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Front Street Back In Play

Agreement Reached On Downtown Project

February 11, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

The authority in charge of the state's investment in Hartford took a key step Friday, voting to move forward with an agreement for a developer to build a long-delayed retail, residential and entertainment conduit between the convention center and downtown Hartford.

Almost 10 months after the state selected Greenwich-based developer The HB Nitkin Group, the two sides have "come to an agreement on all of the business terms" and expect to have a deal in place by early next week, officials said Friday at a meeting of the Capital City Economic Development Authority.

That agreement on the so-called Front Street project is expected to call for developer Bradley Nitkin to build up to 200 residential units and roughly 150,000 square feet of retail space, including a number of restaurants.

Friday's vote allowed authority staff to sign a memorandum of understanding, but authority officials would not release a copy, saying it had not been signed.

At a meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers Tuesday at Morton's, the downtown restaurant, Nitkin spoke in generalities about the project, admitting that when he had agreed to speak he thought the deal would be complete by then.

Nitkin gave "more of a feeling than specifics," speaking of building a "thriving retail area" with architectural and ethnic diversity reminiscent of Hartford's 19th- and 20th-century Front Street.

It would have "lots of restaurants, lots of streetscapes, lots of outdoor seating." Its restaurants could have double-height ceilings, there could be a comedy club, there might be live music, and there could be a movie theater in the spot near the Hartford Times building.

Nitkin also spoke of potential names for the site - Front Street, Market at Front Street, Meetinghouse Square, Adriaen's Landing - but did not commit to one.

"We want to create something that's genuine, that's authentic, that really feels like it was always part of Hartford," Nitkin said.

The agreement in the works provides for a phased-in approach to the project's development. It also leaves much of the project's minutiae to be negotiated in a development agreement to be completed before construction begins.

"Everyone would agree it's most desirable to do the whole thing at once," said authority spokesman Michael Cicchetti, adding that the entire project probably will be built at the same time. "But in terms of coming to an agreement, we wanted to focus on doing it in phases to at least move the process along quicker."

Besides, the state and Nitkin are not the only variables in the deal, Cicchetti said.

"There are other components to the project that need to fall into place before it will definitely happen," he said. "Instead of spending the time and resources to do a full-blown development agreement, let's make sure the other pieces are in place before we start down that path."

The state has made several attempts at developing the site. In August 2004, the Capital City Economic Development Authority dumped developer Richard Cohen when he failed to begin building two years after signing a contract with the state. Lawsuits between Cohen and the state are pending in state court.

Then, after a failed attempt to find a new developer a year ago, the state began anew, seeking interested developers. In April 2005, Nitkin was the final choice for "preferred developer," and the two sides began working toward a development agreement.

Under the agreement being discussed, the first phase of Front Street would include 60 residential units and roughly 40,000 square feet of usable retail space, Cicchetti confirmed. He would not discuss details of the second phase.

The authority probably will contribute $11.5 million to the project - not including the cost of the land, improvements, and parking garages it is paying for, Cicchetti said.

Of that $11.5 million, $6 million is likely to come in the form of a grant, while the remaining $5.5 million would be a loan, Cicchetti said. Should Nitkin progress beyond the first phase and build the entire project, the memorandum discusses converting that loan into a grant, officials said.

Cicchetti did not rule out state funding from other sources.

Should Nitkin not complete the second phase, he would have to repay at least some of the $5.5 million loan and relinquish his claim to the property.

"He has a certain amount of time to start phase two or he loses his rights to the site, because we can't just let it sit there," Cicchetti said. "If he does phase one and, for whatever reason, he doesn't do phase two, we'll need to bring someone else in."

"But hopefully we'll never get to that scenario and, hopefully, we'll do everything at once," he said.

The memorandum also gives Nitkin a maximum of 120 days to negotiate a separate deal for funding with the city, Cicchetti said.

In previous attempts to develop the site, the city has discussed using roughly $8 million in federal funds and a tax abatement plan worth "tens of millions" toward the project, according to Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

Nitkin has met with city staff this week, but was unable to provide details of the development because he is still negotiating with the state. One result of the meeting was the city's continued frustration regarding its lack of involvement in the project's negotiations.

"I want to be a full partner and I want to see the site developed to its maximum," Perez said. He said if he had to do it "in a reactive mode because the state prefers not to have us participate," he would.

"I would love to have participated in the drafting of the [memorandum of understanding], but that hasn't been the case so far, and that's not going to stop us from making this site work," Perez said.

"We'll evaluate the intent of the proposal and ... see whether it requires city participation or not," he said. "Not every proposal requires city participation. And I would love it if there's not a need for city participation."

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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