A Restored Pratt Street
Through improved and restored retail storefronts, renovated residential spaces, and curated programming, Pratt St is being rediscovered.
HARTFORD — As Hartford emerges from a bruising pandemic, the downsizing of office leases in and around downtown — and the uncertain return of workers to the city from home offices — remains one of the biggest economic challenges the city will face in the coming years.
But development efforts — slowed but not stopped in the aftermath of COVID — are pushing ahead to better balance the downtown’s decades-long dependence on office workers with those who live in new apartments. Thousands of rentals have been added in the last decade but some say more are needed to strengthen the downtown ecosystem of restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and theaters.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a strong proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income housing redevelopment, said apartment occupancy remains strong coming out of the pandemic, a good sign for the city. But to build momentum back behind revitalization and achieve a 24/7 vibrancy, more housing — perhaps much more — will be needed to offset the loss of office workers, Bronin said.
“It is crystal clear that the future of our downtown depends on achieving enough residential density that there’s energy and activity and feet on the street, not just during the weekday but nights and weekends, too,” Bronin said. “That work was important before the pandemic. But now, it is existential.”
Coming out of the pandemic, further rental conversion of office buildings offer a probable path. But some say those moves have to be done thoughtfully, recognizing that more workers are likely to return to offices in the years ahead.
“Taking a 300,000-square-foot office building off the market and converting it begs the question, ‘What are we going to do five years from now?’ ” Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said.
In the past decade, CRDA has taken a leading role in providing low-cost, state taxpayer-backed loans to fill in financing gaps in apartment conversion projects in the city and surrounding suburbs. That role has led the quasi-public agency to take an increasingly larger profile in urban planning.
On top of what evolving role downtown might play as a center for office employment, it is likely that decisions about converting office buildings to housing will be weighed against what part the building could play in future office leasing, Freimuth said.
“We’re really redefining downtown,” Freimuth said. “However much work we’ve done over the last 10 years, we’re really at somewhat at a crossroads that’s not unique to Hartford.”
From his office in downtown Hartford’s One Financial Plaza, the “Gold Building,” developer Marty Kenny sees daily that office workers haven’t returned in significant numbers.
“We still don’t have enough people returning to work,” Kenny, of Lexington Partners, said. “I think the insurance companies have been more circumspect on that than anybody and also, the state of Connecticut. We do recognize that people are consolidating.”
The high apartment occupancies — mostly 90% or better — is encouraging, said Kenny, who has been a developer in the city since the 1980s.
“The retail is coming,” Kenny said. “But we need to speed that part of it up because, ultimately, for Hartford to be a community where people want to live, you’ve got to have exciting retail. And by retail, I really mean, entertainment and restaurant and that kind of thing.”
The city’s $6.7 million Hart Lift storefront revitalization program is focused largely on those efforts, with half of the grants focused on downtown. Pratt Street is a major recipient of those grants, with 12 businesses, 7 of them restaurants or bars.
Kenny, part of a partnership that is redeveloping the south side of Pratt Street with apartments and reinvigorated storefronts, aims to make the street a destination.
David Griggs, executive director of the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce, has an upbeat outlook when it comes to revitalization. Griggs said he believes the city either has regained the revitalization momentum that it had prior to the pandemic “or we’re pretty darn close to having it.”
“For all the uncertainty, I feel there is a little more certainty,” Griggs said. “We know that downtown housing is the thing. We know we need to keep doing that. We know we need to keep these restaurants going.”
“Where I think before the pandemic, there was still a little question of do we really need all the housing downtown,” Griggs said. “Hopefully, that horse is so far out of the barn that it’s not even in the same county.”
Griggs said office downsizings are likely to continue, but, on the upside, jobs are not being cut.
The development strategy for downtown — and the city’s neighborhoods — has held for the last eight years under Bronin’s tenure as mayor. Although some some critics say Bronin hasn’t done enough to promote affordable housing in Hartford.
Bronin isn’t running for a third term so there is a question mark about where the city will go from here, Kenny said.
“We’ve had a mayor that’s proven to be a very steady force,” Kenny said. “It’s so important that we get the right leadership at this critical time. So that weighs on me for sure.”
The next few years could see progress on expansive projects that have been talked about for decades.
Bushnell South, the redevelopment of a wide swath of parking lots near the state Capitol and the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, now has a preferred developer, The Michaels Organization, and a development agreement could be reached later this year. The first phase, estimated to cost $130 million, would form the foundation of what could eventually could be 1,000 apartments. A ground breaking could still be up to two years away.
The development, to the south of Bushnell Park, would serve to connect the park to Park Street and Colt Park. It also would shift Bushnell Park, a major city asset, more to the center of downtown rather than being on its edge.
Similarly, the North Crossing development around Dunkin’ Park, the city’s minor league ballpark, would bring together parts of downtown cut off from each other by construction of the interstate highways two generations ago. The first phase of apartments has been completed, but with litigation that, so far, has stalled work on the next phase, attention could turn to the nearby campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The 13-acre property went up for sale earlier this year.
