Standing on the deck of an apartment at the Erie Harbor development on Mount Hope Avenue, you get a clear sense of Richard Crossed’s vision.
"It was about having the opportunity to buy this property and take advantage of its wonderful attributes and this beautiful view of Rochester," says Crossed, the co-founder and chairman of Conifer Realty LLC, the 16th-largest owner of affordable housing in the country, as reported by Affordable Housing Finance magazine.
The firm develops, constructs and manages affordable housing communities. Since its inception in 1975, the company has developed more than 225 properties representing more than 16,000 units. It owns and manages more than 10,000 multifamily units in 170 apartment communities. It also has more than 600 units under construction, and approximately 25 projects are in various stages of the development process.
Conifer’s latest, and perhaps most visible, project is Erie Harbor. The plan calls for the upgrade of the property’s rundown River Park Commons, the subsidized housing project on Mount Hope Avenue built in 1975.
Though Crossed stepped down as president and CEO of Conifer in 2006, Erie Harbor has been his baby since the company purchased the property in 2005.
"I’m just the chairman now," Crossed jokes. "But they still let me oversee a project here and there."
That is a little misleading.
"He is scaling back his role, but Richard has been right there with me and our senior team in our current development process in New Jersey and as we explore opportunities in the state of Virginia," says Conifer president and CEO Timothy Fournier, who has worked with Crossed for more than 30 years. "It has really been his vision and perseverance that has been the catalyst for the Erie Harbor project, bringing it down the home stretch to the finish line. He is an urban planner and entrepreneur at heart and real estate pro."
With Erie Harbor, Crossed has put a lot of work into making sure the property becomes a major highlight of the South Wedge, with 130 new, market-rate and affordable flats and townhouses, plus the refurbished existing tower. Crossed even focuses on some of the smaller details.
"I designed this railing," he says, placing his hand on the railing that outlines the deck. "It really is a nice railing. Don’t you think?"
The project is expected to be finished in May, Crossed says. Local residents who have been inside the tower or just driven down Mount Hope Avenue see the progress Crossed and his team have made.
"It’s definitely something you’re happy to see as part of the neighborhood now," says Kati Boldwin, who lives off Mount Hope Avenue. "It was depressing before. From what it was to what it is now, it’s like night and day."
The project has not been easy. When Conifer went to acquire the property, it was in foreclosure. Even after completing the acquisition, Crossed and his team faced the task of relocating the people who occupied River Park Commons. The company then had to meet the neighborhood concerns about the design and color of the buildings.
Initially, residents were concerned enough that Conifer devised new plans, dialing back the boldness of the colors. The neighborhood now supports the project.
While someone in his shoes might be expected to find the process long and sometimes arduous, Crossed has a different take.
"It’s been fun," he says. "You get to meet a lot of interesting people, and it’s not often you get the chance to do a redevelopment project in a community like the South Wedge."
Crossed says the positive attitude he got from his parents has helped him thrive in the real estate industry for more than 50 years.
He grew up in Elmira, the youngest of nine children. Business and economics became an interest when he reached his teenage years, he says. That led him to pursue a degree in business from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., where he met his wife, Carol, while playing a game of tennis.
After graduation, Crossed moved to Washington, D.C., to work for an economic consulting firm, where he took a major interest in real estate research and market studies.
With two children and plans for more, Crossed and his wife made the decision to move to Rochester in 1967, seeing it as a better place to raise a big family. Crossed took a job in the city of Rochester’s planning department before becoming the financial analyst and project director for the New York State Urban Development Corp., an organization that developed affordable housing upstate.
In 1975, Crossed and two associates left the corporation to start Conifer. The new company put together its first development project that year.
Crossed says Conifer’s continued focus on affordable housing and urban development stems from the founders’ background in the field and a desire to give something back to the community.
"We get a lot out of it," he says. "We’re assisting in a lot of revitalizing projects around the state. It’s very rewarding, and we make money at it."
In 1996, Conifer was acquired by and merged with Home Properties Inc., with Crossed managing the company’s affordable housing development. In 2000, Crossed, Fournier and Terence Butwid, purchased Conifer back for $16 million.
The company now has a partnership, Conifer-LeChase Construction LLC, with one of the region’s top construction companies, LeChase Construction Services LLC. Conifer-LeChase builds all of Conifer’s affordable housing developments, including the Erie Harbor project. With 395 units built in 2010, Conifer-LeChase ranked first on the Rochester Business Journal’s most recent list of homebuilders.
Back in control
Since buying back Conifer Realty, Crossed and his team have expanded the company to more than 500 employees, approximately 130 of whom are in Rochester. It has developed properties and apartment units in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland with the help of local, state and federal programs. Conifer officials declined to disclose figures on the company’s financial performance.
"I take joy in seeing new people take the values that Tim and I and others have put in place and improve on them," Crossed says. "They’re doing a way better job than I ever did, really. That’s very rewarding."
One of those new people at the company is Crossed’s son, Andrew, who is executive vice president.
"I’ve learned a lot from him," says Andrew. "He’s an exceptionally humble and modest businessman. I think that’s the sign of a good leader. Growing up, I also remember he would work very hard on weekdays, but on the weekend he was always home or doing whatever we had going on as a family."
Throughout his career, Richard Crossed has served non-profit organizations with missions related to housing. He was a director of St. Joseph’s Villa from 1992 to 2000 and is a founding member of the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership.
At age 72, Crossed still enjoys playing tennis with his wife, a well-known peace and pro-life activist and board member of Feminists for Life of New York. They have six children and 17 grandchildren and like to travel. They visited Egypt recently.
Crossed spends at least two days a week at the Erie Harbor site. During a recent visit he spent much of the time talking about the development’s new amenities, the families that already have committed to living there and his hope for the project.
"I really want this to be something the community can love," he says. "It connects the areas around Corn Hill, all the way down to what the University of Rochester is doing with its College Town. I just think we’ve done something that’s unique and amazing for the eye to see."
Toward the end of the day, Crossed takes a moment to look out over the river, taking in every detail of the property before leaving.
"That railing really is something, isn’t it?" he asks for what must be the fifth time during the day. "It sure is something to be proud of."
Title: Chairman and managing partner, Conifer Realty LLC
Education: B.A., Bellarmine College, Louisville, Ky., 1958
Family: Wife Carol; sons David, 45, Andrew, 41, and Nick, 38; daughters Jessica Shanahan, 44, Amy Crossed Rieck, 42, and Kate Schnittman, 36
Hobbies: Tennis, travel, spending time with grandchildren
Quote: "I always thought we could grow this company. My mother told me at a young age to hire people who are smart, so that’s what I try to do. We have such incredible people on the team. It’s been an honor to see the direction this company is going in."
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