Sports media giant softens its longstanding firm commitment to Front Street project
By Gregory Seay
October 20, 2008
While work crews are busy at Front Street, developer HB Nitkin has leasing agents hunting for local and national tenants to occupy the planned $30 million retail-entertainment complex in downtown Hartford.
So where is ESPN?
Officials of the Bristol-based sports media giant say they continue to review their options at Front Street, the housing, retail and entertainment district of Adriaen’s Landing. However, their tone has clearly changed.
Almost from the project’s conceptual stages eight years ago, ESPN officials expressed a firm commitment to having a presence in it. They publicly discussed their commitment to establishing a 5,000- to 7,200-square-foot retail store that also featured interactive elements.
As remediation of contaminated soils wrapped up last week at the Front Street site, across from the Arch Street Tavern and the Connecticut Convention Center, ESPN officials were asked whether they were still committed to the project.
“We are continuing to explore concepts and have not arrived at any definitive conclusions,” ESPN said in an e-mail statement.
GVA Williams, the New York-based lease broker hired to market Front Street, declined comment on ESPN or any other potential tenants for the 60,000-square-foot, retail-only first phase that breaks ground in early November. The original plan to have 115 units of housing above storefronts has been temporarily shelved.
Unlike a handful of other proposed residential-commercial projects in and around downtown, Front Street has one thing going for it: money. Public money covers $20 million of the $30 million price tag, and that public money is in hand. The rest is coming from HB Nitkin.
There is no set completion date for the project, but GVA Williams has said it can have tenants in Front Street by 2010.
“We’ll be calling any or all retailers we can think of for this project,’’ said Leibowitz, a Stamford vice president with GVA Williams, a New York-based commercial lease broker.
“We haven’t done a project like this, because nothing like this has been done in Connecticut,” said Stacy Libby, Leibowitz’s partner on the project for GVA Williams.
The brokers say they are researching urban markets with redevelopment goals similar to Hartford’s. One is Baltimore, which transformed its Inner Harbor from a dilapidated waterfront into a shopping, restaurant and leisure destination. An ESPN Zone sports-theme restaurant is among Inner Harbor’s attractions.
ESPN has always insisted an ESPN Zone wasn’t in the cards for Hartford, but it was — until now — firm that it would have a place in Front Street, possibly a shop featuring apparel and collectibles bearing the sports network’s recognizable logo.
Leibowitz said Front Street will try to capitalize on the thousands of downtown Hartford workers eager to eat, shop and relax close to where they work, or to hang out with their families on weekends.
“It doesn’t have this kind of entertainment-focused district,’’ he said. “We’re going to create that kind of district in Hartford.’’
A fresh rendering of the reworked Front Street is still being reviewed by the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which is shepherding the public money for Front Street.
But real estate experts and engineers involved with Front Street say its footprint has shrunk to a single story — instead of five when residences were planned. Also, the exterior likely will reflect the design aesthetic and space requirements of the tenants, officials say.
Even with increasing signs that the economy is heading into a lengthy recession, Front Street’s boosters are confident.
“It’s going to be a challenge,’’ Leibowitz said. “But it’s not like we’re trying to lease vacant space that’s been sitting empty in Hartford for a long time. This is new, first quality space.”
Leibowitz’ veiled reference to the nearly empty retail spaces at the street level of Hartford21 indicates that the Front Street developers are taking a very different approach from Northland Investment Corp. , developer of the Hartford21 apartment building.
Front Street developers contend the demand for more residential housing downtown will increase when more retail tenants move downtown. Notably, Northland took the opposite stance, seeking residential tenants first. For the past two years, Northland has been seeking the “right” retail tenants.
With the project about to commence, Front Street will compete for retail tenants with Northland, which has been rolling out incentives to fill space it owns downtown. Northland spokesman Chuck Coursey said Front Street will have to demonstrate to prospective tenants that it can deliver the customer base they want.
But the competition is welcome nonetheless, Coursey said.
“We would like to see more outside developers some into Hartford and invest,’’ he said. “We wish Front Street all the success because we’re all in this together. We all have the same goal: To make Hartford a place to live, work and play. But to do this we need more investment.’’