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Costly Hartford Development Plans Falter

JEFFREY B. COHEN

October 15, 2008

Five thousand people.

That's how many residents developer Larry Gottesdiener said downtown Hartford needs to have to reach the same density for a city its size as New York City. That was the goal.

But here's the reality downtown has roughly 2,000 or so residents and that number won't be growing significantly any time soon. Thanks to the flagging credit market, money for new, big building projects is nearly impossible to get. For now, at least, the building boom is done.

Gottesdiener's plans to knock down the old YMCA building on Bushnell Park and build high-end condos? No money.

The Front Street residential plan? Long ago shelved.

Plans to take an old city building at 101 Pearl St. and put retail and office space, and 36 apartments inside? No development agreement with the city.

Look slightly beyond downtown, at the Capewell Horse Nail Co. factory, the Plaza Mayor project at the intersection of Park and Main streets, and the still-unfinished conversion of the historic Colt firearms factory, and the story is the same.

No money, no money, and no money.

Except for a couple projects under construction now, like the one at 410 Asylum, that means no more new residents.

"This will absolutely slam the brakes on new development throughout the country," Gottesdiener said. "Yes, it will slow down Hartford's recovery, slow down Hartford's goal of reaching critical mass."

Bringing residents to downtown Hartford and its immediate surroundings has been a goal fueled by public vision, private ambition and a lot of taxpayer money. New apartment and condominium projects that were tough to put together in good times are harder and costlier now.

For retail landlords, the downturn will likely mean more of a bad thing Gottesdiener's goal for 2008 was to open a grocery store at his flagship Hartford 21 luxury apartment tower. He's spent $2 million to build it, but still hasn't found anyone to run it.

But for downtown apartment landlords, the slowdown may not be that bad less supply could drive up demand, which could drive up rents, which, long term, could make future projects easier.

It's all in how you think about what drives demand, said Bill McCue, chairman of the quasi-public Capital City Economic Development Authority. Demand, he said, isn't about the ability to build new housing projects. It's about jobs.

"If there are jobs in downtown Hartford, then there will be people that want to live there," McCue said.

Demand for downtown apartments, though, hasn't been ideal. One-bedroom units downtown have moved quickly, but larger units haven't a sign that young professionals are moving in, but others aren't. While existing buildings are reaching their capacity, it's taking them longer to do so than originally hoped, said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, the head of the MetroHartford Alliance.

"I think we'd already hit a little bit of a hiatus," Griebel said, adding that the short-term future is bleak. "Everything slows down. I don't know how else you can say it."

Developer Phil Schonberger, who built The Lofts at Main and Temple at the old Sage-Allen site, said that this downturn, too, shall pass. When it does, projects will begin anew for the city dweller the recent building boom forgot.

"I think there's a huge market for the thing we missed we didn't build a product for the empty nesters," Schonberger said. "That will be the next wave. Ideally, we'd be getting ready to start construction on that stuff next year. It probably will get held up for a couple of years, unfortunately."

Developer Marty Kenny, who owns the Trumbull on the Park apartment complex, said the economy is only part of the problem with some of the suffering projects. If anything, the first building wave has shown that young people want to live downtown and projects that lay just outside of downtown won't bring them in, he said.

"Some of these properties that are flat on their backs have to do with where they're located," he said.

At the Capewell building just south of downtown, the hope was to turn the old factory into condominiums. Money was hard enough to come by before the financial crisis and the project's developer, John Reveruzzi, was seeking a new developer to take over. That job has become even harder now, his company says.

Not far away, plans to turn the intersection of Park and Main streets into a "gateway" to the city's Park Street life have been in the hands of New York developers who've been quiet. Local partners say they're out of the loop, but that the project isn't financed.

The unfinished Colt Gateway project has been stalled for more than a year. Its developer last month asked Gov. M. Jodi Rell for more money and was rebuffed. Even with a guarantee of a state tenant, banks won't lend more money to the project.

"Everybody," said Colt official Rebekah MacFarlane, "is pitifully afraid."

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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