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Building Olde Towne Tree By Tree, Billionaire By Billionaire

Originally Posted: April 08, 2008

Andrea Aurichio

Specimen plantings of London Planes, Silver Lindens, English Oaks, Shumard Oaks, Tulip Polars and Sweetgums are all part of the master plan to transform the fallow lot into an estate development unmatched in the Village. Photos by Andrea Aurichio

Southampton - Where else but in the Hamptons could a 50-acre farm be transformed into a seven lot residential community so exclusive and so expensive that local real estate brokers have already dubbed the expansive project, located 1,000 feet from the ocean within view of Southampton Hospital, Billionaire's Corner?

Developer Bob "HB" Gianos is preparing to market the four-acre building lots, ranging in price from $18 million to $22 million, in May when he will launch his first residential project in Southampton Village paying homage to the Olde Towne, with this new, vastly improved 21st century version located on the corner of Old Town and Wickapogue.

The news trees line Wickapogue Road to the northern property line. The 50-acre
property was most recently the Fiore family farm.

The project, underway after more than two years of study and planning, aspires to create a community that surpasses the best of the village's toniest streets in the most impressive estate sections where mansions sit on lush grounds surrounded by privet hedges and shaded by trees planted more than 100 years ago.

It is no small feat to attempt to replicate the priceless ambiance of an established village street seasoned by time and preserved by generational family ties held in abeyance by relative new owners replete with a love of Southampton itself. These venerable estates stand guard on incomparable tree-lined lanes within walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet, time and money in the hands of a real estate developer who contends 'where there is a will - there is a way,' such fanciful imaginings just may come to pass. In what is being billed "a world tree event," Gianos is endeavoring to bring mature trees to a barren farm field at an estimated cost of $10 million.

Ranging in height from 40 to 70 feet with diameters measuring between 12 to 22 inches reflecting two and three generations of growth, 440 mature trees are arriving on site this year. The trees are being trucked into the village at night and planted on the 50-acre site. As the trees eventually mature the branches will arch across the road forming a canopy.

"We are going to out Wyandanch Wyandanch Lane," Gianos quipped. "We are selling the four-acre tear down without the tear down," he added, noting the seven well-to-do, lucky buyers of the newly available building lots will have the chance to make their own architectural statement in the Hamptons as long as it meets with village code and approval of the private association.

Specialists take time to situate each of the 440 trees allocated for the 50-acre subdivision.

Olde Towne will feature mature landscaping, narrow tree lined streets and, of course, the tallest privet hedges money can buy. The more than two miles of privet hedges that will be planted along the narrow tree lined streets are being grown locally. Thinking ahead, Gianos had the hedges planted two years ago in anticipation of the project's start.

The concept for the elite development is rooted in the splendor and rural nature of Southampton's past. Gianos claims to have gotten inspiration for the project first from the settlers who established the village in 1640, and secondly, from the gracious homes built in the original estate sections of the village in the early 1900s when Shingle Style architecture emerged. A developer with more than two decades of experience in commercial and industrial projects, Gianos said, "I call this Wyandanch meets Fair Lea meets Squabble," referring to what he described as three of the village's most gracious and desirable residential streets that informed and inspired his latest project.

"Only two or three of the world's best architects will be allowed to work here," Gianos said as he described his plans to build a new "old" community that will be presided over as a private association. "The history of this area is the key to its future," Gianos said. "History is what made the Hampton's great. Preserving nature is the key to preserving our future here."

Towering mounds of earth and sand have been stockpiled at the site to make way for extensive planting, quaint roadways and seven four-acre building lots.

Old Style In Olde Towne
The development's narrow streets will measure no more than one rod in width, in keeping with a unit of measure used in colonial times to survey land, measured by a metal rod 16.5 feet in length. Similarly, the four-acre lots are carved to reflect the original lot sizes established by the first settlers according to Gianos who has become something of a self-styled expert as a result of more than a year of intensive reading and research into the village's rich architectural history. Leaving no stone unturned, Gianos also studied local plantings and gardens to learn how the areas prevalent landscape evolved over the centuries.

"We studied it all, we made hand renderings. We have wrapped this project in a set of design guidelines produced by studying all the great architecture in the Hamptons," Gianos contends.

The two choicest lots are priced at $21 million and $22 million each. One of these lots will have second story views of both the nearby Wickapogue Pond and the Atlantic Ocean, while the other choice lot overlooks and anchors the private village green that will be preserved as open space.

An aerial perspective shows the scale and location of the Olde Towne development which
will transform the Fiore Farm in Southampton Village into a modern estate neighborhood.
Courtesy of Google Maps

A five-and-a-half acre parcel designated as parklands has already been gifted to the village by Gianos who paid $33.5 million for the 50-acre farm two years ago after arduous negotiations with the former owner Anna Fiore. Fiore held the property for 40 years before selling to Gianos who is the seventh owner to hold title to the property in 368 years.

