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Front Street Not On Pace With City Revival Plan

November 15, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Hundreds of apartments and condominiums are under construction in Hartford, the Connecticut Convention Center is open and ground has been broken at the future site of the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration.

But a key piece of the city's planned revival - a 6-acre retail, residential and entertainment conduit between the convention center and downtown - is lagging behind as the state and a developer have spent the past seven months trying to hash out an agreement.

Issues of land ownership and site configurations have complicated negotiations over the future of the so-called Front Street parcel. But officials say the goal is to have a development deal in place by the end of the year, and, given that this is the state's third try, they stress that haste is not their priority.

"You only get to design a project of this magnitude once," said Bradley Nitkin, the Greenwich-based developer hoping to make his Hartford mark. "And my view is, you want to do it the right way. You want to do it the correct way. It's far better to do it right than to do it rushed."

The timetable has nevertheless had at least one significant effect: the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's decision last month to move ahead on its own with the $17 million expansion of the old Hartford Times building, which is adjacent to the Front Street site.

"The Front Street negotiations have taken longer than I think anybody, everybody, was hoping," said Willard Holmes, the museum's director, adding that he understands the complexity of the negotiations.

Although the museum had considered sharing both an architectural vision and a construction timeline with the Front Street project, neither proved feasible, Holmes said.

Once the museum's board decided on an architect to match its own vision of how to use the Times building on Prospect Street, "we looked at the cost-benefit analysis of waiting, and decided that we needed to move ahead," Holmes said.

"You tend not to like to stand around and mark time because somebody else is getting their compelling vision together," he said.

The efforts to develop Front Street have been marked by trouble. In August 2004, the Capital City Economic Development Authority dumped developer Richard Cohen two years after he signed a contract with the state. Cohen had failed to begin building.

Then, after a failed attempt to find a new developer a year ago, the state began anew, seeking interested developers. In April, Nitkin was the final choice to be "preferred developer," and the two sides began working toward a development agreement.

"The fact that we're not making any announcements doesn't mean that we're not busy at work," Nitkin said, adding that his firm is deeply engaged with its architect, Robert A.M. Stern Architects. "We've presented a number of design alternatives to the state, and the state is reviewing them."

"We're definitely getting closer to an announcement," Nitkin said.

One reason for the length of negotiations is that Nitkin and his architects have submitted several design configurations for the space, officials said. Moreover, the site has multiple owners, and several state agencies have a stake in the deal.

"There are so many different configurations that can be put into place," said Dean Pagani, until recently the spokesman for the development authority. "Each time someone gets a new idea about how to build the project, it takes time to study that and see how it fits in with everything else."

Another reason has to do with Nitkin's proposal to build condominiums instead of apartments on the site. More than half of the land at Front Street is owned by The Travelers Indemnity Co., with the state holding a 99-year lease.

So one key question is how Nitkin could sell condominiums, which would be individually owned, on leased property. And what would happen to a condominium built on leased land when the lease expires? What if the insurer chooses not to renew the lease at the end of the 99 years?

"The ownership of the land is complicated, without question," said Timothy Shea, the authority's assistant director.

As for the Wadsworth, Pagani said, the state was clear about the complexity of the negotiations.

"I'm sure that we made clear to them that this could take some time," he said. "And that if they want to get going, they should probably get going and not wait."

Holmes and the museum took the cue.

"As important as it was for us to be community-minded and Front Street development-minded, the most important thing was for us to be Atheneum-minded," he said. "At the end of the day, we needed to make a decision."

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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