To some, he's considered a spiritual guide. To others, a cult leader. But to Hartford city officials, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has been a supreme pain in the ass. In 1994, the 92-year-old bearded populizer of transcendental meditation's enigmatic and faceless Maharishi Vedic Development Corporation purchased the Clarion Hotel building on Constitution Plaza, and there, in full view of the bustle of I-91, the dilapidated edifice has sat -- a vacant, untouched, neglected eyesore, and a billboard advertising Hartford's urban ruin.
Even now, as Hartford's trying to reverse its tarnished image with tourists, via the mammoth Adriaen's Landing experiment, the future of this piece of real estate is up in the air, as it has been since the maharishi added it to his impressive reserve of American land holdings.
What most folks don't know about the maharishi is he's a big real estate investor. According to the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper, the maharishi's combined real-estate and business holdings total out at $3.6 billion. These days, the maharishi presides over a corporate empire Indian sources have estimated to be worth more than $5 billion -- a sort of Wal-Mart of the spirit, encompassing extensive land holdings in India, hotels in Europe, and publishing houses in the United States.
So what are the maharishi's plans for the asbestos-filled, mold-laden, water-damaged Clarion Hotel -- before that, known as the Summit Hotel, and before that, the Sonesta, and even before that, the regal American Hotel? Well, there's loads of speculation, but nothing definitive.
At first, when the maharishi, who was guru to the Beatles, paid $1.5 million for the vacated structure, the plan was to restore the 290-room hotel to its magnificence, and reopen it as the Constitution Plaza. There were even plans to utilize a portion of the building as a vegetarian restaurant.
Then, there were plans to convert the hotel into one of his Maharishi Vedic Universities, where students would be schooled in the ways of transcendental meditation. But again, no action, and now, in 2003, the hotel lies in wait -- its future, uncertain. But even back in 1995, when representatives for the maharishi presented Hartford's City Council with his intentions, it was a tough sell with former Mayor Mike Peters.
"We weren't pleased about it," Peters told the Advocate last week, about the maharishi's acquisition of the Clarion Hotel. "We weren't sure what the plans would be for the hotel, what he was going to do with it, which we knew then would be nothing, and we know is nothing."
Of course, Peters was right to doubt. The Clarion Hotel purchase was one phase in the maharishi's 40-year plan, according to news accounts, to open meditation centers in all 50 states. It's unknown just how many hotels the maharishi has procured over the years, but it's been reported that the Clarion is one of at least 25 distressed American hotels he owns -- 25 he has done nothing with.
Take the Berkeley Carteret in Asbury Park, N.J., the historic Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, the Holiday Inn on Milwaukee's west side, the Colony Hotel in downtown Dallas, and the former Days Inn in Detroit -- all prime examples and all of them abandoned hotels owned by the maharishi who, at one time, provided local officials with the promise of redevelopment and more visitor dollars, but in time, left them with yet another blighted piece of devalued real estate.
The Clarion Hotel closed in August of 1994, at what might have been downtown Hartford's economic rock bottom. City officials have hoped for years that the maharishi would sell the hotel to someone who could find a new use for the building, but satisfaction has yet to come. In 1998, things started looking up, as it seemed the maharishi was close to selling the Clarion -- the hotel went back on the market that spring, with a $14 million price tag, and yes, the real estate firm that had listed the hotel claimed numerous, "very serious" offers were coming in from around the world. But no deal.
Then, in 1999, more optimism came in the form of a Michigan-based developer, David Ong, who'd expressed interest in the edifice, and had plans to restore it to an operating, 270-room business hotel. At the time, though, Ong was seeking investments from local corporations and the city itself, to the tune of $40.5 million -- an amount that would've covered the maharishi's asking price as well as needed renovations at the site. But again, no deal.
At present, the Clarion hotel remains on the market, and is available to potential buyers, says Jeffrey M. Livingston, managing director for CB Richard Ellis' Hartford offices, the real estate brokerage firm with which the maharishi's listed the property. Livingston wouldn't discuss his client's asking price, but did confirm the hotel is "available."
The problem with attracting potential investors, says Dan Matos of New York-based Capital Properties Inc., which owns five buildings on Constitution Plaza, has always been the building itself. It's estimated that -- thanks to a total lack of maintenance -- it would take more than $15 million to bring the hotel up to modern building codes and standards.
"It would be an extensive renovation job," says Harry Freeman, Hartford's economic development director. "It's a total gut rehabilitation." There's a significant amount of asbestos in the hotel that would need to be expunged, he adds, and a rodent infestation problem that would need to be addressed.
"It's never sold because the asking price has always been too high, and to be honest the building is, for all practical purposes, obsolete," says Matos. "So whoever buys it is going to have in front of them a significant renovation job, just to bring the value of the property to zero. That'll cost around $15 million, the renovation. So, that's pretty daunting to anyone. It's a real tough business deal for anyone.
"I think the maharishi could sell this building for $2 million, $3 million," Matos continues. "I think if the maharishi knew 10 years ago that he'd still be holding on to this hotel, still be paying taxes on it and not using it, he would've walked away from it."
What, if anything, has the city done to take over this concrete albatross? Well, Peters says that before his fourth term as mayor concluded two years ago, he, as well as then-City Manager Saundra Kee Borges, had instructed the city's corporation counsel to explore the legalities of taking ownership of the Clarion Hotel building under eminent domain.
The problem with that move, according to one source from the corporation counsel office who asked not to be identified, is that such an action would've ended up being a white elephant for Hartford. "The idea of us taking that on wouldn't make any sense," says the source. "We could go after it, but with the kind of budget shortfall we have, we tend to look at these things very cautiously ... . We're trying to get out of the property-ownership business, because we want to expand our tax base."
Plus, when it came down to identifying what public use the building could serve, city officials were at a complete loss, the source explains.
The city did come close to foreclosing on the property back in 1995, when the maharishi owed more than $870,000 in delinquent back taxes. But at the 11th hour, payment was made. Since then, claims Thomas Morrisson, the city's finance director, it's been the same exact situation every year -- the maharishi waits until the very last minute to settle his tax debts with Hartford, preventing the city from foreclosing.
In fact, two weeks ago, the maharishi settled his 2003 tax debts, paying Hartford more than $162,000 -- more than $9,000 of that figure, accrued interest.
Still Freeman says he's optimistic that the Clarion hotel will, in perhaps even the next few months, be sold to developers. He says he thinks it will, in time, prove to be an asset.
"The maharishi's expressed more interest in accepting reasonable offers," Freeman says. "As work has progressed at Adriaen's Landing, we knew that it would stimulate more interest in the Clarion. ... I think you're going to see some positive developments there within the next few months."
Calls to several of the maharishi's Connecticut contacts, seeking comment for this article, were fruitless.