Travelers have sped through Hartford past the vacant windows of the decaying Colt firearms armory with little to distract them for nearly 20 years, but now there are signs of life.
Workers are replacing the massive metal roof on the five-story brownstone for the first time since the 1890s, and new windows are expected to follow. The building — topped by the distinctive blue, onion-shaped dome — also is about to get its first tenant since Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co. moved out in the mid-1990s: two school programs run by the Capitol Region Education Council.
"The East Armory, you look at it now, and its hard to imagine how beautiful it will be," said Larry Dooley of Hartford-based CG Management, which took over as developer in 2010.
The Colt campus has been called many things, but beautiful is not usually on the list.
The blocks-long East Armory has come to represent the city's faded glory, particularly in the Coltsville neighborhood, and its size has masked the smaller successes behind its imposing façade.
In the last eight years, CREC has become a major tenant and soon will occupy more than 150,000 square feet in five of the complex's 10 buildings. Data management company Insurity, a tenant since 2004, recently extended its lease through 2019. Fifty apartments in the upper floors of the South Armory are all occupied, and more are planned.
Colt Gateway also is close to leasing space in the South Armory to an administrative processing company. Dooley wouldn't name the company but said the lease would bring as many as 100 jobs to the city from elsewhere in the state. The non-profit Corporation for Independent Living confirms it is negotiating to purchase and renovate the now-boarded-up former Colt administrative offices, north of the East Armory, on Van Dyke Avenue.
"All these things are incredible, but we have to take it a step at a time," Dooley said.
For all the progress that's been made, the $120-million redevelopment project remains a massive undertaking before it will be fully realized with offices, shops, restaurants and apartments — all capped by the area's designation as one of the few urban national parks.
Dooley is the third in a line of developers to tackle the project since the early 2000s. His predecessors ran into financial troubles, worsened by the recession. At one point, the project was stalled for years, and the financial legacy of New York-based Homes for America Holdings Inc. is still being untangled.
The redevelopment also comes at a time of fierce competition for office tenants, since there is a high vacancy rate just north of the campus in nearby downtown Hartford.
A Long-Term Commitment To Hartford
Pioneering industrialist Samuel Colt and his wife, Elizabeth, built a mighty firearm manufacturing empire in Hartford in the mid-1800s, developing innovative new technologies. A few years after his death in 1862, a massive fire destroyed most of the factory. Elizabeth Colt oversaw the reconstruction, which included the East Armory, built on the foundation of a building that was destroyed.
A huge expansion came during World War I and included the construction of six buildings that still survive today, including the North and South armories and the Sawtooth building. The last structure was constructed in 1942 for Colt's administrative offices and was nicknamed for its U shape. Colt moved out of Hartford in 1994 and later split into two companies.
"Sam Colt would have been happy knowing that we have arts and science programs going on there now," said Donald Walsh, CREC's deputy executive director. He said CREC continues to expand operations at Colt because it's committed to the city and to being in an urban neighborhood and because Colt is an historic site that played a key role in the city's past.
The latest efforts to develop the property began in 2003 when Homes for America took on the project. The organization, headed by Robert MacFarlane, had some success, renovating the Sawtooth and L-Shaped buildings, plus finishing some of the apartments in the South Armory.
But in 2007, MacFarlane ran out of money when one of his major lenders, USA Capital, filed for bankruptcy. A second developer, Californian Lance Jay Robbins, didn't fare much better since he faced lawsuits on other redevelopment projects outside of Connecticut.
As the developers ran into trouble, a major investor, the tax credit investing arm of oil-giant Chevron, began taking a larger stake in what had become a troubled project. That Chevron division invests in redevelopment of complexes such as Colt in exchange for credits that reduce its tax liability.
A source familiar with the project says Chevron has played a key role in restructuring the debt on the property, including purchasing loans from Sovereign and Citizens Bank totalling nearly $25 million that fell into default. Restructuring debt is key to attracting new investment in the future, particularly traditional bank loans. Court records show Chevron is now foreclosing on those loans, which will further increase its influence over the project.
"Chevron is very much in control of the campus," the source said. "It's a time when you're going to see real movement."
Dooley, whom Chevron brought in to manage the day-to-day operations at Colt, declined to comment on Chevron. Chevron did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Walsh praised both Chevron's and Dooley's involvement in the project.
"It's a breath of fresh air," Walsh said. ""Finally, after so many years, Colt Gateway is taking hold."
The Cherry On Top
Efforts to win the national park designation for Colt Gateway and some portions of the surrounding Coltsville Historic District have been hampered by the debt on the property and uncertainty about whether the project would be completed.
Last year, though, when the U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the Colt campus, he endorsed the idea of Colt becoming a national park, citing its role in the country's contribution to the Industrial Revolution.
Salazar's visit and comments were a vote of confidence for the national park designation, as have been the city and state's financial commitments.
Recently, the city of Hartford approved $5.3 million in bond money to help complete 79 more apartments in the South Armory, while Gov.Dannel P. Malloysupported $5 million in now-authorized state bonding for the project. The state already had invested about $10 million, of which $1 million is being used for the new roof on the East Armory.
Federal legislation is required to establish a national park, and a bill could come up in the U.S. Senate after the November election. If approved, a conference would still need to be worked out with the U.S. House and, a final decision about when the designation is made would then come from the secretary of the interior.
"We've made great progress already, getting Coltsville named a National Historic Landmark and winning the support of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar last year," said U.S. Rep.John B. Larson, D-1st District, a longtime supporter. "And while recognizing the reality that the divided Congress makes it hard to make progress on anything this year, I am working closely with both Senator Blumenthal and especially Senator Lieberman and remain optimistic that, with their hard work, we can move forward with legislation to get Coltsville the recognition it deserves."
If national park status is granted, the plan calls for a visitor center and museum at the East Armory, where workers are today replacing the roof to protect and preserve the historic property.
"The roof is the start of the tipping point," said Tomas J. Nenortas, associate director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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