City, Developer Differ On Reasons For Scaling Back Hispanic Gateway
July 8, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Plans for a gateway to Hartford's Hispanic cultural center that originally included two luxury condominium towers, a 40,000-square-foot main square, and a good deal of retail space have been downsized, officials said this week.
The city and the developer disagree over why the project has changed.
The original $64 million plan for the "Plaza Mayor" project at Park and Main streets called for two towers of roughly 12 and 16 stories containing between 50 and 80 luxury residential units selling for as high as $400,000. The project was also to have included between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet of retail.
The new, scaled-back plans call for townhouses no taller than six stories and half the amount of retail. The trademark plaza, or main square, would remain the same size. The 42 new residential units will sell for between $285,000 and $300,000.
The city, for its part, points to a recent letter from the historic preservation and museum division of the state's commission on culture and tourism, saying the project is inconsistent with the surrounding South Green historic district. The developer says the dramatic changes come not because of the state's letter, but because of the city's lack of financial commitment.
"In the absence of any commitment from the city on public assistance, we have moved to rescale the project," said developer Theodore M. Amenta, adding that lowering the buildings means lowering the prices their views could have commanded.
"Obviously, this is a different product. If you change the project, it changes the market to which it would appeal," Amenta said.
The city chose Amenta's development partnership, Plaza Mayor LLC, last fall. It includes Amenta and his team, as well as Solaris - a partnership of several Hispanic city businessmen, including Carlos M. Lopez, Angel Sierra, Carlos Valinho, and Cesar Mejia. Alexander Aponte, the city's former top lawyer, was once a partner but has since left the project, Lopez said Thursday.
Funding for the plan has turned out to be a major issue. The original $64 million plan called for $17 million in public investment, a figure the city has said it was never prepared to produce. The new plan will likely call for $10 million in public investment, Amenta said. The city is considering $6 million.
On Thursday, Amenta said that his group's assumption had been that its selection by the city was also an implicit commitment of the $17 million in city funding the proposal called for. That money was to be used to bury parking underground; the new plan calls for ground level parking under the townhouses.
But the city says Amenta's understanding is incorrect.
"When we selected them as the developer, we selected the concept," said John F. Palmieri, the city's director of development. "But it's not that we said, `Do it, and we'll fund it.' There was never that commitment."
Before the city can commit to a dollar figure, Palmieri said, the development team must commit to a project.
While city funding was an obstacle, so was the approval of the state's preservation office. In an advisory letter to the city last month, the office's director wrote that "the design of the undertaking ... appears to be incompatible with the character" of its surrounding historic district.
The height of the towers has been a brewing issue from the beginning. The towers, which the developers have said were to symbolize the "arrival" of the Hispanic community, would have dwarfed much of the neighborhood's existing dominant architecture.
Plus, roughly half of the site at Park and Main - the land at the southwest corner of the intersection - is in the South Green Historic District and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tom Nenortas, an official with the Hartford Preservation Alliance, said his organization did not feel the design was "sympathetic to what's already there." Both the height of the buildings and their aesthetic were problematic, he said. Then there's the issue of the plaza.
"There was a reason that plazas were never built in New England," Nenortas said. "The weather."
The development team will likely present a new plan to the city's redevelopment agency before its Aug. 14 meeting.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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