October 6, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
After years of planning, numerous prospective builders, several extended deadlines and seemingly endless negotiations, the state and a developer announced Thursday they have an agreement to bring revelers and residents to Front Street by 2008.
And they say shovels will be in the ground by Halloween.
The state's deal with Greenwich developer Bradley Nitkin would mean that apartments, restaurants and entertainment venues - maybe a comedy club, maybe an ESPN "interactive experience" - would begin to bridge the gap between the year-old convention center and the rest of the city at the heart of its downtown revitalization effort.
"We have absolutely first-class, first-class tenants who are restaurants and entertainment venues who have committed to us," Nitkin said, declining to name the tenants. "I think it's a fabulous site, I think it's a fabulous location, and I think the time is right."
On Thursday, Nitkin and the state confirmed a deal to build 115 apartments and 60,000 square feet of commercial space on roughly half of the now vacant, 6-acre plot across Columbus Boulevard from the Connecticut Convention Center.
The $55 million project will be built with $22 million in state funds, more than $7 million in grants and loans, a tax agreement with the city, and the remainder from Nitkin. The construction will be on the part of the plot closest to the Connecticut Convention Center.
The state's original vision called for a bigger project. Its first deal with Nitkin called for a smaller one. Pressure from the city led them to meet in the middle, officials said. Now, they say, they've got the right mix.
"What we're building is the right scope for this site," Nitkin said.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez agreed.
"We held on for a bigger and better project, and this is a bigger and better project," Perez said. "If you're talking about the market, I think there's more appetite. ... Nitkin was a smart developer, he held out for the least-risky project, and he knows this project can grow."
There are still obstacles. Nitkin and the state must now flesh out the tedious details of a lengthy development agreement, the state must do some site preparation work, the city has to reapply to the federal government for the $7 million in funding, which technically expired in September, and, perhaps most important, Nitkin has to lease the commercial and residential space.
And experience shows that deals alone do not build buildings.
Before Nitkin there was Richard Cohen, a developer who failed to begin building after he signed a 2002 agreement with the state. Cohen is suing the state in state court.
After the Cohen deal fell apart in 2004, the state thought a pack of developers would jump at the public subsidies attached to Front Street and it plunged into a fast-forward process to pick a replacement for Cohen's Capital Properties. The jump never happened, and although the state received four development proposals, none was to its liking.
Finally, the state selected Nitkin from yet another pack of developers, and they have been negotiating since April 2005. In February of this year, they signed an agreement that allowed for a phased development of the project.
But the city didn't like the scope of that deal - a first phase with 60 residential units and 43,000 square feet of retail - and told him that if he wanted all of the money he was asking for from the city, he'd have to do the whole project - 200 residential units and 100,000 square feet of retail.
Eventually, everyone compromised - Nitkin committed to a larger project, while the state and the city each put in more front-end money - and, on Sept. 28, the state and Nitkin initialed an agreement on all of the major funding issues.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a press release on the announcement Thursday but wouldn't grant an interview. Her spokesman Judd Everhart said that she finds the project's scope "not only adequate, but reasonable and realistic."
Everhart went on to say that Rell was pleased that the deal had been consummated.
"There's an element of not only delight that the thing is done, but relief that they were able to finally make this happen," he said.
The state's talks with Nitkin also suggest a second phase of development to build on the remaining acreage that borders Prospect Street. Although Nitkin says he hopes to start building Phase Two as Phase One wraps up, the specifics of a deal for that phase are still up in the air, officials said.
More certain, however, is a bit of nomenclature. Nitkin said the development will most likely keep the name that Cohen gave it.
"For all of the investigation we've done in names," he said, "the name that keeps sticking is Front Street."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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