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Museum Bails On Plan To Expand

Financial, Internal Stress Are Factors, Sources Say


October 02, 2007

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's plans for a $15 million expansion into the former Hartford Times building appear to be all but dead, the victim of financial and institutional pressures, sources said Monday.

Although Atheneum board President and acting museum Director Coleman Casey declined to comment, a museum insider attributed the change in direction to several factors, including the lack of progress on residential and retail development near the Connecticut Convention Center, the lack of a permanent director, and the museum's own financial situation.

"We need to build an endowment before we build a building," a source said.

Word spread Monday that the Atheneum was working to get out of the 99-year lease it had negotiated with the state three years ago for the Times building on Prospect Street.

The clearest sign of the Atheneum's retrenchment was Monday's vote by the state's Capital City Economic Development Authority to authorize the inclusion of the nearly 90-year-old Times building into the second phase of Front Street - the long-awaited development that promises to bring shoppers, diners and residents to the still vacant strip between the convention center and Main Street. That project is in the hands of Greenwich developer Bradley Nitkin.

Nitkin's 2006 agreement with the state calls for a second phase of the Front Street project, and the developer hasn't revealed much about his plans for it, other than to say it would be more of the same: housing, retail and entertainment.

"That means that the Times property will at some point in time be available to Nitkin for phase two," James Abromaitis, the authority's executive director, said of CCEDA's Monday decision.

Peter Christian, a Nitkin representative, confirmed Monday that he had been in touch with the state about the possibility of including the Times building in the Front Street plan.

"We are encouraged by the ability to use that as a part of phase two," Christian said. "It always made sense to us to include it in the overall project.

"We think it would make a great entranceway to a use behind it, be that residential or retail," he said.

The story of the Atheneum's hoped-for, but still unrealized expansion has evolved over several years and through a major capital campaign.

In 2003, the Atheneum scrapped a $100 million plan to transform itself with a dramatic new building. Then it looked for other ways to expand - trying to buy downtown properties before striking a deal with the state to take over the former Times building in 2004.

That year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced a deal for the museum to lease the building from the state for 99 years. The details of the agreement specified that the museum would pay the state $2.5 million for the 52,500-square-foot building; the museum would be required to use about 40 percent of the building as "active retail space and public space"; and the museum would spend at least $12.5 million on renovations.

In return, the Atheneum would get access to 150 parking spaces in the retail district, and the state would provide $6.5 million for expanding the Times building.

The originally planned completion of the project by 2006 would have allowed the Atheneum to turn its attention to its main building on Main Street.

While the museum was looking to expand, the state was seeking to add some cultural cachet to the Front Street project.

Work on the $60 million project continues at its planned, albeit noticeably slow, pace. Christian said Monday that private financing is being finalized, an effort to trim costs is underway, and that foundation work on the site should begin in the spring of 2008.

The first phase of Front Street is expected to bring a minimum of 115 apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail space - possibly including an ESPN Zone or music venue - to about half of the 6-acre plot on Columbus Boulevard across from the Connecticut Convention Center.

The developer estimates that construction will take 18 to 21 months.

Front Street's languid pace was one of the factors that contributed to the Atheneum's decision to back away from its plans for the Times building, a museum source said.

"There was going to be traffic. There was going to be parking," the source said. "There were going to be people who could go to our restaurant."

The Wadsworth has fallen on lean financial times since 2000, when the museum attracted nearly 270,000 visitors. But attendance fell off rapidly, reaching a low of 132,000 in 2003, as the museum reduced its hours.

Although attendance has increased in each of the last two years, the museum still reported a deficit of $284,062 for the fiscal year ending in June 2006 (the most recent report available) and the expansion into the new building was expected to cost an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 each year in operating expenses.

The departure of former museum director Willard Holmes in April added to the expansion's uncertainty.

Given the confluence of woes, the board of trustees' decision to pull out of the Times building "was nearly unanimous," a source said.

The board continues to think that the museum needs to expand, but not under the current conditions.

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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