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Doubt on Lanier twin towers being built

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Build luxury towers here?

Proposed project in Gainesville a long way from becoming reality

By JANET FRANKSTON

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The two high-rise towers proposed for the shores of Lake Lanier in Gainesville sound as if they could be pulled out of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full."

Mixed-use skyscrapers rising out of nowhere. A fancy restaurant at the top. Thirty Steinway pianos placed in condominiums and public spaces.

"You couldn't very well miss it, the dome, out in its splendid leafy loneliness," Wolfe writes of his fictional Croker Concourse, a 40-story tower in Cherokee County that's 60 percent empty and hemorrhaging money.

The proposed Canterbury at Lake Lanier would contain 750,000 square feet in two towers, one 34 stories, the other 36. A robotic valet would park cars. A helipad would shuttle wealthy condominium tenants and hotel guests back and forth to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, nearly 70 miles away.

The developer is proposing 150 condos, ranging from 1,350 to 3,500 square feet each, and its 34 hotel rooms would have "the amenities of a six-star boutique hotel." The site is on 10.6 acres near the intersection of Thompson Bridge and Old Thompson Bridge roads in Hall County, a few miles north of Gainesville's quaint downtown.

But the company proposing to build the cylindrical towers -- Endeco International, a sole proprietorship based in New York -- has no track record as a developer. Its principal, R. Eric Castro, won't discuss who will finance the $325 million project.

Castro said he has worked with other construction companies on large projects in New York as a contractor or construction manager. But some say he has overstated his roles. In Troy, Mich., Endeco has not filed a site plan for a multimillion-square-foot mixed-use project Castro has been talking about for at least four years.

He acknowledges that his Georgia plans -- to attract "people of wealth, position and power" to lake-view condos selling for $1.5 million to $6 million -- are his most grandiose. "No one has ever done anything so ambitious in the entire country," he said recently by telephone from New York.

Castro, 63, a Honduran immigrant who says he came to New York as a political refugee in 1960, acknowledges that he has little experience with a project of this scope.

"My track record as a developer is nominal," he said. "I spent 30 years running a construction company."

'Six-star' quality

Late last year Castro met with leaders in Gainesville, but he has not filed enough information for a rezoning application, said Matt Tate, principal planner for the city. If Endeco files the list of documents requested by Gainesville's planning and development officials by Thursday, the project could go to the planning commission in March and before the City Council in April, Tate said.

Endeco is asking for rezoning of the land, some of which is designated commercial, to accommodate the planned residential development. Castro also wants Gainesville to annex about three acres of the property now in unincorporated Hall County, according to preliminary plans filed with the city. The 10.6 acres he plans to buy has several owners.

City leaders say they hope the project is for real and that they're flattered that a New York developer would want to construct a mega-project there. If it's built, the development could generate millions of dollars in property taxes.

"Gainesville is a quality place," said Mayor George Wangemann, who took office last week and served as a city councilman for 17 years. "I can understand why people want to live here and have a view of a lake and the mountains in the background." Wangemann has not met Castro.

Castro said he sees a market for his project because of Georgia's temperate climate and the South's "romantic appeal" of history and tradition. Travelers also can easily get from Hartsfield-Jackson to anywhere in the world, he noted. "If you want to sell condos in the price range of $1.5 million, you have to be able to access a global market."

Castro said he could envision real estate brokers operating from England, Australia, South Africa and Latin America marketing his towers. What would distinguish the project, he said, is a high level of security that could make someone like the Sultan of Brunei feel comfortable. The security and advanced telecommunications services could earn the property a "six-star" rating, he said.

But that designation doesn't exist in North America, said Shane O'Flaherty, vice president of the Mobil Travel Guide, which ranks 10,500 hotels in the United States and Canada on a one-to-five-star system. He said he doesn't know of a six-star hotel.

Castro said he thinks his property would call for a six-star category.

More talk than action?

Officials in Troy say Endeco is more talk than substance.

Endeco proposed an ambitious project called the Carlton Center there, but Castro hasn't made any move to build it, said Doug Smith, Troy's real estate and development director. "I did my due diligence," he said. "I found no evidence that he accomplished anything that he told me."

