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Amid Rivals, Bushnell Tower Holds Its Own

March 20, 2007
By ROBIN STANSBURY, Courant Staff Writer

Jose Ortiz has moved three times in the past four years, all within the city of Hartford.

In fact, he has moved each time within the same building.

Oritz recently purchased and is renovating his third condominium at Bushnell Tower, the 27-story concrete building on Main and Gold streets in the heart of downtown. He said he never considered moving to one of the newer and more modern apartment or condo buildings that have sprung up in the city in the past few years - housing that has threatened Bushnell Tower's longstanding reputation as one of the most upscale condo options in the city.

"It's the quality of the building," said Ortiz, who has lived on the 22nd, 20th and now the 25th floor. "It's reasonable, compared to the price of the new construction, and it has a parking garage and 24-hour security."

Still, Bushnell Tower has struggled during the past year through a sort of identity crisis. It faced what it has really never faced before: competition.

The 27-story building, built in 1969, has long been regarded as one of the few luxury urban living options in the capital city. Business leaders who wanted a downtown address, wealthy singles seeking a metropolitan housing experience, even empty nesters desiring to be closer to culture turned to the modern concrete tower, with its balconies and views of Bushnell Park or the Wadsworth Atheneum. Its address book read like a who's-who directory from the society pages.

But during the past year, housing options have exploded in the city, from the upscale townhouse condominiums at Goodwin Estates near Elizabeth Park to the downtown Metropolitan condos with 15-foot ceilings, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, and to the much-anticipated Hartford 21, the first upscale residential apartment tower to be built downtown since Bushnell Tower.

The question was raised, by the tenants, governing board and others - would Bushnell Tower, with its foreboding concrete exterior and outdated interior, thrive in an altered marketplace? The answer, so far, is yes, with an asterisk.

"When you look at what's coming on line and break it down, the market is well segmented and not in direct competition with each other," said Michael Stone, a broker with the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis. "It's segmented by owner versus rental. It's segmented by price. And it's segmented by amenities.

"As long as the market is segmented like that, an old, existing property that was the premier property has the ability to thrive."

Still, Bushnell Tower has not been unscathed. The condo's governing board felt pressure to update the building and is in the midst of a $1.8 million rehabilitation of the concrete exterior and all interior common spaces.

And demand for its high-end rentals - with monthly rents of $2,000 or more - have plummeted. Almost 60 of the building's 176 units are rentals; the individual owners have had to work harder to find tenants and, in some cases, have updated the units or reduced rents, local real estate agents said.

"The rental market here is pretty much dead," said Becky Koladis, an agent with Prudential Connecticut Realty who handles rentals and sales in the building. "Just recently, I lost a rental to Hartford 21. It's very hard to compete with brand-new."

Demand, however, has remained strong for many of the condo units in the building, according to local agents, especially the studio and one-bedroom units which, if priced right, are selling quickly.

A one-bedroom unit that was listed for $190,000 in January, for instance, sold in one day for $180,000. Another one-bedroom, on the 19th floor, sold in October for $197,000 - $2,000 under the asking price - in 24 days. And last month, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit that was listed for $299,900 sold in four days for $264,000.

Slower to sell in the building are the high-end units - four are currently listed with prices of as much as $1.15 million. The last high-end unit that sold in the building, for more than $1 million, was listed for sale for more than a year.

Agents and others said Bushnell Tower is holding up on the market because it is priced well below some of the new condo buildings. Recent sales at The Metropolitan have ranged from about $280 to more than $320 a square foot, according to information on the Multiple Listing Service. At Bushnell Tower, recent sales have ranged from about $210 to $240 a square foot.

Tenants said many of the new owners at Bushnell Tower have undertaken extensive renovations of their condo units, updating outdated kitchens and bathrooms, resurfacing floors, soundproofing bedrooms, and even adding laundry rooms. Some are also expanding their space, buying two units and knocking down walls to create larger living areas.

"The past four years, there's been a renaissance here, with a new generation of people coming in," said Ortiz, 40, who also owns and rents out six units in the building. "And they are creating a new feeling with the renovations."

Bushnell Tower was designed by I.M. Pei, regarded as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. Among his many other designs are the modern Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and the Christian Science Center in Boston.

Bushnell Tower was initially designed as twin towers, not the single 27-story shaft that looks down at the Wadsworth Atheneum directly across the street to the east, and Bushnell Park and the state Capitol to the west. (Bushnell Tower is adjacent to Bushnell on the Park, the curved condo building to its south, but the buildings are owned and run separately).

Joanne Riley, an interior designer, moved into Bushnell Tower about five years ago when she relocated from New York City, paying about $140,000 for her one-bedroom unit, and then spending an additional $100,000 to renovate it.

She says she never considered moving into one of the new condos being built downtown.

"I'm educated about them, but I love it here," she said. "I live on the park with a view of the Capitol. It's just spectacular, and because the park is right there, you don't feel hemmed in."

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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