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Move Workers To Pearl Street, Turn Park Buildings Into High-End Housing

Raze Pearl Street Building, Build New Offices

By Tom Condon

May 16, 2012

Pearl Street between Main and Trumbull streets is a forlorn and uninviting pocket of downtown Hartford, in large part because of two adjacent, long-vacant, 1960s-era office buildings at 95-101 and 111 Pearl St.

Last year, city and state officials decided to work together to do something about these sad-looking edifices. That's good; this could be a spectacular opportunity but not the way they are doing it.

Here's the deal. The city owns 95-101 Pearl and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority owns 111 Pearl and the 100-unit luxury apartment building, Trumbull On The Park, just down Lewis Street from the two empty buildings.

Because the three buildings make up the majority of the block bounded by Trumbull, Pearl and Lewis streets, officials decided to offer the three as a package. So far, so good. But all they are trying to do is sell them.

CHFA put out a Request for Proposals or RFP on March 26 offering the three properties for sale. The document (http://bit.ly/JPt7f2) states the intent to sell them to a developer "with the talent, vision and capacity to redevelop the properties in a high-quality manner that will enhance and add vitality to the central business district."

That's good, no one wants the properties sold to a fly-by-night, bottom-feeding speculator who will kill the central business district. But the proposal lacks a plan for what to do with the buildings.

The RFP closed on May 2 and officials are reviewing the proposals. It can reject all of them and perhaps should.

Let's take Trumbull On The Park off the table. It is an almost new, fully occupied building that will simply change ownership. The issue is the two empty Pearl Street buildings. I believe many of the proposals will involve housing. There's no question that downtown needs more housing, but putting it here promises to be problematic.

Developers who've looked at the buildings tell me there are major obstacles to turning the buildings into housing. There is asbestos. The floor plates do not match up with those in the parking garage. The buildings have only northern exposure, so the views will be of blank walls and parking garages. The mechanical systems are shot.

I tend to believe that turning those buildings into housing will be a serious challenge because the city has already put out two RFPs on 95-101 Pearl in recent years. Each time, a developer came in who wanted to create housing, and each time the task proved too daunting.

Plus, once the property is sold, the city and CHFA lose control of it. A developer may do something with it that enhances the central business district, or not. We could easily be looking at empty buildings for another decade or two.

So is there a better idea sitting out there? I think so.

The city has developed an imaginative plan called the iQuilt, which envisions Bushnell Park as the nexus of downtown's arts and cultural institutions, and extends the park to Constitution Plaza. As it happens, there are several elegant state office buildings on Elm Street across from the park.

The idea, which has been around in some variation for 15 years, is this: Tear down the two Pearl Street buildings and replace them with one modern, Class A office structure. Move the state workers now in the buildings along the park into the new building, and turn the Elm Street buildings into housing.

The state workers would have much nicer facilities and the city would have its own version of Central Park West. That in turn could spur development on some of the empty land south of Elm Street, helping to connect the Capitol and Main Street, and inspire the redevelopment of other properties around the park, such as the former YMCA building.

The city and state should not relinquish control of the project, but instead should direct its development come up with a plan and then put out an RFP. The newly created Capital Region Development Authority could take it as a major project. With the economy still slow, construction prices are down and some of the best designers and builders in the region are available.

Housing on a major downtown park works in most cities.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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