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Aetna Project A Bold Statement

Parking Garage Part Of Sizable Investment In City Campus

July 24, 2007
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

The shortage and expense of parking in downtown Hartford and surrounding areas has long made it difficult to attract and keep businesses in the city.

Aetna Project Location The lure of free parking in the suburbs was a factor in MetLife's decision to move to Bloomfield next year and take 1,300 employees out of Hartford's central business district.

But in Asylum Hill, a $27 million project now underway will bring nearly 1,150 parking spaces to the corporate campus of health insurer Aetna Inc. The nine-level parking garage now rising above Flower Street is a prelude to the transfer of about 4,000 workers from the insurer's Middletown campus by the end of 2010.

With the arrival of those workers, Aetna's employment in the city will grow to about 6,400.

Aetna's decision to build a parking garage has been welcomed by neighborhood groups that have been lobbying insurers in Asylum Hill to move away from surface lots in favor of garages. Surface lots can be unsightly and give an area a barren, deserted look when they're not filled with vehicles.

"This is what we want," said Bernie Michel, chairman of the neighborhood revitalization zone in Asylum Hill. "People in the neighborhood were pretty pleased with it. It's a nice-looking building, and they've made it fit into their campus."

Aetna has also addressed pedestrian safety, particularly at night, by making plans for 24-hour security, wider sidewalks and increased lighting, Michel said.

The parking garage is part of a $220 million renovation and consolidation project that already has included extensive exterior renovations to Aetna's Colonial Revival-style headquarters facing Farmington Avenue, such as the installation of energy-efficient windows.

The plans also call for the $40 million demolition and reconstruction of an existing 1,000-space garage behind the headquarters building that would add as many as another 600 spaces. That garage will use architectural elements - cupolas, brick and brownstone - that will mimic the style of the headquarters.

In addition, Aetna plans to renovate the Modernist-style addition to its main building. ING now leases the space, but is expected to move by the end of the year, when its new Connecticut headquarters in Windsor is completed.

Aetna will house much of its information technology operations in the space.

The state has approved as much as $6 million in relief from state sales-and-use taxes as long as Aetna maintains 7,466 employees in Connecticut after February 2010.

The parking garage now being built will overhang a section of Flower Street, which has been closed to traffic from Farmington Avenue since June.

Flower Street is expected to reopen in October, but it will take another two months to complete the parking garage, said Michael L. Marshall, who oversees Aetna's construction and renovation projects.

Construction of the new facility began in October, but progress has become more noticeable in the past two weeks. Cranes lift concrete sections into place, and the framework for the bottom parking decks is now in place.

A skywalk will connect the parking garage to the ING building. The skywalk, Marshall said, is less of a convenience for the Aetna employees and vendors that will use the new garage and more for their safety.

The skywalk in intended to separate pedestrians entering and leaving Aetna from the cars that are driving in and out of the garage, Marshall said.

Although Aetna needed the parking garage for its workers, Marshall said he also believes that the structure will improve the overall streetscape. Previously, the land was a surface parking lot that Aetna owned.

Marshall said the rosy-colored concrete being used is intended to help the structure blend with the neighboring building at 55 Farmington Ave., owned by another insurer based in Asylum Hill, The Hartford. The Hartford was consulted on the design of the parking deck.

"This was not an attractive area," Marshall said. "The idea was to make it look more like an office building, and not a parking garage."

The biggest challenge was fitting the parking garage into the triangular-shaped property because most parking structures "like to be rectangle" to get the most parking spaces out of the building, Marshall said.

That's why the garage had to extend over Flower Street so the facility could get the number of spaces Aetna needed as it brings more workers to Hartford, Marshall said.

Workers who park in garage space at Aetna now pay between $75 and $125 a month. But Aetna has been encouraging employees to use mass transit and carpools, offering monthly subsidies of between $20 and $30 a month per employee to reduce the number of employees driving into Hartford, according to Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.

Work on the second parking garage is expected to begin in the spring with the demolition of the existing parking garage, which dates from the early 1970s. The new garage could be completed in a year.

John F. Palmieri, the city's director of development services, said Aetna's decision to invest in the parking garage and the rest of its Hartford campus is a vote of confidence for the city.

"A physical structure like that is a bold statement," Palmieri said.

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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