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Tower Planned At YMCA Site

Upscale Units Would Be Largest Development In Years

October 19, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

Even with hundreds of luxury apartments under construction in Hartford, a Massachusetts developer is planning an 18-story tower overlooking Bushnell Park that would be the largest downtown residential development in years.

The skyline-altering project by Northland Investment Corp. would cost an estimated $117 million and calls for 200 upscale condominiums and 100 apartments. It would be built at the corner of Jewell and Pearl streets, where the Hartford YMCA now sits.

YMCA officials, who decided more than two years ago that the agency's central mission could be better realized if its prime downtown real estate were sold, voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a plan to sell the 1.3 acre parcel to Northland.

Northland, the Newton, Mass. firm behind the luxury Hartford 21 project already underway downtown, plans to raze the YMCA headquarters to make way for the new building.

"There is really a demand downtown for luxury living," said Chuck Coursey, spokesman for Northland. "We've done extensive market research."

The YMCA plans to move its health facilities and headquarters to the Hartford 21 building at the Civic Center, while many of its programs and services will move to new facilities in the city's North and South ends. The Y's 145-room residential tower will close permanently.

"This deal was about mission, never real estate," said Kevin Washington, chief executive of the Greater Hartford YMCA.

Coursey, who declined to say how much Northland agreed to pay for the site, said the company still has not determined how much the apartments and condominiums will cost. According to city records, the building has an assessed value of $6.5 million, and the land has an assessed value of $1.6 million.

Coursey also declined to say how the project will be financed, or whether Northland will be asking for assistance from the city or the state.

Groundbreaking would not begin until after Hartford 21 is complete in 2006. The new project is slated for completion in 2009, Coursey said.

The new tower, which would require the approval of city officials, would join several other residential projects already built or near completion in the immediate vicinity. They include "Hartford 21," Northland's 262-unit apartment tower; the 100-unit Trumbull on the Park; 55 on the Park, with 132 units; and The Metropolitan, a development of 50 condominiums on Pearl Street.

Despite this explosion, real estate analysts say they are optimistic about the sudden spate of high-end development in the city. Even though the Greater Hartford region does not have the growing job or population base typically needed to support such projects, they say the region does have an unfulfilled demand for upscale urban living.

"People have wanted to be downtown, but have had no options," said Michael Stone, a vice president at CB Richard Ellis in Hartford. "The existing inventory of multi-housing units downtown is old, and there hasn't been any new downtown housing in two decades."

The housing that is available, experts say, lacks the amenities that would entice those with means to pull up stakes in the suburbs and relocate downtown.

Northland's plan for the YMCA site includes parking , an exercise facility, guest suites, a library, a recreation room and a doorman. The plan also calls for 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, including a "white tablecloth" restaurant, Coursey said.

The market for all this new housing will come less from those new to Hartford than from suburban transplants, said Steve Witten, senior director at Marcus & Millichap Investment Real Estate Services in New Haven.

"Hartford downtown housing is just being born right now, it's a baby, just coming out of the womb," Stone said. "It's taken its first baby steps successfully. Now let's see if, soon enough, it will start speaking."

While it is leaving its longtime downtown perch along Bushnell Park, the YMCA of Greater Hartford will retain a downtown presence by leasing about 40,000 square feet on the second floor of Northland's Hartford 21 tower. As early as mid-2006, the YMCA will relocate its fitness club there, as well as its executive offices and its adult literacy program, said Tom Reynolds, the Y's vice president for development services.

The new location downtown will not have a swimming pool or basketball court.

The rest of the programs currently run from the YMCA's downtown location - including a shelter for teenage girls and a day-care program - will move to temporary locations. They will eventually find a permanent home in a new YMCA facility to be built on an old supermarket lot near Albany Avenue in the North End. The agency is looking to build a new location in the South End as well.

With its departure from Jewell Street, the YMCA will discontinue what it calls its hotel business: 145 units of low-cost temporary housing. YMCA officials will meet tonight with 14 of the hotel's longest-staying guests - some of whom have lived there for years - to discuss relocation and assistance, Reynolds said. The residents will have at least six months to find new locations.

The YMCA had plans to do away with its residential tower well before officials decided to sell the spot to Northland. In 2003, officials announced that temporary housing - once key to assisting young men coming to town in search of manufacturing jobs - is no longer part of the agency's core mission.

"We now work primarily with children and families," Reynolds said.

"Most of the people in this neighborhood," he said referring to downtown, "are people who do not have children. They're either empty nesters or single adults."

Initially, when the YMCA decided to spread into the neighborhoods, it planned to simply renovate its Jewell Street location into a more compact site.

"But new opportunities came around," Reynolds said, referring to the spate of residential development downtown in the last two years.

An adviser told YMCA officials that "with everything that's happening in Hartford, you'd be wiser to look at developing the property with someone else."

In other words: sell.

The YMCA sought proposals for the site and eventually selected Northland as its preferred buyer, because officials were impressed by the developer's history in the city and its work on the Hartford 21 project, Reynolds said.

"We wanted this prime piece of property, if we were going to leave, to be developed properly," Reynolds said. "One of the things we didn't want was a vacant lot on our watch."

The money generated from the sale of the YMCA to Northland will cover the cost of moving the downtown branch of the greater Hartford YMCA into the Hartford 21 building, and get a start on fundraising for its new neighborhood sites.

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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