The Kleban Effect

Al Kleban and Ken Kleban a Generation of Moving Fairfield Forward

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One day the old Steinbach department store was thriving in a shopping plaza on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield. The next day the Steinbach chain was bankrupt and its assets, including a long-term lease with landlord Al Kleban, were heading to the auction block.

What a prime spot, that Steinbach location, feeding as it does from Easton and the Merritt Parkway. Some 26,000 or so cars travel past that plaza each day, according to state estimates. Steinbach’s had locked in at a low rent, and whoever bought the lease could continue the bargain for twelve more years. Lots of business folks were jockeying to grab the space. To put it politely, though, the prospects were not a high-class lot—dollar stores, mostly—eager to dump their discounts in the 74,000-square-foot empty shell and to stay put until the lease ran out.

But Al Kleban had a different vision for his property. He believed that if he created a new destination anchored by higher-end retailers, Fairfielders and their children would shop and eat and play there all day long. He just had to convince some national retailers to see things his way. In addition to being a landlord and a lawyer, Al Kleban, like his father and grandfather before him, is a salesman. With the clock ticking, Kleban worked the phones, lining up meetings and pitching plans to Gap and its offspring Old Navy. The day before the auction, Kleban flew to Detroit, site of the bankruptcy proceedings, to hammer out a deal with the retailers. Negotiations lasted through the night. Come morning, Kleban was ready. Each time the dollar-discounters upped the ante for the lease, Kleban bettered the offer. Eventually the discounters disappeared.

“I had a card up my sleeve. A deal with the Gap,” Kleban says, chuckling. He’s remembering the story from a booth in the back of Pizzeria Molto Mozzarella and Wine Bar in Fairfield (another vision of his, but more about that later). That Gap deal was sealed in 1999. Today, Gap, Old Navy, Einstein Bros Bagels and more anchor the old Steinbach’s site in one of the busiest shopping plazas in town.

Vision, cunning, money, guts—and a fair bit of salesmanship—have helped launch Kleban Holding Co. into Fairfield’s second-largest property owner and taxpayer, just behind GE, according to the 2012 Grand List. (The Klebans’ tally totals $73,999,044, second to GE’s $74,039,200, reports Fairfield Tax Assessor Don Ross.) There’s no question that the rising tax infusion from the Klebans—Al, who is eighty-two, and his son, Ken, who is fifty-four—has helped Fairfield weather the recent economic downturn better than many of its neighbors. But the Klebans’ greatest contribution to town could be more than monetary. Project by project, Al and Ken Kleban have shaped the way Fairfielders shop, eat, travel, play and even live in their own hometown.

In the past decade alone, the Klebans have helped usher the Fairfield University bookstore off campus and into the center of town; built the $60 million Brick Walk, a pedestrian-friendly shopping promenade on the Post Road where a funeral home once stood; courted restaurateurs and encouraged alfresco dining to liven up the streets at night; even constructed a built-in pool underneath Old Navy amid repeated calls for a new place in town where people could swim when it’s too cold to swim outside.

The Klebans’ latest plan, which includes a handful of apartments over a bank downtown, could be the sign of changes to come, not just for years, but for decades down the road.

“We’ve talked about more mixed-use downtown,” says Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s director of economic development. Barnhart envisions a thriving downtown where people not only shop and eat but also work and live, too. This is a common grand vision among planners in Connecticut these days. But planners aren’t builders or landlords. In fact, they’re at the mercy of developers and zoning boards. “There are limits to what the towns can do, but with some landlords, we can be more lenient and flexible. When we talk, I know that the Klebans listen,” Barnhart says. He cites as one example the Klebans’ construction of more environmentally friendly projects, as the town has requested, as well as the partners’ plans to add apartments over existing retail and service properties downtown. In Fairfield, there’s a dearth of residential options for people who don’t need or want all that comes with a house. “This housing can really transform the downtown in a very positive way,” Barnhart says.

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