Bronin, the Hartford mayor, said there is interest in the property, though he has declined to elaborate. One likely developer is Randy Salvatore, chief executive of RMS Cos., which is developing North Crossing.
Bronin points to significant progress redeveloping blighted or vacant properties along Albany Avenue on the city’s northside, one of the city’s most heavily-traveled thoroughfares. The projects extend from the redevelopment of rundown public housing projects near the West Hartford town line to the Arrowhead Gateway project on the edge of downtown.
“Things are starting to knit together,” Freimuth said. “It’s going to take a while to make it look like it did. We’re not completely there yet, but it’s starting to happen.”
Here is a look at 7 development projects in Hartford to watch this summer:
Cost: $107 million
Developer: State of Connecticut
Completion: To be determined
What to watch: A major upgrade to the lower half of the XL Center arena could start later this year if a study confirms cost estimates are valid. The venue’s operator also must commit funds to the project. The legislature also must give special approval to the public-private partnership between the state and venue operator Oak View Group.
Why it matters: Major renovations are seen as key to the nearly 50-year-old arena keeping up with more modern venues. An investment by OVG would boost competitive firepower for attracting big-name concerts and sports tournaments, which supporters say will economically benefit both the city and the region.
Cost: $5 million
Developer: Carlos A. Mouta
Completion: Partial completion by the end of 2023
What to watch: The first part of the expansion, to be known as the Hall at Parkville Market, will include event space and a bar, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2023. Work also has begun in a separate building planned for either a brewery or winery. Hog River Brewing Co. has dropped plans to relocate to the space.
Why it matters: The success of the Parkville Market has raised the profile of Parkville neighborhood, long a center of arts and innovation. Plans for a major renovation at nearby Real Art Ways and the conversion of the former of Whitney Manufacturing Co. into apartments and business incubator space are among other projects in the works.
Cost: $29 million
Developer: RMS Cos./Waterford Group
What to watch: The top floors of the 22-story hotel are being converted to 147 apartments in an $18 million project. The lower floors will remain guest rooms, undergo an $11 million renovation and will be rebranded as a DoubleTree hotel.
Why it matters: The Hilton Hartford, next to the XL Center, came dangerously near to closing in the pandemic. A rescue plan, partly financed with public funds, will preserve some of the guest rooms that will be needed to attract conventions and sports tournaments in the aftermath of COVID-19. The top floors also would add to the inventory of apartments.
Neighborhood: Sheldon/Charter Oak
Cost: $63 Million
Developer: Sheldon Oak Central, Inc./Vesta Corp.
Completion: To be determined.
What to watch: A redevelopment of the 1960s, rundown housing complex near the former Colt manufacturing complex is now expected to break ground by late summer. The project has been delayed by more than a year by rising construction costs. All tenants have been relocated in preparation for demolition.
Why it matters: A rebuilt MLK complex will provide much-needed affordable housing options in the city, while allaying concerns about gentrification and displacement. A portion of the units will qualify for Section 8 subsidies, but will be blended with units that have higher income restrictions and others that are leased at market rate.
Cost: $17 million
Developer: San Juan Center/Carabetta Enterprises
What to watch: The long-anticipated project includes the renovation of three historic buildings and a construction of a new one. The redevelopment will create 45 mixed-income apartments over storefront space, all opening to a new pedestrian plaza.
Why it matters: This redevelopment is seen as pivotal for reconnecting Hartford’s downtown to the city’s northside neighborhoods. The connection has been disrupted for decades ever since the construction of the interstate highways in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although Arrowhead Gateway is separate, it would build on the nearby North Crossing area, which includes Dunkin’ Park, the city’s minor league ballpark.
Cost: $1 million in city grants, landlord and business owner investments
Developers: Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, Northland Investment Corp., Business owners
What to watch: The city’s Hart Lift storefront revitalization grant program has given out $1 million in funding on Pratt Street — and more grants on nearby Main and Trumbull streets. Some of the businesses on Pratt Street, including a bakery and a Korean-themed restaurant, have already opened.
Why it matters: The grants are aimed at raising Pratt Street’s profile as a destination for dining and entertainment in greater Hartford. The area could help attract more downtown residents and visitors.
Cost: $53 million
Developer: RMS Cos.
Completion: To be determined
What to watch: The second phase of North Crossing, the former Downtown North, or DoNo, is being split into two parts. The first half would contain 228 apartments and a 541-space parking garage, plus retail space. The second half would have the balance of apartments at a total cost of about $100 million.
Why it matters: North Crossing, which includes Dunkin’ Park, Hartford’s minor league ballpark, is aimed at redeveloping a jumble of parking lots just north of downtown. The area was once a part of downtown but was cut off by the construction of the interstate highways. North Crossing is intended to bring the two areas back together again. Tax revenue from redevelopment in this area was part of the plan to pay for the $70 million, city-financed ballpark.
The first phase of apartments, known as The Pennant, is now almost fully leased. But moving on to the next phase has stalled because of litigation between the city and the previous developer of area. Fired from the job, the previous developer claims it was wrongfully terminated. A court decision affecting further development has been expected for months.
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