A School in the West End: Our Conclusions

We’ve spent the week documenting the debate surrounding CREC’s proposed facility for the Museum Academy Magnet School in the West End of Hartford. We have tried to stick to the facts and present both sides of the discussion fairly to give both points of view an equal chance. Today we’re going to dig into the arguments of both sides a little more deeply. Here are our thoughts and views, we’ll start with a summary and then dive into more detailed analysis.

The back of Babcock House needs some attentionNo single argument is strong enough to trump all the others in the debate about CREC’s proposal to build a permanent home for the Museum Academy Magnet School in Hartford’s West End. Our conclusion is that there is much more to like about the proposal than to dislike, and we support CREC’s effort to buy and redevelop the former Hartford College for Women site.

Bringing the Museum Academy to the West End will guarantee two positive outcomes for the neighborhood.

1. It will improve the educational environment by increasing the number of elementary school seats available to West End families (there are not currently enough and the situation is about to get worse), and providing a second attractive local school choice for those families who don’t like the current option.

2. It will provide the funding and skill to preserve historic buildings that are in desperate need of attention.

As we think through the arguments against the plan in detail, we find no guaranteed negatives in the proposal. The concerns raised are the standard objections that are voiced against every development project. They are important issues, and should be evaluated in a thorough and logical manner. After going through that exercise, we think that the project on the table right now is very strong … and we believe it is the strongest that we’re likely to see in the foreseeable future.

Looking from the back patio of Johnson House towards Butterworth HallIn order to properly evaluate the CREC proposal, we need to compare it to the full range of likely future uses for the site. This in an important point that needs to be emphasized. The University of Hartford does not want the HCW campus. They are trying to sell it, and will evaluate other options if a sale proves impossible. No matter what happens, the use of the site will change. All potential future uses are going to make the site more active than it is today.

Additionally, the arguments against the CREC proposal are mutually exclusive – they cannot all be satisfied at the same time by any likely use of the site.

CREC has addressed each of the neighborhood’s major concerns as their proposed use of the site has evolved over the years. We support their current version because we think it is a positive direction for the West End with minimal risk. Please see below if you would like more detailed thoughts on the main arguments supporting and opposing the Museum Academy Magnet School.



Educational Environment

Making the Museum Academy a permanent part of the West End would be a positive for the educational environment. Admission statistics provided to WECA show that the Noah Webster school is not able to accept all the West End students who apply via the lottery. Younger students were more likely to be offered a seat than older students, and the total acceptance rate is about 63%.

Additionally, Noah Webster is planning to convert their “neighborhood preference” criteria from a 0.5 mile radius to include the entire West End. We expect there will be additional competition for the same number of seats once this change takes place, which will cause the acceptance rate to decline even further.

Inviting the Museum Academy into the neighborhood will reserve additional local seats for West End children. While it will not solve the thorny issue of what happens to children who enroll mid-year, it will directly address one of the main challenges the neighborhood’s families face, the shortage of local seats at the elementary school level.


Historic Preservation

The historic buildings on the site are in need of immediate attention. The outsides remain close to original, and can be restored with enough money and the right skill. The sooner it happens, the better. We are told by people we trust that there is not much to preserve on the insides of the buildings. They have been modified so many times, and used for educational purposes so long, that a full resotation of the inside is not possible. Whoever buys the buildings will need to reimagine the interiors while preserving the few historical features that do remain. CREC has the resources, the skill (via Smith Edwards Architects) and the will power to do a very nice restoration.


Typical Objections to Development Proposals

The primary objections to the proposal are not concerns that are unique to this potential project. Traffic (and other quality of life issues), property values, and tax considerations have come up at every development presentation we have attended. The concern about historic preservation is a common issue in the City of Hartford, but is not always raised in other towns.

Since every project works through these concerns, their existence as objections is not enough to justify blocking the proposal. Instead, we need to determine how strong each of the arguments is and compare them to the likely alternative uses for the site. No proposal is ever going to satisfy every single stakeholder in the discussion, so we have to make judgments about whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

As a point of comparison, CREC came to the West End in 2009 with a proposal to build both an elementary school and a high school on the site. The discussion did not get very far because it was the clear consensus of the neighborhood that the negatives (these same objections) of such an intensive use for the site would overwhelm the positives. This time, with only an elementary school under discussion, there is a much more diverse set of opinions in the neighborhood.


