January 7, 2008 | last updated May 26, 2012 3:01 am
BLIGHT-LESS

New York-Style Lofts Planned For Asylum Hill | Developer to convert abandoned organ factory into condos

The old Austin Organ Factory building at 158 Woodland St. had been vacant for five years and was degenerating. Riddled with asbestos and lead paint, it was just another symbol of blight in the Asylum Hill neighborhood.

But when Peter Marsele saw the abandoned building and its 'for sale' sign out front, he saw potential — for New York City-styled loft condominiums.

Thanks to the help from a partner in Phoenix, Ariz., the three-story structure built in 1890 is slated for renovation.

Marsele and his partner, Todd Talbot, bought the property in June for about $700,000. At 24 years old, Marsele needed Talbot's financing to make the project happen. It will be Marsele's first entrance into the development market, and Talbot, who is related to Marsele through marriage, is fairly green as well.

"The core of my business has been single-family residential," said Talbot. "I wanted to get my feet wet with [small-scale development] first."

The developers have successfully carried the project through the city's zoning approval process and are now wading through the site plan approval process.

Plans call for renovation of the 73,000 square-foot former factory into 28 two-bedroom, two-bath condominiums that should bring the prospect of homeownership to the ailing area.

The asking price per unit at the new Woodland Lofts development will range between $250,000 and $300,000.

Few Objections

So far, the city has a few objections. Its main concern is the fact that the proposed units would have two bedrooms. Too much space might tempt families to move in, and the city does not want families settling in an area with virtually no green space and tons of traffic, according to Marsele.

But he is prepared to fight for the second bedrooms and is convening an informal meeting to talk it out with officials.

The Asylum Hill NRZ (neighborhood revitalization zone) also supports the prevalence of two-bedroom units.

"In this neighborhood," said Bernie Michaels, chair of the Asylum Hill NRZ. "We have way more one-bedrooms than we need, and unfortunately, many of them are occupied by families."

Plus, Michaels said, two bedrooms could enhance the lofts' appeal to its targeted demographic: mostly young professionals, ages 25 to 35, who work in the downtown Hartford insurance and medical industries.

Balancing Act

"In terms of what we're really looking to promote in Asylum Hill, one of the things that pops up on our list is diversity," explained Michaels, referring to the kind of housing that would attract middle-class residents. "We have too much property dedicated to supportive housing, rehabilitative housing, low-income housing."

Michaels doesn't want to see the area gentrified and low-income families priced out, but he believes a balance of varied income levels is better for the neighborhood.

Along with the development of the new University of Hartford Performing Arts Center down the road, he sees the addition of Woodland Lofts as a strong move in the right direction.

Saint Francis is footsteps away, as are several of the city's insurance hubs. Plus, the University of Hartford, Trinity College, University of Connecticut Law School and St. Joseph's College are all within a two-mile radius of the soon-to-be Woodland Lofts.

Another perk for young homebuyers is the potential for tax deferments. Because the factory is both historic (thanks to an October designation) and blighted, it is eligible for the city's assessment deferral program. Marsele has applied for the deferral and is awaiting approval. The city program would essentially reduce the homebuyers' tax bills to a nominal amount.

"That'll be huge," said Marsele. With tax breaks, plus the units' granite countertops, hardwood floors and chic loft style, "they'll sell themselves."

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