Masonic Temple Site in West Hartford

2014-07-31 Former Masonic Temple

The new owners of the Masonic Temple in West Hartford Center have knocked the building down. This is what the site looked like from the top of the Town Center Garage at the end of July – demolition appeared complete.

Their vision for the site includes a new building with 21 one bedroom apartments over ground level retail. There will also be a 21 space secure parking garage under the building for residential tenants. Construction is estimated to take about a year, so by next summer it should be ready for new tenants to move in.

Here are the draft minutes from the June 10, 2014 public hearing on the project.

Housing at the Hartford College for Women Site

The West End Civic Association (WECA) Planning and Zoning Committee convened a meeting on the evening of August 28, 2014 to hear about a proposed redevelopment of the Hartford College for Women site. The property, bounded by Asylum Avenue, Elizabeth Street, and Girard Avenue, is a little over 10 acres and is currently owned by the University of Hartford. It has been available for a number of years, and has been the subject of a previous proposal.

Former Hartford College for Women Site

Apartments for Graduate Students
The development team currently interested in the site was represented by Dwight Merriam and Garrett Heher. Mr. Merriam is a Partner at Robinson+Cole in Hartford, and specializes in real estate, development, and land use. Mr. Heher is the Principle at Mercer Realty Partners in Centerbrook (Essex), and is experienced in development, construction management, and architecture. Mr. Merriam appears to be the driving force behind the project, and has partnered with Mr. Heher to bring complementary expertise.

The Dean of the University of Connecticut Law School, Timothy Fisher, also sat on the dais during the meeting. However, he made it clear that although the school is supportive of the proposal, there is no formal relationship between UConn Law and the developers/project.

Messrs Merriam and Heher imagine the southern portion of the site, along Elizabeth Street, as an opportunity to add apartments, primarily to serve the UConn Law campus across the street.

A survey of Law School students found that only 25% to 30% of respondents live within one mile of campus. The survey also found that many students live three or more miles away, and rent larger units than they need or want because of the rental housing stock. Faculty advisors reported difficulties in transitioning international students into the community, with the lack of traditional student housing exacerbating culture shock.

The current iteration of the development plan calls for 225 apartments. The units would be approximately 75% studios, 25% 1 bedrooms, and a few 2 bedrooms. Price points would need to be in the range of $800+ per bed, per month, in order for the financials to work. The exact mix of units is still to be determined, as the student survey also found that about 35% of respondents were interested in having a roommate, which suggests adding more 2 bedroom units and reducing the number of studios.

Mr. Merriam expressed confidence that they would be able to legally restrict occupancy to certain types of tenants, specifically giving preference to graduate students. Law School students would be offered the units first. He said he would consider reaching out to St. Francis Hospital and other local graduate student populations to find additional students. Mr. Merriam and Mr. Fisher were both emphatic that they were not interested in bringing in undergraduate students as tenants. He did note that in order to be able to secure funding, the developer would need to have the right to fill vacancies with tenants from the general public if the demand from the targeted post-graduate population did not fully lease the buildings.

All of the mid-1900s buildings currently on the site would be removed. Those structures would be replaced with new construction apartment buildings containing about half the rental units. An additional new construction apartment building would be erected along Elizabeth Street that contained the other half of the units. Both of the newer buildings would be designed to match the architectural character of the surrounding community, and would be high efficiency buildings. Mr. Heher mentioned LEED Platinum certification, but did not commit to that level of efficiency for this project.

Other Considerations
There is still a meaningful amount of uncertainty about what would happen to the historic mansions on the northern portion of the site, along Asylum Avenue. The developers’ current thinking is that the best alternative is to secure the exteriors of the Babcock and Johnson buildings with repairs to roofs, trim, and paint, and then take them to market as single-family homes. This would likely require the existing Townhouses to be removed in order to make the Babcock building desirable to a single-family home buyer. There was no mention of the historic carriage house near Elizabeth Street, and that structure was not shown on the draft site plans that were distributed. There is also not a firm parking plan to accommodate the new tenants, as selling off two of the mansions would eliminate parking on that side of the site.

Dean Fisher expressed interest in the largest of the three mansions, Butterworth Hall, as a conference and retreat center for the Law School. There has also been some discussion between the developers and the Law School about the historic building at 50 Elizabeth Street. Both the developers and the Dean emphasized that the discussions were very preliminary, and no decisions have been made.

On the environmental front, the site contains wetlands and modest soil contamination. The wetlands were determined to be a small area that has been “greatly degraded,” and therefore no special actions would be taken other than to secure what remains. The soil contamination was described as “typical of an urban site,” and also not a major concern or, apparently, a major expense.

