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Coltsville Struggles, But Still On Track

Lance Robbins Gone; Despite developer's departure, project makes progress

Hartford Courant editorial

August 29, 2010

It's a truism in real estate development that it's often the second or third developer in who gets the project finished.

Let's hope for that result with the Coltsville industrial complex in Hartford's South Meadows. Despite the recent departure of yet another developer, there are several positive signs for the restoration and mixed-use development of the complex.

Lance Robbins, a California developer who was brought in in 2008 when bank failures forced developer Robert MacFarlane to bow out, has also left the project. Though no one is saying much, the departure may be connected to publicity about charges brought against Mr. Robbins in a lawsuit by a former business partner in California claims Mr. Robbins denies.

Whatever the merits of the suit, Mr. Robbins isn't accused of any wrongdoing here. Indeed, he is credited by several people close to the project with keeping it alive and moving it ahead.

The Newest Developer

His departure doesn't endanger the project, for a couple of reasons. The new developer is Lawrence Dooley, an area resident who has managed the day-to-day operations of the Colt complex for the past four years under Mr. MacFarlane and Mr. Robbins.

Mr. Dooley, whose background is in construction management, is well-regarded by all involved parties and knows the project as well as anyone. He will be busy for the next several months on the first major construction at the complex in four years, preparing 50,000 square feet of space in Colt's Sawtooth building and South Armory to be a satellite campus for the Capitol Region Education Council's popular Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts magnet school. CREC already occupies a building in the Colt complex.

The importance of CREC's commitment to the property cannot be overstated.

National Park Status

While the new space is being built, the real heavy lifting will continue in the financial realm.

Years of failed or half-realized development efforts have left the complex over-leveraged in debt and entangled with liens. But investors are slowly working these out, and they made notable progress when Chevron TCI, a major investor, bought the debt that Sovereign Bank held in the East and South armories, according to sources close to the project. That should expedite development of both buildings and make space available for a visitors center and museum. This is one of the National Park Service's requirements to make the Coltsville site a National Historic Park.

A bill drafted by U.S. Rep. John Larson creating the national park, if certain criteria are met, is expected to be voted on by the U.S. House of Representatives in September.

So despite the departure of Mr. Robbins, the project is making headway. The owners and developer hope to restructure the debt so that the project is attractive for traditional real estate investment, and to use a tax-increment-financing agreement essentially a loan against future tax revenue to continue to rehabilitate the property. Of the 129 apartments in the South Armory, 44 have been done over, and virtually all are rented. Completing environmental remediation of some sites on the property is also on the short list.

The project would be a godsend for Hartford in many ways. It would add jobs and businesses, bring back middle-class residents, draw thousands of visitors, preserve a priceless historic legacy, promote access to the river and encourage development along a north-south rail line.

It is essential that the developer, the city and the two state agencies involved continue to work together, as they did on the CREC school project. There are still daunting challenges, but Coltsville, which put Hartford on the map in the 19th century, can do it again in the 21st.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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