Comparing to an Appropriate Base Case

We have not heard anyone involved in the debate spend much time talking about what might happen on the site if CREC decides not to build a permanent home for the Museum Academy. The proponents seem to be arguing the school is better than the current use, while the opponents are arguing that the school is worse than the current use.

However, the current use is not the real base case. CREC needs to find a permanent home for a school leasing space on the site, and UHart needs a long-term solution for a site that they no longer want.

What we should be comparing the CREC proposal to is the range of potential future uses for the former Hartford College for Women campus. And, we should also be factoring in the likelihood of each potential use.

We can imagine many potential uses for the site:
– General School: This is what CREC has put on the table.
– Other Educational Use: A self-contained academy focusing on something specific.
– UConn Law School: They’ve passed on the opportunity so far, but it is convenient.
– Religious Complex: The West End has heard proposals from religious groups in the past.
– Single-Family Homes/Estates: Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely due to the economics.
– Apartments/Condos: Developers have evaluated apartment projects.
– Other Non-Profit: Recovery housing, moderate income housing, …

Of that group, two stand out as likely candidates – a general school and apartments. All of the others seem to be various degrees of unlikely. And the majority of the potential uses would not bring the site onto the tax roles.


Apartments as the Most Likely Alternative use for the Site

We have heard that developers have considered the Hartford College for Women site for a residential community. The story was that they would have turned the historic buildings into apartments, with an eye on converting them into condominiums when the real estate market improved.

How would apartments compare to the CREC elementary school on the main issues?

Traffic: Worse. Apartments would be worse than the school since every resident would have a car and would presumably be driving during rush hour.

Lighting: Tie. Both an apartment community and a school need exterior lighting for safety.

Noise: Worse. Apartments would be worse than the school since people would be there 24-7 for all 12 months rather than 7 to 5 on weekdays for 10 months a year.

Historic Preservation: Tie. We’ll assume that both would restore the outsides and adapt the insides.

Property Values: Worse. Apartments would detract more from adjacent homes than a school. Apartments would steal renters from multi-family homes currently in the neighborhood, reducing their rental potential and decreasing their values.

Property Taxes: Better. Apartments would definitely pay more in property taxes than a school.

Educational Environment: Worse. Apartments would not address the lack of elementary school seats, and could potentially bring in more children to compete for existing seats.

Advocating for apartments seems like a good choice for residents who are concerned far more about tax revenue than anything else (Though one could argue that the tax revenue gained by the apartments would be offset by the tax revenue lost from other properties in the neighborhood). In every other category an apartment development on the site would be equal to, or worse than, the school under discussion.

We would support the Museum Academy over an apartment/condominium project, and believe opponents of the CREC proposal would too, if that was specifically identified as the decision. In fact, we believe the neighborhood would aggressively oppose an apartment community based on concerns about quality of life issues and potential impact on property values.


Decreasing Property Values

Both supporters and opponents argue that property values will be impacted, and both are correct. This is sort of our thing, as real estate agents, so we have a lot to say here. First, how will homes be negatively impacted?

After walking the site, and thinking about how the proposal would play out, we feel that only one home would see a meaningful decrease in value if the school is built. The impacted home is 222 Girard and its property backs to the main school building. The new facility would be highly visible, and because of existing features in the homeowner’s yard it would be difficult to add trees or other landscaping as a buffer.

We don’t believe the other properties adjacent to the site, or in the immediate vicinity, will be negatively impacted because their overall situation is unlikely to change. Most theoretical issues caused by the project would be unlikely to be noticed by potential home buyers. And it is home buyers who will determine if a home’s value has been hurt by the redevelopment.

For example, even if there is more traffic (and a traffic study done by CREC as part of their due diligence for Planning and Zoning says there will actually be less) that’s not something a home buyer is likely to identify and factor into their bid for a property. They won’t be able to see the incremental difference, and won’t have the basis for comparison that long-time residents have. So it won’t impact their property’s value.

