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Hartford's Front Street Rises, Empty


May 14, 2010

For years, supporters of Front Street in Hartford worried that the downtown retail and entertainment district at Adriaen's Landing would never even get built.

Filling it up with lively restaurants and other businesses would be a tough sell, but that was way off in the future. Bricks and mortar had to come first.

Now it has happened. Construction of the district is nearly complete. The buildings are up and sidewalks are being poured this week.

But don't break out the champagne just yet. A huge challenge remains: The developer has yet to sign even a single lease for the 60,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space strategically located between the Connecticut Convention Center and the rest of downtown.

"That's pretty unusual," R. Michael Goman, a Simsbury real estate consultant and investor, said. "You can imagine even in good times a fairly significant level of pre-leasing is required just to build."

Front Street has been an unusual project from the start, to say the least. Financed with $10 million in direct public subsidies and loans along with $20 million of private investment, the 6-acre development has been the object of Hartford's visions of vitality since it was conceived in the late '90s.

It took three developers and countless versions of the plan to reach the one that has risen up ó much diminished from the lavish versions that came before it.

A Marquee Tenant

Sports media giant ESPN, based in Bristol, made an early commitment to Front Street back in 1999, back when then-Gov. John G. Rowland made a $700 million push to revitalize Hartford.

By its very name, Front Street was meant to revive the sort of hustle and bustle that once made the blocks by the river Hartford's busiest, with dozens of storefronts and upstairs apartments filled with families from Italy, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Now, after 18 months, construction is wrapping up just as the economy is showing signs of recovery. Employers are beginning to add jobs and consumers are beginning to buy more.

Front Street could be divided into as many as a dozen separate retail and restaurant spaces, according to the developer, Greenwich-based HB Nitkin Group.

But economists expect the recovery to be slow. And attracting retail to downtown Hartford is a tricky feat, with factors beyond the economy in play.

Peter J. Christian, Nitkin's director of development, said it is "close" to signing two leases, possibly as soon as June. He declined to identify the potential tenants or say how much space they might lease.

Although the Front Street exteriors are nearing completion, the buildings are essentially shells waiting to be filled. Step inside any of the buildings, and you'll see dirt floors. Even if leases are signed in June, it could still be months before the businesses open.

Christian said Nitkin has been aggressively reaching out to brokers and has been getting more of a response in the past six months, compared with a year ago when there was little interest.

"Having the building up has helped," Christian said. "We are doing everything we can to get people here."

Christian said Nitkin also is willing to help pay for interior improvements.

Mike Soltys, an ESPN spokesman, said the discussions with Nitkin are "active and ongoing."

"We are looking to see if we can find that fit that makes sense for us," Soltys said.

But Adriaen's Landing has changed dramatically since ESPN first committed. At that time, the development had a football stadium, hundreds of apartments, many more stores and a public "town square."

ESPN's focus also has changed, as it has downsized its sports retail lines and closed two ESPN Zone restaurants in the past year, casualties of the economy. The company never planned an ESPN Zone for Front Street, and has not revealed its concept for Hartford.

Modern Lines

Nitkin hopes to attract national, regional and local operators that together form a combination not already established in the area. Some of the venues could host smaller concerts in a nightclub setting or, perhaps, a dinner theater, Christian said.

"They should try to find newer, more popular, more hip, more interesting businesses so there is a complementary not competitive factor," said Margery Steinberg, an associate professor of marketing at the Barney School of Business at the University of Hartford.

The $30 million price tag for the restaurant and entertainment district ó the first phase of Front Street ó does not include $32 million in federal funding for the two parking garages that bookend Front Street, one of which is already open.

Nor does it include a planned second phase of apartments that would incorporate the adjacent facade of the old Hartford Times building, and more retail space. The apartments were delayed by the recession.

Front Street's architecture has modern lines, but also classical pediments and pilasters that echo some of the oldest buildings in the city, including the landmark Travelers Tower.

To succeed, Front Street will not only have to tap into convention visitors and downtown residents, it will have to draw from the area surrounding Hartford where residents already have a plethora of options for dining and entertainment.

"What the developer has to do is create a sense of place, a destination spot where people want to go and hang out, like a West Hartford Center," said Tim McNamara, a commercial real estate broker at SullivanHayes Cos. in Farmington, who specializes in retail leasing.

Real estate consultant Goman said he believes a fully leased Front Street could attract visitors who live within a 20- or 30-minute drive, in addition to city residents and conventioneers.

The construction milestone will be celebrated Saturday as Riverfront Recapture hosts its annual "Big Mo" event in one of the Front Street storefronts. Joseph Marfuggi, Riverfront Recapture's president, said he is confident that Front Street will become a strong asset for downtown Hartford and will attract visitors, some of whom might not regularly come to Hartford now.

"If you give people a reason to come that's distinctive and different," Marfuggi said, "they will come."

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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