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Front Street's Tight Bind

September 10, 2006
By DAN HAAR, Courant Staff Writer

On a gorgeous afternoon this past week, directly across Arch Street from Hartford's troubled Front Street development parcel, Valeria Palacios was holed up with her plumber in a dark, windowless storefront, poring over blueprints for a nightclub.

Melao, next to the busy Arch Street Tavern, will have a Latin flavor, "medium to upscale," the South End resident said. No state subsidies. No complex tax deals with the city. No federal grant money.

If Front Street rises as planned, with a mix of stores and apartments, great. If not, Palacios declared confidently, "We have our own niche. We have our own marketing."

There you have it: proof that private investment is happening in downtown Hartford - hard by Adriaen's Landing, even.

So what's the problem with Front Street? After eight years of planning, after tens of millions of dollars have been dangled before a string of developers, this great hope for vibrancy is still just a surface parking lot.

The city, the state and the latest master builder were still haggling over details as of late Friday as yet another midnight deadline approached.

The project is mired in a seemingly impossible quandary. The 6-acre parcel, which links the state's oversized convention center with the rest of the city, badly needs something that it simply cannot sustain: small and mid-size stores that sell nice merchandise.

That's a hard reality, but true, at least for now. What's needed is either another idea - such as turning the parcel into a nice park, with entertainment and events - or an admission that we are dealing with such a large taxpayer subsidy that we can no longer pretend it is a private marketplace.

In rough terms, we're talking about a state package of at least $33 million in various forms of financing - the developer was demanding $5 million to $7 million more than that - on top of a $5 million loan at 6 percent interest from the city, using federal money, and a $2 million city grant, also using federal cash.

Hartford would throw in a multiyear tax abatement worth $12 million or so, perhaps much more.

Those, at least, were among the latest numbers kicking around.

All that for Greenwich developer Bradley Nitkin to build 60,000 square feet of retail, perhaps including some entertainment space, and 115 apartments, according to the latest publicly discussed plan, on a site that the state has prepped to the nines, complete with roads and curbs.

Heck, Nitkin ought to be able to build it out for something in the range of $50 million, easily, based on assessments by several development folks, especially if the state adds more parking as a throw-in.

That, friends, is a nice subsidy that would enable Nitkin to lease beautiful retail space in the capital city of the nation's richest state for barely more than half the prices fetched in West Hartford Center's best locations; and apartments at well under the going rate.

Maybe we should consider the stores to be a public amenity, like a bridge or a school. We need them for our image for the city, we want them as a place to congregate, we're willing to pay millions of dollars to open them, but we recognize they are wards of the state.

The point is, with the kind of subsidies we're seeing - if it leads to a deal - we're looking at "private" development on life support. If it doesn't, then Hartford just isn't ready to support a project of this sort, and the park option becomes Plan B.

Actually, it would become Plan Z, as we've already seen far more ambitious plans come and go since 1999.

But whatever we call it, something big has to happen on that site, at public expense. The state has spent too much money elsewhere downtown to leave the job unfinished.

The need was clear in the mixed impressions of the visitors to the Eastern Outdoor Reps Association trade show, hundreds of folks buying and selling kayaks, climbing gear and all sorts of outdoor apparel.

This is an industry full of people committed to urban revitalization, who give cities the benefit of any doubt. Among them, Joshua Corbin from Portland, Maine, buyer for an outdoor store, who took an early-morning, 3-mile run Thursday from the Marriott Hotel.

"There were tons of hair salons and useless storefronts," Corbin said. "There was nothing inviting in this downtown area."

By contrast, Debbie Motz, executive director of the North Carolina-based reps association, said she and her colleagues enjoyed their surroundings, enough to plan on rebooking for 2007.

"I am pleased that there is a lot of green landscaping. I was surprised at that. ... I've not seen any homeless and any derelicts the whole time I've been here. In Salt Lake, they're right there, and there's abandoned buildings."

Maybe Motz's group will be surprised next year to find progress on a mixed-use development that promises to re-create a village square within a city.

At the least, they ought to have a Latin-flavor nightclub in which to dance in their Teva sandals.

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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