Smith said Castro told Troy officials he was working with the mayors' offices in New York and Atlanta on high-rise towers. "Neither of which had any substance, and nothing had ever been completed or done or even started," Smith said. "Everyone was a dead end. He name-drops."

What planners say they found more troubling is that Endeco proposed to knock down the Michigan city's tallest building, the 25-story Top of Troy. But he doesn't own it, nor had he approached the owner, said Jeanine Mixdorf, director of marketing for Kojaian Co., which owns the building. She declined to comment on the Endeco proposal other than to say her company has no plans to tear down the building, which is about 85 percent occupied.

Castro said his plans to demolish the Top of Troy were "exaggerated" and that he will submit plans in Michigan by June. "Of course we haven't filed," he said. "All the pieces aren't in place."

In a two-page summary of his background and his company's experience, Castro says he has worked on several large projects in New York. He lists work with "Tishman Construction Corp. of New York as a joint-venture partner" and says "Endeco Group served as construction manager" for Riverbank State Park in Manhattan.

Allan Paull, who was senior project manager for two phases of the park and is now Tishman's vice president, said those statements aren't true. "They weren't a construction manager for Tishman on this job, nor were they a joint-venture partner of Tishman," he said of Endeco. "They provided sub-consulting services."

Paull said Endeco managed the minority and women-owned business enterprise and equal-opportunity program, a small part of the project. "They did a good job," he said.

Paull also noted that the project's scope was about $125 million, not $350 million as Castro said.

Castro said Paull's description of Endeco's role was "not the way we see it. We did more than what they talked about."

New York experience

In another project, at Columbia University in New York, Castro said he "served as director of construction in renovation" of Kent and Philosophy halls, which house classrooms, offices and a library. He said he did the work on behalf of Santa Fe Construction Inc., a New York-based company.

Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP, a New York-based architectural, engineering and preservation firm, designed a new waterproofing and drainage system for the two buildings and a plaza connecting them -- about a $3 million job. Douglas Wasama, an associate with the firm, said Castro "was the key person representing Santa Fe on the project. He worked with us prior to bidding the project, then he evaluated the bids and coordinated the construction."

Castro also said he represented Santa Fe as "co-director of construction" on Jazz at Lincoln Center, a $128 million, 100,000-square-foot performing arts center. Sander Gossard, project director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, said, "Eric was part of the Santa Fe team" although he did pre-construction work.

Officials with Santa Fe said they cannot confirm "Mr. Castro's past title and role with this firm."

Castro said he wasn't surprised. "We didn't have the best relationship, and I don't want to say anything negative."

In Gainesville, Endeco has made an offer to buy nearly five acres from Don Hall, chief executive officer of Jones & Hall Ventures. Hall said he's been looking for a buyer for nearly six years. He declined to say how much Endeco has offered for his lakefront land or to detail the "significant" earnest money Endeco has provided as a nonrefundable deposit on the deal.

"I really expect it to close any day," said Hall, who said Endeco has retained him for project management services and promised him a $1.5 million condo at or below cost. Hall said he worked as a project manager for AT&T for 28 years, and in this project he has helped select the local attorney and public relations firm and assemble the land.

A question of demand

Can the Canterbury attract people to buy such expensive condos and stay in the hotel? Frank Norton, president of Norton Agency, a real estate and insurance business in Gainesville, said such people would require high-end services not found in Gainesville.

"You've got to have a reason to come here," Norton said. "In essence, they'd need to build a city with restaurants and upscale shopping, fitness club amenities."

But luxury on the far outskirts of metro Atlanta isn't unheard of. In April 2002, the Ritz-Carlton opened Reynolds Plantation, a four-star resort at Lake Oconee, 80 miles east of downtown Atlanta. General Manager Steven Freund said the majority of guests who stay at the hotel come from no more than 500 miles away.

"Unless you've got an attraction that's unique to this part of the world that nobody can get anywhere else, it will continue to be that way," Freund said. "If you don't have the Grand Canyon on your doorstep, are people going to drive or fly to your location?"

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