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Q&A with Harold Brown of the Hamilton Company

 

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Hamilton Company to open 48-unit luxury apartment building near Brookline

Just across the Brookline/ Boston border, Brookline resident and founder of the Hamilton Company is getting ready to celebrate the opening of a luxury development as part of a plan to invest $100 million in the Packard Crossing area.

The Hamilton Company, one of the area's largest privately-owned real estate companies, finished its six-story, 49,000-square-foot apartment building at 40 Malvern St. in Allston's Packard Crossing neighborhood. The 48-unit building is slated to be ready for occupancy by mid-October or early November according to the company's chairman and lifelong Brookline resident Harold Brown.

More than half of the units were leased before the building even opened, according to Vice President for Development a Jameson Brown, son of Hamilton founder. "Forty Malvern, along with others recently completed [developments] by Hamilton, reflects our efforts to develop buildings with moderate rents while maintaining the framework of the neighborhood setting," said the younger Brown in a press release.

 

The new units, built on the site of a parking lot that the Hamilton Company has owned and operated for more than four decades, is part of a real estate boom in Allston-Brighton. State Rep. Kevin Honan said in a press release that boom will generate 3,000 new units of housing over the next 4-5 years.

Mayor Walsh's liaison to the Allston-Brighton neighborhood John Ladt, noted that Hamilton's addition of 48 units of housing fits into the mayor's plans to approve 53,000 units of new housing by 2030.

Rents for the 1-bedroom units will start at $2,100 and $2,500 for the 2-bedroom units.

The developers boast that the building has a "green" roof garden, newly-constructed outdoor green space, off-street parking and close proximity to the MBTA, as well as access to the Commonwealth Sports Club.

Founded in 1954 by Brown, the Hamilton Company has amassed more than $1.7 billion in residential and commercial assets in the Greater Boston area. Brown is also founder of the Hamilton Company Charitable Foundation, of which his brother Ronald Brown is chairman and his son Jameson Brown is a board member.

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Brookline resident Harold Brown's company has a new building opening in Allston this month.

Harold Brown grew up in Brookline, went to the Devotion School and then graduated from Brookline High School. He stuck around and graduated from MIT in 1947. After traveling the world and serving in the military through two wars (WWII and Korea), and dabbling in everything from John Deere to doughnuts, he moved back to Brookline (he lives on Beacon Street) and founded the Hamilton Company.

The company, where he still plays an active role, became one of the area’s largest privately owned development companies and manages thousands of properties, including the 400-unit Dexter Park on Freeman Street. The 91-year-old chairman took a few minutes recently to chat with the TAB at his office about his company’s latest enterprise, when he thinks he might retire and how he ended up getting mixed up with

the Bulger family.

This interview has been edited for length.

TAB: Did you always want to get into this line of work?

BROWN: I had several dreams. I wanted to be a forest ranger. Then I went to MIT and got an engineering degree, went to work for the John Deere company in Illinois, couldn’t stand corporate life. Left it, went into the doughnut business…

 

 

How did you happen on housing?

I was going to marry a girl [in Illinois], but my mother threatened to cut her neck if I did. So I came back to Boston. I thought that was a better alternative.

And I ended up opening up three doughnut shops here. … That was in the late 40s. Then in 1949 I had been in WWII and I was in the reserve and I was qualified to handle communications for amphibious landings so they called me back into the service. And I was in Incheon [Korea]…. I got out the service in 1952, came back to Boston ……[and after a couple more jobs] …said I’d like to rent or buy a small building. I ended up buying a small, six-unit building on Commonwealth Avenue; subdivided it into 12 apartments; refinanced it; got all of my money back. Plus another $5,000 and a light went off, I said "This is a good business." So I resigned my job at Walworth and that’s how I ended up in the business.

So it was a eureka moment?

It really was a eureka moment. I had no idea what I was doing, but it worked. Then I discovered basements and started putting apartments in basements. We built 2- or 3,000 units in our day.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I like building. Creating housing. It’s fun.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had in this line of work?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I can only tell you this. I do give a number of talks: At one of the recent ones some young kid got up and asked who is your mentor?…I said: My mistakes.

Well you have a pretty good reputation right now, but you haven’t always had that…

In the old days, well, [laughs] Mike Dukakis, I know him pretty; well, when I first met him it was at some meeting and he was ranting and raving about the problem he was having with our building on Hamelton Road. He had the wrong building [laughs]. I went up to him later and said "Mr. Dukakis, we don’t own that building, we own the one next to it." He apologized. He was very nice about it. We’ve become good friends. No, at one time or another there have been groups that marched and stuff like that, so...

And then there was the accusations of connections with Bulger?

Oh that? That was a 75 State Street thing, where they claimed I was with Whitey Bulger – Billy Bulger. Which is totally false. In fact, I never met Whitey Bulger. Billy, what happened there was … I belonged to the athletic club downtown and I’m in the locker room … and next to me is Billy Bulger. I say “It’s you. You exist.” And so we became good friends.

 

Here’s what happened: I hired one of the McCormicks, he recommended a lawyer to use as a lobbyist for 75 State Street, which we were in the process of building with an insurance company. And it turned out this lobbyist was a partner of Billy Bulger. And so we had been paying him to be a lobbyist and my lawyer said to me, he says "Harold, you should get a bill from this guy to show what work he’s done just to play it safe." So I asked him for that. And he didn’t give it to me. So I stopped paying him. So he sued me. And when he sued me [laughs] the materials he filed in court an eager reporter got a hold of it and then the papers his lawyer filed it showed the checks I gave him were deposited in his joint account with Billy Bulger. That’s how they thought I was involved in it. But I wasn’t. .. so we finally settled. I didn’t use him anymore.

How many developments have you created?

We own and operate about 45,000 apartments and about 2.5 million square feet of commercial. Probably several hundred buildings. We never sell; we just buy.

Why?

[Laughs] Another question I get every so often: "Mr. Brown, how do you make money in real estate?" Know what I say? "Stay alive." Because real estate, like everything, has downturns. Since the beginning of time there’s been downturns. If you survive the downturns you’re in good shape. Because real estate is an ascending [up and down curve]… We were in a downturn in 2012 – a bad one – and we’re coming out of it now…

How would you describe the market?

Usually I can predict a downturn, this time I cannot, because I describe the market as frothy. For example, the apartment buildings behind here, which we built in the '70s, cost us $20,000 a unit to build. Now the units on Malvern Street cost us $350,000 a unit to build. That’s what’s happened to prices. That’s just labor, materials, inflation.

Your remedy in these cases?

Sit tight and hold your gunfire and have enough reserves to get through the downturn.

But here you are working on an $85 million mixed-development plan in Allston?

The only reason we can, is prices are so high ... So what we’re doing is building on land we own. On Malvern Street, we’ve owned it for years. You’ve probably heard of people buying single-family houses and tearing them down to build new buildings. That’s what we’re doing around here with the older buildings. Like for example the Auto Zone building next door. We’re tearing that down and putting up an eight-story mixed use building: About 80 apartments.

What’s your vision, then, for this area?

I think it’s going to become another Boston. Because our rents on Malvern Street are 60 percent of what they are down at the Seaport area. You don’t have the traffic. You have parking here. You have streetcar line right here. The Brookline TAB is nearby.


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