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Young Professionals Try City Living

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

March 15, 2008

When Brendan Healey moved to Hartford for a job, the 22-year-old recent college graduate and Colorado native wanted to find an apartment close enough so he could walk to work, walk to bars, lose his car for a while, and have access to a younger scene.

"That's definitely something I got," said Healey, a 2007 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who lives in a $1,500-a-month, one-bedroom unit at Trumbull on the Park and works at Lincoln Financial Group. "It's right next to Bushnell Park, so I'm able to go out there when the weather gets better, throw the football around, get outside."

"And that's what I'm paying for in the long run the proximity to the park, to work, to the bars," he said.

Part of the bet on downtown Hartford's revival was that young professionals and suburban empty-nesters would migrate into the city's newly built apartments. Half of that formula has panned out young people like Healey looking for smaller, less-expensive units and the action of a downtown have come, making it hard to find studio and one-bedroom apartments.

Healey's building has two-bedroom units to rent right now and nothing else; the waiting list for a studio is 10-deep. At the Lofts at Main and Temple, on the site of the old Sage-Allen building, all of the studios and one-bedrooms are spoken for while four of 19 two-bedrooms are unoccupied.

And not far away at the towering, high-end Hartford 21, all of the 97 one-bedroom units are rented, while two-thirds of the 160 two bedrooms remain vacant.

Larger, more expensive units on the market have moved more slowly, as older, more-settled suburban residents have been slower to migrate downtown. Developers say slumping real estate values and the challenge of persuading people to leave the suburbs for the city have kept some suburbanites in suburbia.

"While there are some empty-nesters, it appears that the younger generations are more willing to live in some of the newer properties in downtown Hartford," said Michael Stone, a multi-housing specialist at real estate firm CB Richard Ellis.

Kari Boersma moved to downtown Hartford direct from Nashville, Tenn.

It was a bit of a crapshoot for the 23-year-old actuary, who came to work at The Hartford. She didn't have a chance to visit the city beforehand and chose her new apartment online."I figured, if I'm downtown, if I'm close to work, then I'm in the middle of everything," she said. If she needs to get out of the city's center, it's an easy drive, she said.

That said, she prefers walking to driving, and it's a 20-minute hike along Asylum Avenue from the door of her one-bedroom apartment at Trumbull on the Park to her desk at work. She also walks to last-minute gatherings and Friday night happy hours. It's all easy, she said, minus the fact that there's no grocery store. Still, for Boersma, downtown is a good fit, she said.

"I wanted to move where there are going to be a lot of young people and it's easy to find people," she said. "It's easier for me not knowing anyone to live downtown."

Tina Mondragon's home in Charleston, S.C., was suburban and picturesque, with golf courses and tennis courts nearby. When she decided to move back to Connecticut she had lived in West Hartford for five years until 2003 she fought the impulse to go back to what she knew, and decided to move downtown.

"I figured my initial move was going to be a temporary housing situation, and I wasn't ready to buy a home and settle down," said Mondragon, a 35-year-old physician. "I knew there was talk about reviving Hartford and I thought of it as an opportunity to experience that and see whether it's real, whether it's revived, and [whether] there is stuff to do."

She's been to the Wadsworth a few times, seen a show at the Bushnell, listened to jazz over the summer, socialized downtown more than she did before.

"Can I tell you it's a permanent situation?" she said of her downtown residence. "Probably not. But I'm happy with the fact that I chose to live here."

A couple of weeks ago, a man and a woman, both in their mid-20s, came in to shop at Stackpole Moore Tryon and Tuesday's. He's from Chicago and lived at Hartford 21; she's an attorney from Simsbury who just bought a condominium downtown.

"These are two people who just walked in on a Saturday," said M. Ronald Morneault, the stores' owner and the head of Business for Downtown Hartford.

It's not that young people never lived downtown and now they do, he said, "but there's continuing to be more and more, it's steady. It's not a big rush of people, but you do notice people incrementally, more and more and more. And they're in their 20s and 30s."

Not everyone living downtown is pre-middle age.

Some, like 57-year-old sports broadcaster Jack Arute, are what developers refer to as people in "transition." He's going through a divorce.

"After 13 years of living on a farm and all the stuff that goes with that, I wanted something that was a little more streamlined with my lifestyle," Arute said

Since that lifestyle involves frequent radio appearances, Arute turned one of his two bedrooms at Trumbull on the Park into a sound studio, from which he bids satellite radio listeners a Hartford hello.

"I say, 'Coming to you from my beautiful studio high atop Trumbull on the Park, overlooking the state Capitol of Connecticut and Bushnell Park,'" Arute said.

Arute, who does announcing work for ESPN, sees the need for housing of young hires that's not in Bristol, he said. But the downtown supply is short.

"It's the one thing that's missing with the resurgence," Arute said. "There's got to be affordable housing for the new members of the working force."

Martin Kenny, owner of Trumbull on the Park, said younger people have been easier to bring downtown because they have fewer obligations and are more willing to try something new.

By contrast, empty-nesters "are a much harder sell," he said.

"Someone who sells their home, if they've got cash on their hands, ideally what they'd like to do is invest some of that in real estate and not pay rent," he said.

Rent for the 600 or so new apartments downtown ranges from roughly $1,000 for a studio to as high as $6,000 for a penthouse, depending on the size of the unit, the number of rooms, the building, and the unit's location within that building.

The folks at Hartford 21 say they're not surprised by the popularity of their one-bedroom units.

"We expected the young people to be the pioneers," said Chuck Coursey, spokesman for Hartford 21 owner Lawrence R. Gottesdiener.

"There may be the temptation to say, 'We should have just built a lot more lofts and one-bedrooms,' but that would have been very short-sighted," Coursey said. "To say [empty-nesters are] not there this year doesn't mean they're not going to come in the coming months."

In the five months since he's been there, Healey said, he's seen change.

When he first moved last summer, the elevators were empty and so was the gym.

These days, he said, "the elevator will stop on other floors, the gym will be full."

Not long ago, Healey went downstairs to pick up pizza he ordered and saw someone moving in with a car with Colorado tags. He introduced himself.

"I just think it's interesting that people are coming from as far as Colorado, young kids, and they're moving downtown."

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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