Home-grown Kovens family business has "total integrity about this town."
Kovens, the longest-standing developer in Chapel Hill, arrived here at 19 to build apartments, some under government financing. His grandfather developed much of the Miami Beach oceanfront; his father was building luxury high-rises and his brother went into golf course communities.
Scott remembers fondly his hours on the job site and his relationships with subs, many who came from elsewhere and some immigrants who turned out to be his best journeymen. He first superintended for Jacque F. McAllister Construction, where Kovens learned how to go into a community, spend 18 months and put 120-300 units in the ground.
"In those days, you had to walk your jobs several times a day, know your subs from outside and in," Kovens said. "If you spent time with the workforce, you found out what was really going on with the job. Immigrants were more open to learning how to do it better. Some subs thought the immigrants were taking their jobs. I said, 'No, they're doing a better job.'"
Kovens remembers the subs that worked late hours, like sheet rockers who wanted to hang rock without having to work around anyone else. "They did their thing all night on stilts," Kovens said with a smile.
Scott with his sons — Joe, Aaron, and Hanan Photo by Susan Murray
In 1974, during the gas crisis, Kovens went home to Florida thinking about energy. He learned about building with enough open space and windows and enough light to grow indoor plants. It was the first era in the greening of America. He now does that in developments like Winmore, which features 2,800 square foot "courtyard houses" and adjacent gardens where the light flows freely throughout and makes the home seem much bigger yet energy efficient.
He hired Eric Chupp and Peter Gaudette 25 years ago, both loyal lieutenants ever since. Gaudette developed his own style of building, and remains very particular about certain interior and exterior functions. Chupp is an ardent land developer and, according to Kovens, a "financial wizard."
Kovens calls it accessible - not affordable - housing based on the fixed paychecks of buyers who would always be here because of hospital and university jobs.
Kovens Construction has built apartments, townhouses, cluster communities, condos and multi-million-dollar homes with familiar names to Chapel Hill — Bolin Forest, Knollwood, Weatherhill Pointe, Pickard Oaks, Erwin Village, Columbia Place, Cedars at Bolin Forest, elegant Franklin Grove, custom homes at Chancellor's View, and Winmore, a modern multi-use neighborhood off Homestead Road with small and larger homes, condos, a school and a commercial center.
That's thousands of bedrooms and hundreds of thousands of square feet in living space by Kovens, who is affable and approachable but still holds his cards close to his vest.
He was determined to stay standing, once putting more than $4 million of his own money on the table and fighting with banks to honor their commitments and not ruin people's lives.
It was easier years ago, and not only because the money was more accessible. Kovens knew just about everyone in town, many his contemporaries who grew families at the same time and saw each other at youth games and on Franklin Street. There was not as much of the extended haggling of today between the Town Council and developers.
Kovens and his partners, Peter Gaudette and Eric Chupp, have been together for 25 years building some of Chapel Hill's most diverse and popular communities.Photo by Susan Murray
"We always worked it out with Chapel Hill and Carrboro," he said. "Never left them hanging, always did what they wanted us to do. Disagreements? Sure. But we knew 99 percent of the people and their kids, so we worked it out."
Kovens is as much a Chapel Hill gadfly as a respected builder and developer. Although he travels often on business and occasional pleasure — to visit family and friends who still live in Miami, sail in the annual Heineken Regatta, catch a Springsteen or Stones concert — he decided long ago this was going to be his permanent home. His sons Hanan, Joe and Aaron have each tried other professions but all have come around to what they learned growing up.
"As kids, they went with me to put up real estate signs. I took them up on the scaffolding. They didn't realize it for a while, but the business is in their blood. They have total integrity about this town," the proud father said. "We build communities like the community they were raised in."
Project manager Hanan likes to get his hands dirty making sure Winmore and other neighborhoods stay on track and well-groomed for weekend visitors. Aaron came out of the fitness industry to take over the company marketing and future projects. Scott often dispatches Joe to look after out-of-town projects. All three boys are still eligible bachelors.
One of Scott's favorite places to relax and interact with friends and associates is Caffe Driade on Franklin Street. Photo by Susan Murray
With Winmore and other marketable properties recovering nicely, Kovens continues looking to the future, owning many acres of undeveloped land. He sees the need for multi-generational housing, grandparents living with their children, and wants to accommodate the growing Asian and Indian population in the Triangle, families moving here with large incomes and stable jobs.
Kovens Construction has other ideas of how to improve the community. They partnered with The Goddard School to build the only 5-star early childhood development center in Chapel Hill on Martin Luther King Boulevard. It will open in the spring of 2014, with enrollment beginning soon.
Another reason Kovens survived is how he toughed it out with the banks when so many other developers ran out of money or patience. Most banks wanted more than 10-20 percent down and developers to put in a lot of their own resources.
Kovens made and lost millions during the last 40-plus years, and he wasn't going down again without a fight. He stood up to the bigger banks that were his partners yesterday and decided virtually the next day they were no longer in the lending business. Just like that, they called millions of dollars in loans that could not be repaid. Banks ended up with property they sold for pennies on the dollar.
"I've seen banks take homes away from people, taking their lives with them," Kovens said. "What's a bank going to do with the house? Let it go foul. Their people don't respect the property, that this is someone's home."
"I've had some very tough meetings with public and private lenders. Lots of tension in the room. Lots of yelling and some threats about what they were doing to people by deciding they weren't in the construction lending business anymore."
The waters have calmed, financing is coming back and building is again brisk.
"These things go in cycles," Scott Kovens said. "The key is to wait it out, hold your powder."
—written by Art Chansky