Project Logistics
At the practical level, the developers are working on multiple fronts at once. They are adamant that the project will not go forward without support from the West End community. The WECA Planning & Zoning meeting was their first step in reaching out to the full neighborhood, and they promised to return to the group as the project progressed. They had previously met with a group of immediate neighbors of the site to discuss their ideas.

The project depends on relief from current zoning regulations. Mr. Merriam is an expert in Land Use law, and has proposed a two step process to get the project approved. First, he would amend the text of the City zoning laws to create an exception that would be written so that it could only apply to this project, and only to this site. Next, he would finalize the site plan to conform with the exception and bring the plan before the community for feedback and approval. Finally, the proposal would be submitted to the City to claim the zoning exception and receive final approval.

The development team is currently working with the City’s Development Services office to get initial feedback on the project. They have also been in touch with the Assessor’s Office to discuss the tax implications of various legal structures. Mr. Merriam said that the property will be returned to the tax roles. They are currently considering structuring ownership as a condominium community, which would allow different uses for different buildings, and would provide favorable tax treatment for the residential units. They also plan to ask for a tax abatement from the City to improve the project’s cash flow in the early years.

The final piece of the logistical puzzle is financing. At this point they have yet to secure funding, though are optimistic that the money side will work out. Mr. Merriam noted that there is little room to reduce the size of the apartment portion of the project without a major impact on the financials.

Resident Reaction
About 40 people attended the meeting, and many asked questions. There seemed to be a wide range of feelings about the project. The developers were asked about the impact on existing West End landlords, the legality of focusing on law students, the zoning relief process, parking for the future tenants, plans for increased security and/or amenities, the tax contribution to the City, and the plan for the historic buildings, among other things.

When asked how the project would benefit the West End, three points were made. 1. Resident law students will reduce the number of cars on the roads by reducing number of commuting students. 2. The design of the buildings will match the architecture of the neighborhood. 3. The new residential community will make that portion of the neighborhood more alive in the evening and morning, and will contribute additional shoppers to the Farmington Avenue business corridor.

Next Steps
Messrs Merriam and Heher emphasized that the apartment project on the Hartford College for Women site would evolve in an iterative manner. They continue to work with the City, with the Law School, and with the capital markets to move the plan forward. They also assured the audience that they would be responsive to needs and concerns of the West End.

The meeting laid out the thinking behind the proposal, and outlined the basic structure of the development. It is food for thought, and will lead to additional questions in the coming months.

Visible Progress at 179 Allyn in Hartford

179 Allyn Apartments

Dakota Partners is in the process of rehabilitating the historic Judd & Root building at the corner of Allyn and High streets in Downtown Hartford into 63 one bedroom apartments over ground floor commercial space. The developer’s project page notes that tenants are expected to begin to move into the units in the summer of 2014.

The above photo was taken on Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 and shows that work is well underway. Windows on the 5th and 6th floors have been replaced, as have most of the windows on the 4th floor. Zooming in on the original image, one can see studs through the windows on the 4th and 5th floors but not on the 6th. Perhaps the top level is close to ready for new Downtown residents.

A call to the Dakota office seeking comment on the project’s timeline and a local contact for potential tenants was not returned.

Growing Pains in West Hartford

West Hartford is a hot location for real estate development right now. There are numerous projects, large and small, that are either underway or on the drawing board.

2014-06-14 MercyknollHere is a quick list off the top of my head, from the northern part of town to the southern part. An apartment conversion on Albany Avenue in Bishop’s Corner. A proposed apartment community on Steele Road. A proposed single-family home development on the American School for the Deaf campus. An expanded/updated office building on the corner of Brace and North Main. A proposed conversion of two single-family homes to an multi-family community at Farmington and Bishop Road. Redevelopment of the Masonic Temple building on South Main. A luxury hotel in Blue Back Square. An apartment community at the Sisters of St. Joseph campus at Park and Prospect. Four townhouses replacing a single-family home on the corner of Oakwood and Englewood. An apartment community on Newington Avenue. I’m sure there are others that I’m not remembering at the moment.

Developer interest means that the Town is doing something right. This is especially true when most (all?) of the projects are privately financed. West Hartford is an attractive location for development because of its strong reputation and central location in the region. The Town website prominently features a list of 11 instances in which West Hartford has been recognized and/or highly ranked. One would think that high rankings and developer interest is a good thing.

It turns out that developer interest is not universally seen as a positive. Amy and I attended some of the Public Hearing on the Steele Road proposal that was held on June 24th. We made it through the 3 hours of public comment, which was of most interest to us, but did not stick around for the rest of the session.

Council ListeningThe primary concern of residents regarding the Steele Road apartment proposal was the likelihood of increased traffic, and the increased traffic was almost always tied to safety concerns. Residents from the immediate vicinity of the project, and from surrounding streets, turned out to voice their concern. Most reported that traffic is already dangerous on their street, and that this project would only make it worse. Note that other concerns were also raised.

