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At Long Last, Getting Feet On The Street

Hartford's Redevelopment Efforts Begin To Draw People Back Downtown

February 26, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Almost eight years since Adriaen's Landing began the now $2 billion worth of public and private investment in downtown Hartford, there is at least one truism: Development has begotten development.

The deal is by no means done. Public subsidy is still a large part of many downtown building projects, and private dollars in large quantities don't consistently find Hartford a good enough bet on their own. Still, no longer is there doubt about whether developers are going to be interested in Hartford.

Instead, the questions that 2006 and beyond will begin to answer are whether real people with real money to spend on luxury rental units and high-end condominiums will be interested in Hartford and whether, as Mayor Eddie A. Perez likes to say, there will be feet back on Hartford's streets.

Somewhere close to 1,000 new housing units are either being built or planned for downtown Hartford. City officials say that the area could support 3,000 or 4,000 more housing units. As deals on condominiums begin to close and doors on apartments continue to open, the new sign of progress won't be whether buildings are up, but whether they are filled.

"The downtown Hartford market is such a new market that there isn't any way to conduct market research, because there's no rearview mirror," said John F. Palmieri, the city's director of development services. "But I would like to think that there's a pent-up demand that can continue to be served by downtown for the next few years."

That's what local developer Joseph Citino is hoping, too. He's the latest to come forward with a plan for condominiums - this time to be built on the site of the boarded-up building at Trumbull and Main Streets, known by city officials as the Butt Ugly Building. Once he buys the property and tears the building down, he wants to build "ultra luxury" condos. He, like Palmieri, senses a market.

"People want to come back to the city," Citino said. "People are bored in the suburbs. I live in the suburbs myself and I'm bored myself. I was born and raised in Hartford, and I clearly see why people want to come back."

"Especially when we see so many new products coming to the market," he said.

Of those new products, there will be many in 2006 - some of which have been completed later than originally expected, pushed back by delays in financing or construction.

Perhaps the most significant development project in 2006 is the one known as Front Street, the straggler of Adriaen's Landing. Earlier this month, the state signed an agreement that establishes the HB Nitkin Group of Greenwich as Front Street's developer.

This 6-acre plot is the retail, residential and entertainment portion of Adriaen's Landing that is supposed to attract conventiongoers and suburbanites alike, linking the convention center to the rest of downtown.

Developer Bradley Nitkin agreed on Feb. 17 to build up to 200 residential units and roughly 100,000 square feet of retail space using private financing, about $17.5 million in state financing, $16 million in state improvements to the site and a still-to-be negotiated amount of money from the city. Nitkin and the city now have a maximum of 120 days to iron out the details of their agreement.

Also on the not-opened-yet list are the condominiums at the Metropolitan, a building on Pearl Street owned and developed by David Nyberg. The project, which has roughly 20 of its 50 units on deposit with an average sales price of $275,000, could be online by the spring, one of its real estate agents said.

Meanwhile, the 262 apartments in the 36-story tower at Hartford 21 could be complete by this fall, inviting droves of people ready to spend from $1,500 to $6,000 a month in rents to downtown's heart. Some apartments could open as early as this summer, and the retail space is all but ready to go.

Whether the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum next door can follow suit and bring more people downtown is another question. Attendance numbers for the Wolf Pack hockey games are down, and the city-owned, state-run facility loses about $4 million a year for the state. The Connecticut Development Authority wants someone to come and bail it out of the financial hole it faces through the expiration of its lease with the city in 2013.

Meanwhile, outside developers - such as Northland's chief Lawrence R. Gottesdiener - and hockey enthusiasts - such as former Whalers owners Howard Baldwin - have already made the case to the state that they can do better than the center's current operator, Madison Square Garden. Just what happens to this downtown regional draw at the heart of the city's renewal will define much of 2006.

Blocks away, the Sage-Allen project - next to the rehabilitated Richardson Building, home to the Marriott Residence Inn, and two buildings down from Capital Community College's home in the former G. Fox building - will bring student housing, apartments, a parking garage and retail space to Main Street. The University of Hartford expects an answer soon on whether those units will be ready for students for the 2006-07 year.

Near the new Connecticut Convention Center, cranes will soon be lifting the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration into place - another sign of building visible from the highway.

Farther south still is the intersection of Park and Main streets, a two-parcel city-owned spot where a group of Latino businessmen are teaming up with a developer in hopes of building still more luxury condominiums in two tall towers - more high-end, perhaps, than anything downtown could offer. The developers haven't done a market study, they've said, because there is no real comparable market to study. No one has built this type of project in Hartford before.

So they want to build on faith and anecdotal evidence that says people with money will come to Hartford. The years to come will tell whether they're right. In 2006, that plan might not break ground, but it will take shape.

Meanwhile, Gottesdiener at Northland has plans to tear down the YMCA building on Bushnell Park and build a $117 million building with 200 upscale condominiums and 100 apartments. The sale of that building should happen within the next couple of months, officials have said.

So there is building, and those building the buildings believe that people will soon follow.

And as Hartford's skyline grows, some political and corporate leaders are also putting their heads together in 2006 to take a broader look at just where all of this development is heading, and where development should reasonably go next.

To that end, the city, along with the MetroHartford Alliance, has been working to bring back Ken Greenberg - an urban planner whose 1998 recommendations on how to improve downtown life created a great deal of discussion and debate. The goal this time around would be for Greenberg to work with city officials and corporate leaders to help create a vision for using the current wave of development to build stronger ties between the city and surrounding suburbs.

Then there are those, such as Citino, who see opportunity not in downtown, but in downtown's immediate neighboring neighborhoods.

He's now finishing 23 condominiums on Alden Street in the South End. Of those, he's got firm, nonrefundable deposits on 20, he said. They're selling for as low as $220,000 and as high as $279,900 - and the last two units are going for close to $400,000, he said.

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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