Smaller Projects Fuel City Boom

Pub­lic Sub­si­dies, Mil­len­ni­als Help

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By KEN­NETH R. GOS­SELIN and JENNA CARLESSO kgos­selin@courant.com

Hart­ford’s last real es­tate boom changed the city’s sky­line, with the Hart­ford 21 tower reach­ing new heights and a mas­sive con­ven­tion cen­ter ris­ing up be­side the river.

The re­cent boom is less dra­matic to the naked eye. Many of the projects un­der­way slip more seam­lessly into the ex­ist­ing cityscape.

But it would be a mis­take to con­fuse drama with im­pact. There are more than two dozen de­vel­op­ments un­der­way in the city — from restora­tions of his­toric fac­to­ries to the re­think­ing of down­town neigh­bor­hoods, the

ad­di­tion of hun­dreds of apart­ments and a new re­gional cam­pus for UConn. Col­lec­tively, they have the power to re­shape Hart­ford in a way that prom­ises to po­si­tion it for growth in an era when ci­ties na­tion­wide are flour­ish­ing.

Bol­stered by hefty pub­lic sub­sidy, the spate of cur­rent de­vel­op­ment is cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a move­ment fu­eled by mil­len­ni­als and re­tir­ing baby boomers who don’t want to de­vote the time and money to main­tain­ing a home in the sub­urbs.

The Courant has launched an in­ter­ac­tive fea­ture that in­cludes dozens of de­vel­op­ments with the po­ten­tial to change the city, mov­ing it closer to the elu­sive re­vi­tal­iza­tion sought for decades. The data­base will be up­dated and ex­panded as new projects arise.

De­vel­op­ers ini­tially tar­geted va­cant down­town struc­tures, from the mod­est, his­toric build­ings along Elm Street to soar­ing ed­i­fices, such as the for­mer bank tower on Main Street that made an un­de­sir­able state­ment when cloaked in dark­ness.

“Get­ting all these empty build­ings back in ser­vice makes the street feel bet­ter,” said Brian Kohn, part of a part­ner­ship that bought the Good­win Square of­fice tower in 2015 and ren­o­vated it. “The re­cov­ery is still nascent, but it is hap­pen­ing.”

The build­ing-by-build­ing ap­proach has given way to more long-term and ex­pan­sive ef­forts in ar­eas like the one around The Bush­nell Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, the down­town gate­way at Park and Main streets and per­haps the most prom­i­nent, a new neigh­bor­hood at the north­ern tip of down­town.

Kohn, who is con­sid­er­ing other in­vest­ments in the city, said the de­ci­sion to keep health in­surer Aetna Inc. head­quar­tered in Hart­ford for at least an­other decade is a big plus.

“All signs are pos­i­tive, but I wouldn’t be ex­u­ber­ant at this point,” Kohn said. “The city and the state need to get and keep their fi­nan­cial house in or­der.”

In a city that threat­ened to seek bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion be­fore a state bailout came through, Kohn also pointed to in­creases in real es­tate as­sess­ments that have bur­dened com­mer­cial prop­erty own­ers with even higher tax rates.

“You have to be care­ful. ... You re­ally want to keep at­tract­ing busi­nesses be­cause they will bring more peo­ple into the city,” Kohn said. “It will help hous­ing and ev­ery­thing will flow from that.”

There are other un­cer­tain­ties on the hori­zon, in­clud­ing the out­come of a gu­ber­na­to­rial race in Novem­ber. Gov. Dan­nel P. Mal­loy has been an ar­dent sup­porter of Hart­ford, but whether that will re­main a pri­or­ity for his suc­ces­sor is un­clear.

While there has been praise for in­vest­ment down­town, some say more must be done in the neigh­bor­hoods. De­vel­op­ers are be­gin­ning to push be­yond the cen­tral busi­ness district, with the ren­o­va­tion of the his­toric M. Swift & Sons fac­tory, the Parkville Mar­ket re­de­vel­op­ment and the Al­bany Av­enue streetscape.

“Fo­cus­ing on the down­town, fo­cus­ing on the anchor in­sti­tu­tions like UConn, is one way things have been done,” said Phil Birge-Liber­man, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ur­ban and com­mu­nity stud­ies at UConn’s Hart­ford cam­pus. “But that can’t be ev­ery­thing. Go­ing out into the com­mu­ni­ties and de­vel­op­ing in some of the neigh­bor­hoods that are in need of as­sis­tance – a spark to help reignite some in­vest­ment – that’s where the city needs to move.”

De­vel­op­ers, par­tic­u­larly from New York, have taken a keen in­ter­est in Hart­ford, where real es­tate is less costly than in Bos­ton or New York City.

