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Four-Ten Asylum Street In Hartford Affordable Housing That's Green

By DAVID FUNKHOUSER | The Hartford Courant

November 03, 2008

A decade ago, history saved 410 Asylum Street from the wrecking ball. Now, low rents for downtown workers and an environmentally friendly design will put it back on the map.

On the roof, a covering of green plants will keep things cool. Far below, a hulking former Connecticut Bank & Trust Co. vault might be cooling wine for a new restaurant. An art gallery and small stores could fill the gap left by Clinton's Pianos and other businesses long gone from the landmark Neoclassical Revival building across from Hartford's Bushnell Park.

Workers are busy tromping around five floors of old brick walls, brass ornamentation and marble paneling to frame 70 apartments. They're installing energy-efficient windows, a state-of-the-art heating and cooling operation and a central recycling system.

By the end of next year, new residents secretaries, artists, shop clerks and others earning modest incomes will be able to walk to jobs downtown or to public transit at Union Station.Common Ground, the nonprofit agency developing the $22.2 million project, says it will be the first affordable housing built downtown in a generation. People making $25,000 to $38,000 a year will be able to rent 56 of the units for $765 to $995 a month. The 14 "market-rate" apartments will average $1,400 a month.

Perhaps more significant, 410 Asylum also will be the state's first "green" apartment building.

The renovation will preserve 95 percent of the original walls and floors, along with ornate touches such as brass elevator doors and tile flooring. Inside the entries, an artist will restore faux-mosaic murals of the Old Statehouse and the state Capitol. The building, at the corner of High Street, is in a nationally listed historic district.

"There's nothing greener than preservation," said William Crosskey, whose Hartford architectural firm is overseeing the project.

It's one of scores of projects in the pipeline in Connecticut that aim to meet what is becoming the new legal standard for building the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, an international effort to make buildings less polluting and more efficient.

Financing for 410 Asylum Street comes from an array of tax credits, loans and grants tied to historic preservation, low-cost housing and energy conservation, said Nancy MacMillan, real estate director for Common Ground, which manages more than 2,000 housing units in the region. The agency has a half-dozen projects in the works and wants all of them to be LEED-certified, she said.

"We can abuse the system, or we can improve it and enhance it," MacMillan said. "That's a good enough reason" to go "green."

Although green building concepts have been around for years, the extra costs associated with them have been a roadblock.

"Here in Connecticut, we are Yankees, we are very frugal," said Todd Renz, president of the Connecticut Green Building Council. "The mind-set has always been how inexpensive can you build it."

Now, energy prices, better technology, state and federal financial incentives and new laws make building green more attractive.

As of this year, all state-funded projects must meet LEED standards. LEED rates projects for design, energy efficiency, use of recycled and low-polluting building materials, renewable energy and other environmentally sound practices.

State-funded municipal schools that cost at least $5 million to build or undergo at least $2 million in renovations will have to meet the same criteria starting in January. The standards will cover all privately funded new buildings that exceed $5 millionstarting in 2009, and renovations exceeding $2 million starting in 2010.

At least a dozen projects in Connecticut already have been LEED-certified, according to the Green Building Council, which administers the program. They include commercial buildings, private homes, schools and university facilities. The Mark Twain Museum Center was the first LEED-certified building in the state, according to the museum. Also on the list the Connecticut Science Center (under construction in Hartford) and the new football training complex at the University of Connecticut.

Renz said research has shown that if builders incorporate LEED principles into the design from the start, green projects can be nearly cost-neutral. Green buildings also might sell or rent at a premium because they cost less to run, he said. The payback in energy costs varies: Insulation pays for itself in a few years, but major systems can take up to 15 years, said Crosskey.

"Everyone will start to get a little better at it, and it will become more commonplace," predicted Renz.

There's another benefit: Energy-efficient buildings reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists consider the key contributor to global warming. Residential and commercial buildings account for 29 percent of such emissions in Connecticut.

Some of the 13,000 feet of commercial space on the first floor at 410 Asylum will be ready by February, MacMillan said; construction should be completed by August. The building has been renamed the Hollander Foundation Center, after the family that donated it to Common Ground.

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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