in a fashion — and in harmony with a lifestyle — appealing to millennials.

Contemplating this new, multi-dimensional “community,” surrounded by city-owned, recreational, and protected land, Farrell says, “It seemed appropriate and somewhat fortuitous to name Cambrian Rise after a period in the evolution of our planet that was noted for robust growth and development.”

Farrell’s capacity to undertake such a project reveals that he has fully recovered from the bankruptcy he endured in 1990.

Farrell was the fourth of six children born in Burlington to Joseph Nelson Farrell and Anne Marks Farrell. His father and uncle owned Farrell Distributing. Although Eric worked there during school and college vacations, he found another of his parents’ ventures more interesting.

“They were also in the apartment business,” he says. “I was actually brought up in multifamily housing, because when I was 10, we moved into their building on the corner of College Street and Hungerford Terrace.” His brother Mark now owns the property.

After graduating from St. Michael’s College with a business degree in 1969, Farrell (now 71) enlisted in the Air National Guard and trained for six months in Texas and Colorado. Upon returning to Vermont (and continuing as a “weekend warrior”), he entered real estate, selling single-family homes for the O’Brien Brothers Agency. It didn’t take long for his true interest to emerge.

“I started to tinker,” he recalls. “I really liked development.”

His first project, in 1974, created 28 single-family homes. He also formed his own construction company. “I did that kind of stuff for years,” he recalls. “And then in 1990 I crashed and burned. I didn’t assess risk very well, back in the day. With five kids under the age of 12 [Farrell had been married twice] it was a challenging time.”

So he started over again, returning to sales for established local firms such as the late John Larkin, Coburn & Feeley, and Redstone. By the time a decade had passed, he was back in development, undertaking a major, 516-unit project anchored by the O’Dell Apartments, in South Burlington. His partner in this venture was his general contractor, Dan Morrissey of Wright & Morrissey Inc.

“We basically did an $80 million development over 10 years on a handshake,” Farrell remembers fondly.

The prolonged undertaking gave Morrissey ample opportunity to measure his partner’s talents.

“Eric is very good at assessing possibilities,” says Morrissey. “Within what the zoning would allow, he’s good at sizing up the highest and best use of a project — not just from a financial perspective, but also what’s best for the city, the neighbors, trying to create something worthwhile. That light bulb doesn’t always go on immediately in this kind of work.”

In 2006, Farrell developed a pair of commercial buildings in Colchester and moved his company into one of the units. His staff has grown from one to 14 employees, their endeavors extending from development to property maintenance.

His five children are now grown, ranging from 36 to 46 years of age. The two oldest, Joanne and Michael, own Doggie Styles pet salons, Michael’s in Brooklyn and Joanne’s just a stone’s throw from her father’s office on Roosevelt Highway. Sarah is a clinical psychologist practicing in Burlington. Aimee lives in Hawaii and works in retail, and Nelson, named for Farrell’s deceased father, works at a restaurant in Portland, Maine.

On July 1, 2017, Liberty House at Cambrian Rise began accepting tenants — and Farrell married Jennifer Murphy, pharmacy manager at Walgreen’s on North Avenue.

“Jennifer is a lot like me; she’s absolutely passionate about her customers,” he says appreciatively. “She goes in on her day off, and she’s always delivering stuff to people’s homes, especially seniors.”

This kind of commitment, on both their parts, doesn’t allow for much leisure, although they keep a boat at the marina and they took a memorable trip last year to Costa Rica. Cambrian Rise, however, promises to consume Farrell’s time for years to come. As long as the pot is simmering, and interesting players and personalities are entering the mix to assess the possibilities of this new Burlington “community,” he might not mind. •