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Front Street Vision Shifts

Entertainment, Food Seen As Best Bets

March 14, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, And MIKE SWIFT Courant Staff Writers

When Front Street's planners listened to what developer Richard Cohen had in mind for the Adriaen's Landing site as recently as a year ago, they heard national retail names like Brooks Brothers, Borders, Starbucks Coffee, and Trader Joe's.

Now that Cohen is gone, those charged with making Front Street a reality are again listening to developers, and they're hearing something a little different: National fashion retailers aren't going to be interested in being at the site when it opens, and that's OK.

"At this stage in the game at least, selling a fashion store ... to national retailers is going to be an uphill climb," said one of the interested developers, Mark J. Rivers of Maryland-based BRIX & Co., who quickly added that the business reality is in no way an indictment of downtown Hartford. "But downtown Hartford is not a national retail environment today. It may be in the future."

Instead, Hartford is a largely weekday, 9-to-5 type place with a high concentration of office workers who have a lot of retail to choose from in the suburbs where they live, Rivers said. So Front Street might find its beginnings in regional New England entertainers and restaurateurs who know the area, know Hartford, and know its potential, he said.

"It would be harder for a national retailer from California to come into Hartford and zone in on downtown Hartford and understand the story of the good things happening there," Rivers said.

That's the message that Rivers and the rest of the roughly 13 developers conveyed to a working group charged with whittling down the list of potential developers. Over the past few months, the group has met with roughly a dozen developers, touring the Front Street site and having preliminary, gut-feeling discussions about the site's potential.

Last week, Richard D. Gray - the governor's representative to the working group - sent out letters to six of those interested developers, congratulating them that they had been "short-listed" for the first phase of development. They have been asked to respond by March 25 with a detailed description of their development team, related experience, financial statement, approach to development, and more.

Besides BRIX & Co., the short list includes: Northland Investment Corp. of Newton, Mass., which is converting the Hartford Civic Center mall into a 36-floor apartment tower; The Spinnaker Companies, headquartered in Stamford; Daniel Corporation, of Birmingham, Ala.; BOS Group of Bethesda, Md.; and a joint venture between CBL & Assoc. of Waltham, Mass., and Realty Resources of Rockport, Maine.

The remaining seven developers are not totally out of the running, but the emphasis is now on the short-listed six, Gray said.

Even though the planning is still in the early stages, Gray said the messages his group heard were consistent.

"The preliminary conversations we've had is that it's more entertainment than it is retail," Gray said. The retailers, developers told Gray, will most likely be regional and local.

"Almost all [the developers] seem to agree that the retail should be more locally based. Nobody is thinking about re-creating Blue Back Square or Evergreen Walk" in South Windsor, said Dean Pagani, spokesman for the Capital City Economic Development Authority.

The state, through CCEDA, is bringing roughly $70 million to the table to help develop the roughly $150 million site. Last August, CCEDA dumped Cohen, the developer, and Capital Properties from the project two years after he had signed a contract with the state. Cohen had failed to begin building at the site.

Then, because CCEDA and other state officials believed a pack of developers would jump at the public subsidies attached to Front Street, the state plunged into a fast-forward process to pick Capital Properties' replacement. Capital Properties sued the state seeking damages, saying the state had failed to uphold its end of the development agreement.

The jump never happened, though, and the state received just four development proposals in September. None fulfilled the state's overall requirements for Front Street, which would include at least 150,000 square feet of retail space and at least 200 housing units.

So the state began anew, seeking out interested developers. Two major aspects of the site are still in play.

ESPN is still interested in spending up to $5 million to develop what a spokesman said would be a unique facility in the station's home state - an interactive, retail-type establishment. The company will soon announce a designer for the facility, the spokesman said.

And the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is in the final stages of signing a lease to use The Hartford Times building, Pagani and Gray said.

CCEDA would like to have the developer picked by June, but the agency does not plan to rush to make a decision now that it's impossible to finish before the convention center opens this summer, Pagani said.

In their discussions, developers also agreed that getting the financing to build in Hartford won't be a problem, Gray said. In fact, Gray is in regular contact with investors such as Earvin "Magic" Johnson's Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, a Beverly Hills, Calif., investment and development group that is interested in investing in the city.

"There was a time when it was very difficult to get anybody interested in investing in downtown Hartford," he said. "But I don't think financing is going to be a problem."

One of the 13 developers, The Ferchill Group agrees that entertainment, not national retail, is what will make Front Street work in the short term.

"Moms are just not going to drive downtown to go to the Gap," said Timm H. Judson, the group's chief investment officer. "People are going to want to go to that area to dine and to be entertained, and if there's some relatively cool retail that works in with that, that's great."

One idea state officials have discussed is "to almost make this development a Connecticut fair," a concept that would offer a flavor of Connecticut to people attending conventions or staying in the nearby Marriott hotel, Pagani said.

"If you're looking to serve a visiting audience, this is a place to give them a taste of Connecticut, so to speak," he said.

City officials - who have a representative on Gray's committee - said they are not ruling anything out and are waiting to see what the state decides.

"There are those in the development community that have thought about partnering with the city because of the amount of substantial subsidy we bring to the table, but we're waiting for the state to go through this process," said Matt Hennessy, Mayor Eddie A. Perez's chief of staff.

He added that the city thinks it can put somewhere between a $30 million and $40 million package on the table, one that includes tax breaks.

But Front Street is about more than the money behind it, said Rivers, the Maryland developer. The public financing helps, he said, but it's not a panacea.

In fact, such public financing has become rather commonplace in similar cities nationwide, he said. "Few cities the size and ilk of Hartford could actually do any kind of project like this without providing some economic stability," Rivers said.

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Jeffrey B. Cohen is scheduled to air on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.

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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