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Front Street Closes In On Tax Break

Proposal Could Mean $12 Million In Savings

January 5, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

The developer of Front Street - the city's crucial retail, residential and entertainment district that would link Adriaen's Landing to the rest of downtown - came before a committee of the city council Thursday night to seek approval for a 15-year, $12 million tax break.

Though some council members expressed reservations about the plan's name, its provisions to employ city residents and certain general design issues, Council President John Bazzano said the project is "too important" not to move forward. The council - which has to sign off on the tax deal - will probably do so in a matter of weeks, he said.

The Front Street District is the name developer Bradley Nitkin and his team are using to refer to the $46.5 million project that would bring a minimum of 115 apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail space - possibly an ESPN venue, possibly a music venue - to roughly half the six-acre plot across Columbus Boulevard from the Connecticut Convention Center.

The project is funded by $21 million in state funds, $7 million in funds loaned or granted by the city and $18.5 million of the developer's money. An average apartment would be 850 square feet and could rent for roughly $1,500 a month. Construction could begin by fall, with an 18-month to two-year completion timeline, the developer said.

The city is considering a tax break that would assess no taxes during the first three years of operation, then phase in taxes over the following 12 years, an incentive to the developer the city says is worth about $12 million.

"We are confident that this is the time to take a very confident, bold step," said John F. Palmieri, the city's development director, at Thursday's meeting of the council's planning and economic development committee. "Yes, the incentive being requested is a substantial one. But we haven't seen anything happen on this site for seven or eight years, at least."

Nitkin added that the city funding and tax deal are essential.

The plan received mixed reviews from the committee members, although there were few comments on the tax deal itself.

Instead, Bazzano and Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson said they were concerned that the construction of a state-owned parking garage would make Arch Street a no man's land, but for the Arch Street Tavern restaurant.

Airey-Wilson also said she wanted retail that would attract more than just out-of-towners and convention-goers.

In response, the developers said the garage's Arch Street location was prompted in part by Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who didn't like the original plans for the garage to face Columbus Boulevard. As for the retail breakdown at the site - 75 percent restaurants, 25 percent "convenience" retail - the developer and the state said the retail mix was being designed to cater to everyone.

"We've said from day one, we're creating a neighborhood here," said Annette Sanderson, executive director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which oversees the project. That means creating a vibrant space with community input, she said.

To that end, the developers are "very interested" in taking the mayor up on his suggestion to pay tribute in some way to city native and boxing legend Willie Pep, Nitkin said. In fact, the ESPN site may be a way to do just that, he said.

But that nod to the city and its residents wasn't enough for Councilwoman rJo Winch, who doubted that the project will follow through on its contractually mandated pledges to hire minorities and women. She also doubted whether the city's minorities - who, she said, have never felt particularly welcome downtown - will take comfort in the Front Street brand.

"When I see something that says Front Street," Winch said, "that doesn't invite me."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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