Science Center Taking Shape In Hartford, But It's Hardly Alone In Crowded Corridor
February 25, 2007
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
It's a short but busy stretch of land between the Founders and Charter Oak bridges, just west of I-91, but it boasts some of the city's largest works-in-progress - a science center, apartments and a magnet school.
With the neighboring Connecticut Convention Center now in its second year, here's a brief look at what drivers passing the capital city see when they look west, as well as a sense of what they can expect to see in 2007.
Traveling north to south, the first construction site they will see beyond the Founders Bridge is that of the future Connecticut Science Center.
If 2006 for the center was a year of fundraising, a name change, a logo, exhibit design and driving 500 pilings, 2007 is going to be about finishing a 460-space garage, framing the main building with steel and enclosing it in glass, and figuring out how to perfect the customer experience.
Come summertime, "that's when people will start to recognize the science center building as they've seen it in the renderings," said Matt Fleury, the center's executive vice president and chief operating officer. They'll see the giant parallelogram, the sweeping roof, he said.
"It's going to be a really big year for this project, where the imagery of the building is going to start to gel in people's minds."
But for now, the three emerging stories under construction aren't the first three of the center itself; they're the new state-owned garage that will be the foundation on which the center will sit.
Construction costs for the $150 million project are higher than originally expected. And higher costs mean tougher choices. Do you spend more money for fancier bathroom stall partitions, or less money for ones that are more easily cleaned? Do you paint the maintenance closets, or do you put that money into exhibits? How do you engineer the glass walls in a more cost-efficient way?
Those are the easy challenges, Fleury said. The harder one is what will take up much of 2007 - perfecting the customer experience, from making sure that the ticketing process is seamless to ensuring that a frantic parent whose child has just had an accident can easily find a nearby bathroom.
To that end, Fleury has a copy of the book, "The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary," in his office. Even though he won't be franchising the center and its exhibits in multiple locations, he is trying to maintain quality for years to come, he said.
He's putting together an advisory group of customer care experts. He's worked with a team of students and a professor from the University of Connecticut business school to create a computer model predicting visitor flow through the center on an average day at any given hour. Fleury and his team are taking a scientific look at the customer experience.
"It all has to be planned in such a way that your front-line personnel, who are typically where you have your highest turnover and least time for training, deliver the same quality experience and service day in and day out," Fleury said. "We will be asking generations of people who succeed me and our first staff of customer service people to provide the same quality experience."
As Fleury and his staff work the quality-control side, center President Theodore Sergi keeps hawking the vision of an interactive science experience.
And please don't call it a museum.
"They really keep thinking of us as the Museum of Natural History in New York," Sergi said. "Water buffalo, dusty, behind-the-glass-window thing, diorama. And I say, `No, it's going to be interactive exhibits.'"
Under The Onion Dome
The next project down the road sits beneath the blue onion dome at the Colt Gateway, where the first 30 apartments opened for tenants in 2006. Those apartments are all on the sixth floor of the renovated building that is most visible to motorists traveling north on I-91; units on the floors below will gradually open for tenants as they are completed in 2007, said Colt official Rebekah MacFarlane.
Apartments at the Colt range from 750 to 2,000 square feet and rent from about $900 to $2,700 a month, said MacFarlane, who lives in one of the units herself and has an industrial, mushroom-capped column in her living room.
The rate of rental has been good, she said.
"We're fortunate. As they come online, we're leasing," she said. "We're not Hartford 21 that has 250 units. It's nice because we have 30 units. Those are filled, so now it's time to pre-lease the next 30."
But because the work on the East Armory - the building beneath the dome - won't begin until the end of 2007 at the earliest, passing motorists might not see much of the Colt's progress unless they drive down Huyshope Avenue. That's where a $12 million rehab of the hidden, five-story North Armory will take place, as well as improvements to the streetscape, MacFarlane said.
Eventually, though, the project's focus will turn to the armory that parallels the highway.
"When we hit that building, it's not going to be like the [South Armory], where we do floor by floor, because we don't have any tenants in there," MacFarlane said. "So we can just go to the job and do it. It will make it a lot quicker."
Finally, just beyond the Colt, is the future home of the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy.
To date, the city has cleared the site and driven more than 800, 85-foot steel pilings that will serve as the school's foundation. The city is now pouring concrete "pile caps" on each of the pilings.
Between now and the end of the year, passersby will see the building start to come out of the ground, said Charles Crocini, the city's director of capital projects.
"The steel will be coming up and definitely in place before the end of 2007," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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