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Despite Slumping Economy, Hartford's Front Street Project Advances

By JEFFREY B. COHEN

October 02, 2008

Front Street could have been Hartford's Blue Back Square, a retail and residential hub just west of the Connecticut Convention Center anchoring downtown Hartford's state-funded rebirth.

Nothing close to that has happened yet. But come early next month, Front Street will quietly become a construction site for a much less ambitious goal an all-retail, no-residential development that, despite the nation's slumping economy, is still tiptoeing ahead.

That's in part because there are no private bank lenders to lose their nerve. Of the $30 million it will cost to build Front Street, $20 million is from the public, and the rest is from the developer and his investors.

"It's a very difficult market right now, which is a major reason a lot of projects aren't going forward," said Peter Christian, an official with the developer Bradley Nitkin's HB Nitkin Group. "If we had to be in the market for private financing, it would be more difficult to do this project."

Nitkin's original plans for the site called for using the entire swath of now-vacant land between Columbus Boulevard and Prospect Street. But that plan was downsized into two phases. For the first phase, the state and Nitkin agreed to develop roughly half of that site into 115 apartments and 65,000 square feet of retail. Architectural plans that showed apartments atop large, glassy shop fronts were completed late last year to a good bit of fanfare.

In March, crunched by rising construction costs and a slumping economy, the state and Nitkin changed course, jettisoned the apartments, and decided to move forward with roughly 68,000 square feet of retail space. The housing will have to wait until market conditions improve.

Come Nov. 3, site work and the installation of utilities will begin at Front Street. Soon afterward, some preliminary foundation work will be done to be followed next spring, when the foundations will be poured. The state will also begin the construction of its roughly $15 million garage next door.

Just because it's built doesn't mean that retail tenants will come. James Abromaitis, executive director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, said that even the most enthusiastic potential tenants want to see real construction on the ground before they sign any deals.

But given the state of the economy, the fact that Nitkin still plans to move forward at all is reason for some quiet optimism, Abromaitis said.

"You're hearing stories of projects drying up," Abromaitis said. In this case, Nitkin "is in the driver's seat without having to have bank financing."

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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