One of the first was a part­ner­ship of Girona Ven­tures and Wonder Works De­vel­op­ment and Con­struc­tion. In 2011, the part­ners pur­chased their first build­ing, the de­cay­ing Son­esta Ho­tel on Con­sti­tu­tion Plaza. The old struc­ture was con­verted into 190 apart­ments as part of a $24 mil­lion project, which started rent­ing in 2015 and is now 96 per­cent oc­cu­pied.

Since then, the part­ners have moved on to ren­o­va­tions at 95-101 and 111 Pearl St., two derelict build­ings near the cor­ner of Trum­bull Street. They are con­vert­ing the build­ings into 258 mar­ket-rate rentals, most of them stu­dio apart­ments. The units, a $50 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment, are ex­pected to be­gin leas­ing in the spring.

The part­ners have also bought the for­mer Trum­bull on the Park build­ing, with plans for more ren­o­va­tions.

Jef­frey D. Ravetz, pres­i­dent of Girona Ven­tures, said he and his part­ner, Joseph Klayn­berg of Wonder Works, re­main as up­beat about Hart­ford’s prospects as they were in 2011, maybe more so.

“You walk the streets, there are peo­ple,” Ravetz said. “There seems to be more ac­tiv­ity. It cer­tainly is bet­ter than it was.”

But he quickly adds: “We need more peo­ple liv­ing down­town, more 24-hour peo­ple.”

Down­town Hart­ford had nearly 1,500 apart­ments and a va­cancy rate hov­er­ing be­tween 3 per­cent and 4 per­cent be­fore the re­cent con­struc­tion wave. Since 2015, the down­town has added 885 rentals that in­cluded fund­ing from The Cap­i­tal Re­gion De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity.

An­other 551 units are in progress and 110 more are on the draw­ing board, for a to­tal of 1,546, ac­cord­ing to CRDA, a quasi-state agency cre­ated, in part, to in­crease mar­ke­trate apart­ment units in the city.

So far, de­mand seems to be hold­ing up with over­all oc­cu­pancy in com­pleted projects av­er­ag­ing 95 per­cent or bet­ter, CRDA says.

Ravetz said there is more of an ap­petite among in­vestors — some of them from out­side the United States — to put money into Hart­ford apart­ment con­ver­sions than there was in 2011.

“The list is longer,” he said. “We had many more op­tions on the Pearl Street project than we did on Con­sti­tu­tion Plaza. More sources of fi­nanc­ing are in­ter­ested in be­ing in­volved.”

That is a good sign, since the ul­ti­mate goal is to back off from pub­lic sub­si­dies and let pri­vate in­vestors take the lead, said Melvyn Colon, an ur­ban and global stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Trin­ity Col­lege and a mem­ber of the city’s plan­ning and zon­ing com­mis­sion.

“The point of all this is to get the pri­vate mar­ket to work, for in­vest­ment to work on its own,” said Colon, who is the head of the South­side In­sti­tu­tions Neigh­bor­hood Al­liance.

Colon pointed to the block of Capi­tol Av­enue be­tween Lawrence and Bab­cock streets as an ex­am­ple that has emerged, on a mod­est scale, in the city. Busi­nesses there in­clude Red Rock Tav­ern, Story and Soil cof­fee shop, Cap­i­tal Ice Cream, Bahn Meee and Lit­tle River Restora­tives. In ad­di­tion, Aaron Gill and his wife, Maja Gill, ren­o­vated a dilapidated, six-unit apart­ment build­ing at the cen­ter of the block.

“Here’s an ex­am­ple of real in­vest­ment that’s driven by pri­vate in­vestors,” Colon said, “which is where we want to be.”

JOHN WOIKE | JWOIKE@COURANT.COM

THE DOWN­TOWN NORTH area of Hart­ford got a boost with the con­struc­tion of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, seen above at left. But the rest of the area, with parcels that have been va­cant for years, is still await­ing de­vel­op­ment. The city has cho­sen Randy Sal­va­tore to de­velop the area with a mix of re­tail, hous­ing and of­fice space.

PA­TRICK RAYCRAFT | PRAYCRAFT@COURANT.COM

THE STORY AND SOIL cof­fee shop is one of sev­eral new busi­nesses on the block of Capi­tol Av­enue be­tween Lawrence and Bab­cock streets. The gritty block is mak­ing a come­back amid pri­vate in­vest­ment by busi­nesses.

MICHAEL MCAN­DREWS | SPE­CIAL TO THE COURANT

THE GRAND ON ANN, at the cor­ner of Ann and Al­lyn streets in Hart­ford, was the first apart­ment project to open in the re­cent wave of re­de­vel­op­ment in Hart­ford. The build­ing was a for­mer Ma­sonic Tem­ple.

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