A long-vacant eyesore on Albany Avenue has been renovated into a fine arts jewel, thanks to the largest fundraising project ever by the University of Hartford.
The Handel Performing Arts Center will serve as a classroom and showcase for roughly 250 dance and theater students at the university’s Hartt School of Music. It will open in time for fall classes, and a formal dedication ceremony is set for Sept. 12.
The new center has five dance studios, four theater rehearsal studios and two theaters, one seating 180, the other 300. There are plans to add a café with an outdoor seating area, a small People’s Bank branch and a Hartford Police substation, said John Carson, vice president of university relations for the University of Hartford.
The 55,000-square-foot, one-story structure — a Cadillac dealership until 1995 — is located on seven acres at the corner of Albany Avenue and Westbourne Parkway. For nearly four years, the high-visibility property sat empty, a blighted brownfield without prospects.
While the project obviously benefits the university, it’s also seen as a major plus for the community.
“It’s great for the city for a number of reasons,” said Mark McGovern, the city of Hartford’s acting director of development services. “It was a vacant car dealership and the project is a great example of reuse.”
The long and winding road to the Handel Performing Arts Center began in 1999 when university officials were first approached about developing the property. Two years later, the university made known its intentions to buy it. But delays in securing funding and other issues postponed the start of construction until June 2007.
The property was a brownfield in need of environmental remediation. In 2006, three parties — the city, the university and the Connecticut Development Authority — came together to get the cleanup process moving.
The CDA made a $2.5 million loan to the city through its Tax Incremental Financing program, and the city agreed to use a portion of the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes funding received from the state for the University of Hartford to pay a portion of the debt to CDA.
“Because the property was eligible, everyone benefitted,” McGovern said. “Any time we can make a situation like this work anywhere in the city, of course we’d be interested.”
CDA president Marie O’Brien said it is fulfilling to see the completion of such an “outstanding” project.
“We do so much work with the private sector, it’s excellent to work with the university that is in the private sector but also in the educational sector,” O’Brien said. “When people talk about Hartford, they talk about the University of Hartford, and it’s good to see a commitment and focus on our young people.”
The environmental costs were only a small fraction of the estimated $21.5 million needed to completely renovate and refurbish the blighted building.
“This is the largest fundraised project that the University of Hartford has ever done,” Carson said. Now potential donors can see a finished project rather than a design on paper.
So far, the university has raised roughly $17 million, including $8 million from the private sector, $6.3 million from state sources and $1.7 million from federal funding. The center is named for Mort and Irma Handel after the couple donated $1.5 million to the project.
Throughout the process, Carson said the university engaged two local community groups — from Upper Albany and Blue Hills — and wanted to make sure they were on board with the project.
“They were very welcoming to us because it is a vibrant addition to the neighborhood,” he said. “We estimate that 20,000 cars a day pass through Albany Ave. and this location. Everyone was supportive of it.”
University president Walter Harrison directed that meeting rooms at the center be made available to the community. The center will also be the new home of Hartt School’s community dance program.
Christopher Dupuis, senior project manager for University of Hartford, said that desire to invest in the city was a crucial aspect of the construction.
He said 40 percent of the construction contracts went to minority- or women-owned businesses.
Dupuis added that the project, once started, came in under budget and on time.
The construction was managed by New Britain-based Downes Construction and Hartford-based Capital Restoration.