September 19, 2006
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer
Companies use plenty of perks to lure top-notch employee talent these days: generous salaries, box seats at sporting events and conferences in exotic locales.
But at One Corporate Center in downtown Hartford - the "Stilts Building" - the new owners hope to tap one more: a sophisticated, visually stimulating workplace with plenty of amenities to make much more bearable the 12-hour workdays that go along with high-level jobs.
As part of major renovations to one of the city's most recognizable, but also most run-down skyscrapers, The Hampshire Real Estate Cos. broke out the jackhammers last week and started pounding away at the lobby. Hampshire hopes to transform the entry and the rest of the 23-story tower from cold and sterile to warm and inviting.
"Businesses are using facilities as recruiting tools," said Todd Anderson, Hampshire's manager on the renovation project. "They don't want to be in a tired, old building."
Hampshire needs to make the building more attractive to lure potential tenants. Long neglected, the 425,000-square-foot skyscraper is now only 30 percent occupied. Local brokers had dropped it from the list of must-see downtown office buildings.
Hampshire, based in Morristown, N.J., is making good on its promise to sink millions into improvements before signing a major tenant, something the former owner refused to do. The new owner also is renaming the tower 20 Church Street, its street address.
Some of the most visible improvements to the 25-year-old skyscraper will be in and around the lobby: There will be three new conference rooms so that meeting space does not need to be incorporated in the office floors above; an existing deli will be reconfigured and go more upscale; and more seating will be added.
A 3,500-square-foot fitness center for employees will be added on a lower floor, with flat-screen televisions and workout machines.
Although the building's front entry won't change, there will be a more well-defined entrance from the parking garage. Visitors now are left to guess whether they are going into the right place: The only access is through a service entrance.
Hampshire bought the building in May for $19 million. Anderson won't say exactly how much Hampshire plans to spend on renovations, but the company has filed for city building permits that show work so far is valued at $760,000.
Hampshire hopes that potential tenants will take a good look at the renovated building, including new digitally controlled elevators. They might even take a peak inside the restrooms, and not just because they have to.
Each restroom - now awash in drab tans, browns and mustards - will be decked out in blue and green Italian glass tiles on the walls, a trough sink that will run the full length of the wash area and mirrors that will appear to float in front of the sink.
"They wanted this building to be very different," said Rick Focke, of HOK in New York, the interior designer, "and have people go in and say, `This is pretty cool.'"
The lobby, for instance, will have charcoal grays and other darker colors on the granite floor that will replace the tan travertine. The walls will feature back-lit rectangular panels of red and white acrylic and zebrawood that will recall the paintings of Mondrian.
The building's exterior won't change much except that the stucco will be painted and floodlights will be added to dramatically accentuate the signature angled support beams.
"The building will look like it's floating off its base," Focke said.
Although Hampshire purchased at a time when there was not a lot of growth downtown, there have been some encouraging signs since then, although leasing is just starting to pick up.
Downtown's vacancy rate for prime office space is tightening, particularly after St. Paul Travelers signed leases for large blocks of space at State House Square and One Financial Plaza, the Gold Building. St. Paul Travelers plans to bring another 500 jobs to the city as a result.
And Aetna Inc., though outside the central business district, said in July that it will bring 3,600 workers to the city from its Middletown office by 2010 as part of a $219 million renovation and consolidation project.
Anderson says the building is being actively shown - two floors have been gutted down to support beams, as well as part of another, some of which will be outfitted as "show space."
John M. McCormick, executive vice president at commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in Hartford who is involved in leasing, said there have been at least six showings at the tower.
He wouldn't name the companies, but indicated that some are from the area and have leases coming up for renewal.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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