There are eight single-family homes either adjacent to the site or across the street from the site. Here is how we think they will be impacted.

236 Girard: There is one other home on Girard that is adjacent to the site. The current owner bought it from the University of Hartford in 2007 during the initial stages of the HWC divestiture. Presumably the sale was a strong signal that changes were coming to the rest of the adjacent land. Setting aside that point, the private home was purchased when it was adjacent to a school, and it would continue to be adjacent to a school – so no change from a potential buyer’s point of view. CREC would rehabilitate the historic Babcock House building to the north, so it would look considerably better. The townhouses to the northeast would remain basically the same. The main difference would be a playground proposed for the space between 236 Girard and Babcock House. Another difference would be a large new building proposed to replace the large old building to the east. But in this case it may be possible for the homeowner to plant a landscape screen since that portion of the property is not currently in use, and is unlikely to be used.

1 Woodside, 5 Woodside, 1240 Asylum, 1246 Asylum: There are four homes on Asylum across the street from the school. All four were built or landscaped to minimize the impact of the road, which also minimizes the impact of the school. Their location on a busy street will be the dominating story line in their sale, much more so than the school across the street. CREC’s plan to rehabilitate the exterior of the mansions and remove the non-historic buildings would improve their view if owners or potential buyers chose to look across the street.

60 Elizabeth: There is one home on Elizabeth adjacent to the site. A historic building on the HCW site right next door to this property would be sold as a private residence if the CREC proposal moved forward. One would hope that the newly sold home would be renovated and the amount of asphalt in the back yard would be reduced, which would be both logical and positive. Additionally, the homeowner would no longer be the last home before the school, which would also be a positive. On the negative side, the main school building on the site would continue to be visible – though it would be brand new instead of run down.

70 Elizabeth, 80 Elizabeth: Finally, there are two homes on the same block of Elizabeth that are not adjacent to the HCW site. Both are penned in by other private homeowners. The CREC school will not be a major story line for potential buyers of either property. Buyers will be more focused on the parking lots at the UConn Law school across the street.

Those are our thoughts on the potential for negatively impacted home values. We believe that declines in home values come from potential buyers seeing a change in the property from before the propject and after the project. CREC’s proposal will hurt one home’s value, but not really have a meaningful impact on the other eight in the immediate vicinity.


Increasing Property Values

Home Prices West Hartford vs West EndSo how could property values be increased by adding a school to a neighborhood? A town’s educational system is one of the primary drivers of home prices. Buyers choose towns, and even neighborhoods within towns, based on the local schools. If the West End has a stronger education story to tell, then more buyers will consider the neighborhood, creating more demand, and increasing property values for everyone (even those nine homes noted above).

Consider the difference in prices between homes in the West End and homes near Elizabeth Park in West Hartford (bounded by Prospect, Boulevard, Quaker, and Albany). The areas were built in the same era and have a similar feel. We will focus on homes of more than 2,500 sqft and homes built before 1935 that have sold in the past 12 months. The price statistics and size statistics show far more similarities than differences.

However, we see that there is a meaningful difference in the sales price per square foot. West End homes that sold in the past year had a price per square foot of $110 while West Hartford homes had a price per square foot of $140. In fact, the most anyone was willing to pay in the West End on a price per square foot basis, $149/sqft, is barely more than the average that home buyers were willing to pay in West Hartford, $147/sqft.

Suppose the West End magically became part of West Hartford – what would happen to prices? They would go up, due in large part to the stronger reputation that West Hartford school have earned. Hopefully everyone can agree on that. We don’t know how much prices would go up due to schools, but it turns out that even the smallest increase has a large impact.

There are about 700 single family homes in the West End, which we know because we have counted. Suppose the average West End single-family is 3,000 sqft, which seems conservative to us. That means there is about 2,100,000 sqft of single-family homes in the West End. Therefore, every $1/sqft that home values increase is worth $2,100,000 in single-family market value on the Grand List.

Improving the education environment in the West End can have a strong positive impact on the values of everyone’s properties. Although this quick estimate only covers single-family homes, we would also expect to see an increase in value for condominimums, multi-family properties, and apartments buildings in the neighborhood, which would make the impact even greater.