The Steele Road proposal, like all of the others listed above, will increase the density of West Hartford. The projects will result in more people living in Town, and in the case of the office buildings on Main Street, more people working in Town. Some projects are larger than others, but each and every one of them is going to increase traffic. They will also provide revenue to the Town, through both permit fees in the near term and property taxes in the long term.

This presents an interesting dilemma, and by no means one that is unique to West Hartford or 2014. What is the Town’s leadership to do? Is additional development good or bad?

Residents adjacent to a proposed development tend to oppose the project since they will be the ones experiencing the negative impact in their immediate environment. West Hartford is mostly residential, ensuring that someone’s living situation will be impacted by just about every proposed project. What is the best way for Town leaders to deal with this reality?

Rejecting any project in which there are objections is not practical since there are always objections. Similarly, approving all projects is not prudent either since not all projects are a good idea. Developers shouldn’t control the evolution of the town and residents shouldn’t force it to remain static. There needs to be a balance between the status quo and new ideas; between the predictable objections of the immediate neighbors and the greater good of the community.

Blue Back SquareIn the case of the Steele Road proposal, it seems like the developer really, really, really wants to build on the site – so the Town and neighbors have leverage. Perhaps there is an opportunity for compromise. The Stratford Road residents have already negotiated a change to their street into the deal. The developer has agreed to pay to convert it from a through street to a dead end to prevent drivers from using it as a short-cut. The developer has also made meaningful concessions to the neighbors on Trumbull and Buckingham, offering a 40 foot green space buffer that includes the existing mature trees, an earthen berm of between 4 feet and 7 feet tall, and additional evergreen and deciduous trees planted on their side. The developer also offered to plant up to 10 trees in the adjacent homeowners’ back yards if they wanted them. The fundamental traffic concerns are unlikely to be completely resolved – 200 apartments (versus zero now) will necessarily result in more traffic.

West Hartford has experienced waves of development and redevelopment over the years. I believe that this evolution, the willingness to try new things, has been a key component in making West Hartford the desirable town that it is today. Blue Back Square, for example, was a controversial redevelopment idea in the early 2000s. It was larger than any of the current projects, and engaged citizens throughout town, but the public debate still featured many of the immediate neighbors sharing concerns about traffic. Ten years later, Blue Back Square seems to be a major attraction for West Hartford and a hotel is the works.

Town leaders have faced difficult decisions before and will continue to face them in the coming years. As UConn moves out of their campus on Asylum and Trout Brook, another large parcel of land will open up for redevelopment. The overall success of West Hartford attracts investment interest, which in turn creates changes and forces everyone to adapt to the new reality.

All the evidence I see points to West Hartford continuing to become more densely inhabited. Density will increase on the Steele Road site whether it becomes the 200 proposed apartments, or the 92 (approved) senior units from a 2008 proposal, or 30+ single-family homes on those 15 acres. The more interesting question is how the Town navigates the path towards higher density. It’s an important issue for leaders and residents to work through, and one that developers will be following closely.

Positive Developments on the Plaza

Hartford's Consitution Plaza

Constitution Plaza is one of the centers of redevelopment in Downtown Hartford. A number of projects have been on the drawing board for years, and recently there seems to be signs that they will begin moving forward.

The former hotel in the back right of the photo is slated to become apartments. Ken Gosselin, author of the Courant’s CT Property Line blog recently wrote about his encounter with the developer at the site after noticing new fencing.

The former restaurant just behind the fountain in the photo is in the process of becoming a TV studio for a new sports network specializing in golf. The Hartford Business Journal published a piece about the status of Back9Network in April 2013 as they continued to build their brand.

The CT River Plaza office building in the back left of the photo, along with its companion hidden behind the hotel, have been bought by the State for office space (Note: CT River Plaza is not technically part of Constitution Plaza, but the two are connected by a pedestrian bridge). Ken Gosselin reported on the State’s plan to renovate the buildings and have workers on site by 2016.

Out of the frame to the right is the former site of the Broadcast House, for which a new apartment tower is proposed. Greg Bordonaro of The Hartford Business Journal covered the announcement about a year ago.

The building at the far left of the photo is another candidate for redevelopment, as you can see from the green banner at the top. It was evaluated early on in the UConn discussion, but they eventually selected the Times building on Prospect Street.

There is a lot of chatter around Hartford’s Constitution Plaza right now. If these projects are completed, then the space is going to be transformed into a very different environment. The photo at the top was taken in the mid-afternoon on a weekday. It’s safe to say that there will be dramatically more life on the Plaza with hundreds of new apartments and thousands of State workers. Fingers crossed that the different plans work out…