"Anna kept three lots, one for each of her children," Gianos explained, recounting the intricacies of the deal. "We both care about Southampton and we both care about what is being built on this land and how it is being developed for future generations. We both wanted to honor the legacy of the village." Gianos reportedly sealed the deal with Fiore by promising to create a community that harkened back to the early days of the village.

Preliminary site work began during the winter months prior to the current tree-installation phase. Next: Roadways.

Trees A Big Deal
"If I knew then what I know now," Gianos continued in a semi-serious vein that indicated he was only half kidding as he looked back on the beginning of the project now taking shape. "I would have hit myself over the head with a two-by-four. Then I found Chet, and things began to move forward."

Chet is Chet Halka, a third generation tree farmer at Halka Nursery in New Jersey who has been cultivating the trees that are now being shipped to Southampton on flatbed trucks nightly. The 50 and 60-year-old trees have been growing for two and three generations on Halka's nursery in New Jersey. On a recent spring afternoon as two of these trees sat on flatbed trucks on the windswept field on Wickapogue Road, Halka was en route to the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. to plant one of his trees at the White House.

The trees en route to Southampton are among the largest that can be shipped on the highway according to interstate commerce commission rules and regulations. In fact, as Gianos pointed out noting the absolute irony of the situation, the trees now being shipped will be too large to transport on interstate highways in another two years. "So," Gianos said, "the planting fields will be cleared. I told Chet, if I didn't buy these trees now they'll all be in the chipper in a few years."

"At first Chet thought I was kidding too." Gianos recalled as he described his first encounter with Halka nearly two years ago. "He thought I was nuts when I told him what I wanted to do and how many trees I wanted to buy. Then he said to come with a check. I said, no problem, I'll come with a check."

"It's being called a world tree event," Gianos said, noting the project's timing inadvertently coincides with Earth Day and the ensuing celebrations and activities surrounding that event. The planting began on March 3. By late afternoon five weeks later, 114 trees had been planted along the property's perimeter by a dream team personally assembled by Gianos who gathered 14 tree planting experts from East Hampton, Pennsylvania and Texas to work on the project that he supervises daily from his office in a construction trailer on the site on Wickapogue Road.

"The work is very weather dependent on both ends," Gianos explained, "The trees cannot be dug up and shipped if we are dealing with driving rains and heavy winds. Likewise we can't work here under those conditions either. If we do this at the wrong time of year, we'll kill the trees."

On a good day the team plants four trees a day. The process is labor intensive and painstakingly precise. The men often put in a 10-hour day, beginning at 7 a.m. It takes two hours to handle each tree as it is moved from its prone position on the flatbed truck by a harness and lifted by crane where it swings over a hole in the ground where it will be planted. The planters spin the tree around until it is positioned correctly. It takes another hour to anchor the tree and backfill the hole. Each tree has its own irrigation system and is numbered for future maintenance.

"This is like taking care of 440 children," Gianos explained. "We will be taking care of these trees for the next 100 years." Taking great care in selecting the plantings as he wanted to replicate what was already in existence, Giano reported, "We are planting 220 London Planes. These trees are growing on Wyandanch Lane, Lilly Pond Lane, Gin Lane and Coopers Neck Lane. They are amazing trees with mottled bark and architectural branches."

According to Gianos, the London Plane is the iconic tree of the Hamptons. Often regarded as one of the most photographed in nature, the London Plane was also favored by Napoleon Bonaparte. Silver Lindens, English Oaks, Shumard Oaks, Tulip Poplars, Swamp White Oak and Sweetgums will all be planted on the site before the project is completed.

Flatbed trucks arrive nightly from a New Jersey tree farm to populate the expansive project.

A Deal Of Deals?
While the lots may seem pricey to the uninitiated they are, according to Gianos, who has tracked every sale in the village in excess of $10 million in the last three years, the best game in town.

"This is the lowest price per acre for anything in the village," Gianos said. A developer who jumped into residential development full speed ahead despite the jitters surrounding the real estate market for the past two years. Gianos noted the project gave him the freedom to be as 'kooky and creative' as he wanted to be in the village he now calls home full time.

Gianos expressed confidence in the market, noting the strong sales activity at the high end where value is holding. "Volume may be down, but prices are up," Gianos commented. "There is less frenzy now, it's more of a normal market. Prices are not declining in the village. I'm not really worried about the market."

"This is a total no-brainer," he added. "I'm doing something that has never been done before on the high end of the market out here. There is nothing else like it around. We have seven one-of-a kind lots, they are going to sell."

But they are not on the ocean, you say. Gianos has thought of that too. "The appeal for inland lots is growing," he claimed. "Not everyone wants oceanfront property. It's noisy, it's foggy, it's damp, you can't get insurance, and you can't have a good garden. A lot of old timers are selling their oceanfront estates and moving inland," Gianos predicted, pointing to a trend while hoping to stay ahead of the curve.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The first settlers also built their houses inland along the few existing narrow country roads seeking respite and shelter from storm, fog and high winds blowing off the nearby ocean. Bob Gianos' new Olde Towne seeks to achieve the same, sans impoverished times.

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