Mutually Exclusive Concerns

The primary objections to the CREC proposal are often in conflict with each other. Is it even possible to satisfy them all simultaneously? Is there a hierarchy of importance among them?

Quality of life concerns seem to be in conflict with tax considerations. Taxable value is directly related to how intensively the site is developed and used. Within the City of Hartford, taxable value is also tied to the specific use. Commercial uses have a 70% assessment ratio, apartments a 50% assessment ratio, and single-family/condos a 29.2% assessment ratio. How does that fact play into preferred future uses for the site?

Historic preservation also conflicts with tax considerations. The requirement to preserve the historic buildings on the site strongly limits what a developer can do with the property. The existing buildings, the wetlands, and the historically significant landscaping makes it very difficult to add buildings to the site. Additionally, there is a limit at which historical restoration adds value (and therefore tax revenue) to a project.

Neighborhood property values are also in conflict with tax considerations. If the site is redeveloped in a way that will maximize value, and therefore tax revenue, then it’s far more likely to decrease the values of existing West End residences. Adding an apartment community will reduce the value of homes in the vicinity and will impact other rental property owners throughout the neighborhood. Adding a condo community will also reduce the value of homes in the vicinity and will hurt the value of condominiums in the adjacent Goodwin Estate and Allyn Estate communities.


The Importance of a Taxable Use

The common theme in the internal inconsistencies of the primary concerns to the CREC proposal is the desire to get the site back on the tax roles. It is possible to make the site taxable, most likely by adding apartments/condominiums, but at what cost? How much in City assistance will a developer receive to build on the site? How long would it take before a taxable use of the site generated positive cash flow for the City? What are the implications on the quality of life issues and on the neighborhood property values?

Although non-profits do not pay property taxes on their land, they do contribute to the community. In this case, CREC will:
A. Provide an attractive educational opportunity to West End children.
B. Rehabilitate and maintain a site that is in disrepair.
C. Utilize the site in a low-intensity way to minimize quality of life concerns.
D. Allow the West End to use their new facilities after hours.
E. Partner with the neighborhood and its institutions.

The focus on getting the site back on the tax roles seems short-sighted. It doesn’t consider the positives that the Museum Academy will bring, or the negatives that are likely outcomes of any taxable use for the land.


Other Thoughts

We can’t judge a proposal using the standard that “nobody can be hurt” in order for it to be acceptable. Someone will always be negatively impacted, whether that is financially or emotionally, by any proposal.

Last year there were 27 students who applied to Noah Webster via the lottery and were not offered a seat because the school was full. There is 1 private home that we believe will lose value because of the school. How do we compare the positively impacted with the negatively impacted?


What are your thoughts? Please feel free to share your opinions whether you agree or disagree with our position.

And even more importantly, plan to attend the WECA General Meeting on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012 at the United Methodist Church on the corner of South Whitney St and Farmington Ave. The program will begin at 7:00, and CREC is scheduled to present their proposal as the second item on the agenda.

5 thoughts on “A School in the West End: Our Conclusions

  1. There are few places in town where a museum school could be built across the street from a museum. With the Connecticut Historical Society at 1 Elizabeth Street, the HCW site is an absolutely fabulous location for the school.

  2. Just an aside that loosely relates to this series but could be a consideration.

    “Diocesan House” for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut stands on the opposite corner of Girard/Asylum from the HCW property. There have been rumblings in recent years – growing louder – that the overhead expense to maintain this property is too draining upon dwindling church funds. I would not be shocked if, before too long, the HQ relocates to cheaper, more traditional office space and the property is put on the market.

    If there is a compelling reason to somehow “connect” this lot to the HCW proposal, I would speculate that would push the Diocese “over the cliff” about selling.

  3. Thank you for the comments everyone, and please keep them coming.

    Interesting piece of information, John. Assessor records show 1335 Asylum at over 13,000 sqft, and that has been owned by the Diocese since at least 1952. It has a unique architectural look for the neighborhood, and still gives the appearance of a single-family home. I’ve always wanted to check that place out to see how much of the original architecture remains on the inside – it has a very stately appearance.

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