June 8, 2008

Developer Still Keen on Lehi Project, Gehry’s Role

By Steve Gehrke, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jun. 8--PROVO -- Frank Gehry's uniquely designed mega-projects have fallen on hard times.

Now, some Utahns chattering on the blogosphere are speculating that a planned Gehry project in Lehi could be next -- the victim of credit crunches and tumbling housing prices.

Not so fast, says Brandt Andersen, whose Provo-based G-Code Ventures is still hot to develop a widely anticipated mixed-use, Gehry-designed development being touted as a destination point -- the likes of which Utah has never before seen.

His vision, climbing out of a massive wakeboarding lake: an arena to host Andersen's developmental-league basketball team, the Utah Flash; a shopping center; residential units; a five-star hotel that would top out as Utah's tallest building at 450 feet.

"I am convinced that the work and reconfiguring we have done is going to pay dividends," says Andersen, who has gone through several tweaks in the model's details with Gehry.

"I believe it will bring people to the state. They will say, 'I went and stayed at the Frank Gehry development in Lehi.' "

Despite these perilous financial times, Andersen's plans have expanded.

The youthful business mogul -- he made his money developing software -- recently bought Open Court, a Lehi sports facility just across Interstate 15 from the Gehry project, proposed for 80 acres on the Point of the Mountain's southern flank. Then, he announced plans to remodel and reconfigure the building -- to be called "The Factory" -- to fit in with the neighboring Gehry development.

Headquartered in The Factory will be his NBA-affiliated developmental league team, the Utah Flash, which feeds players to the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. A still-to-be-named architect will remake the exterior, offering the public a glimpse of what might eventually fill the now-open field across the interstate.

And while the rest of his plans might surpass even the once-utopian dreams of a now-bankrupt SunCrest in Draper or a Promontory near Park City, Andersen says his project is different.

He says he has what it takes to ensure Gehry's vision will not go belly up.

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Making the case for Gehry: Even at 30 years old, Andersen has credentials. Though he does not refer to himself as a developer, the entrepreneur, basketball-team owner and art investor is spearheading a golf-course community in Orem called The Lakes at Sleepy Ridge.

And he claims to be well-financed.

Unlike many developers who have dug themselves deep into debt both to purchase land and build, Andersen is not solely relying on big loans.

He's looking for investors -- after all, the development is expected to cost around $2 billion -- but the business mogul and one-time owner of one of the nation's fastest-growing companies has already paid more than $100 million -- in cash -- to buy the land in east Lehi.

"There's nothing to bankrupt because we haven't leveraged this," Andersen says. "If this is phased right, it can be done. We're spending the money to build the right stuff at the right time and do the water the right way."

And, he says, this lack of partners gives the Gehry-Andersen duo flexibility to respond quickly to a changing market.

"There are certain advantages," says Andersen, "in not dealing with a big conglomerate of people trying to overextend themselves and refinance everything."

In the year since they declared their goal, to much fanfare and media attention, the pair already have repeatedly fine-tuned its looks and scope.

For example, they want to make their project, which he claims is attracting the interest of "high-profile" tenants, more energy-efficient and self-sustaining.

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The skeptics: Not everyone is convinced Andersen can pull it off.

Some nearby residents in the Traverse Mountain area have grown disheartened over the past year by the lack of news on the project.

Some whispered that the Andersen-Gehry camp was supposed to submit renderings to Lehi City months ago, and that led to big questions: Could a project with the promise to single-handedly change the face and economy in Lehi be merely a pipe dream?

Wrote one user on a Traverse Mountain chat group: "It's hard to imagine the area supporting the hotel and all the housing. . . . Plus, it's almost impossible to fund such projects in today's economy."

Another was even more pessimistic: "It will probably end up being an automall to complement our state-of-the-art shopping facility. . . . Just a way to inflate the land values here and when all the lots are sold, this too will evaporate."

A major critic, Greg Allen of greg.org, compared the project's masterminds to the developers of the Triad Center who, in the early 1980s, promised a new downtown for Salt Lake City and delivered a couple of basic buildings.

"I'll be the first to sign up for wakeboarding classes if Gehry's project ever gets built," wrote Allen.

Even amid the negativity, there still are several optimistic Gehry supporters who hope Andersen has what it takes to get the job done.

Andersen is not surprised by the skeptics. That's why he says he's held off on presenting to the public new renderings that show twice as much water as early drafts.

"News of 'grand' real estate projects is quickly followed by skepticism. In this market I get it," says Andersen.

He believes the economy will weed out projects that never should have existed, hopefully leaving his climbing from a new sports lake as an island in a desert, nestled in a pocket against Traverse Mountain.

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Guggenheim designer faces tough economic climate

Frank Gehry -- the widely acclaimed building designer who was the subject of a full-length documentary by the late Academy Award winner Sydney Pollack -- is not immune to the hard pinch of a massive credit crunch.

Gehry's high-profile clients are struggling to finance their multibillion-dollar projects.

Some face cutbacks.

Take Brooklyn's $4.3 billion Atlantic Yards complex, complete with apartments, office space and an eventual New Jersey Nets basketball arena. Its centerpiece -- a residential and commercial tower -- was recently slashed by 100 feet and will now be composed solely of office space.

Others are behind schedule.

A $3 billion redevelopment project in downtown Los Angeles called Grand Avenue should include a hotel, condo tower, restaurants and shops. Construction on the first phase was expected to begin last fall and finish in 2009. But now it is slated to break ground next year and finish around 2012.

And amid the attention on the market, many of Gehry's projects are still raking up as much controversy and doubt among critics as those who opposed his first big one -- the now-acclaimed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.


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