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MassMutual Building A Great Opportunity

By TOM CONDON

January 13, 2008

What is getting lost in the kerfuffle over the MassMutual building is the opportunity being presented. There is a chance to enhance the city's Asylum Hill neighborhood, to make it more appealing on a number of fronts and reconnect it to downtown.

Come up with an exciting plan, and it might well save the building.

The Hartford announced a few weeks ago it was buying the neighboring 16-acre former MassMutual campus in Asylum Hill and was planning to demolish the landmark building on the site for parking.

The rational reaction of an impoverished city to the news that a Fortune 100 company was expanding its local footprint should have been dancing in the street. But the prospective loss of the building soured the moment.

This was the wrong time and place to announce the demolition of an architecturally significant structure in Hartford. Six years ago, MassMutual insisted that a half-dozen handsome brick apartment buildings on Fraser Place had to be razed for parking. The buildings were demolished, despite substantial opposition. A couple of years later, MassMutual left town, leaving Hill residents who use Fraser Place to walk downtown with a wasteland.

Also, a growing sense of the importance of historic buildings to the look and feel of the city along with a realization of how many had been lost led the mayor and council to enact a historic preservation ordinance in late 2006.

The Hartford has optioned the former MassMutual property and has started the process of getting demolition permits. But spokesman Josh King has stressed that the company is open to ideas that would save some or all of the building.

The trick will be to find something that works for the company and the neighborhood. It can be done, I believe, if the city and state help.

The company had a walk-through of the building on Monday for city officials and other interested folk. That itself was a good thing. When the plan was announced a few weeks ago, I sensed a circle-the-wagons defensiveness, way out of character for a company that is a very good corporate citizen. In the tour, I got the clear impression that the company is now open to a serious exploration of non-demolition options.

The building was still being used by MassMutual less than three years ago, so is not badly deteriorated. I pretty much had the same reaction that city councilman Cal Torres did.

"Still a pretty good building," Torres said as we walked down a corridor.

"Whoa they don't build them like this anymore," he said when we reached the stunning portico at the original Garden Street entrance. But the building is old and will need tens of millions of dollars to upgrade it.

The complex was built in five parts from 1926 to 1971. The goal here is to save the original Georgian Revival building, built as the home office for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. from the design of well-regarded New York architect Benjamin Wistar Morris, and possibly the wings on either side of it. The four-story brick box attached to the back of the building could be removed with no aesthetic loss, for parking.

There are a number of challenges. The Hartford, though it has been growing, currently has no use for the property other than for parking. The current owners of the property, a group of real estate investors from California and Massachusetts, have been marketing the property aggressively for nearly two years, to no avail. There's a lot of office space in the area.

But even if there are no current office needs, the MassMutual property may lend to a mix of other uses, in part because of what could become an advantageous location.

The present campus is somewhat isolated "cloistered," as King put it. There isn't much in the way of retail or restaurants in the immediate area. The company is trying to recruit top-drawer talent, and is competing with companies in larger metropolitan areas. There should at least be a Starbucks and a decent Vietnamese restaurant somewhere in the neighborhood.

Also, the MassMutual property is just up the hill from the train/bus station and the Union Place entertainment district. The location becomes more significant with the arrival of commuter rail and bus service in a couple of years. Housing? Hotel? Eventual expansion of The Hartford?

With improved transit, the company could do as Pitney Bowes, Google and other progressive companies have done and respond to employees' transportation needs with more buses, vans and transit subsidies. If companies such as The Hartford and Aetna, with 7,000 employees each in the city, embrace green transportation, we make measurable progress.

What I'm hoping is that The Hartford decides to do something cool and creative with this property. The city can help. One reason The Hartford is inclined to tear the building down is to save on property taxes.

Since the company plans to donate land for a magnet school if the deal goes ahead, the city could abate the taxes on the building, at least until it is again in use, to remove that incentive for demolition.

The city also could use the opportunity to redesign and improve the challenging pedestrian environment in the area (without which, dancing in the street is out of the question).

The state could help with a transportation grant, historic tax credits, a transit-oriented development grant or some other appropriate form of aid.

The company is investing $150 million in real estate, new equipment and a major upgrade of its existing buildings. This laudable investment will be better enhanced with a historic building on the expanded campus than with an asphalt sea of parking. There's a chance to do something great here.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place.

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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