September 19, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:45 am

Blue Back's success secret | An old-style village repackaged as 'new urbanism'

West Hartford's Blue Back Square has achieved more in four short years than many mixed-used developments do, if ever, over decades.

All but a few slivers and units of its 660,000 square feet of commercial and housing space is occupied, space filled despite the worst recession in decades. Its offices, shops, restaurants and movie screens are magnets night and day, many of their visitors coming from outside the town. Its more than $3 million a year in property taxes has been a timely shield to local taxpayers.

The impending sale of one of Connecticut's best-known urban renewal projects will show its owners, among them Belgian realty magnate Ronald de Waal, precisely its cash value in the market, observers say. With a development price tag estimated at $200 million (there is no formal asking price), what it actually sells for — and who buys it — won't be known for weeks until offers are vetted beginning later this month.

No matter what price Blue Back brings, it has already proven its value in a more important way — that redevelopment done smartly and tastefully can be embraced, local officials and realty experts say. Still to be seen is the extent to which the Blue Back formula can be successfully duplicated in Connecticut and the nation, they say.

Blue Back may also offer a lesson to Front Street, downtown Hartford's vacant mixed-use development.

"We've become — I'm afraid to say it — a regional urban center,'' said West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle. "There's no question we're an urban center.''

Haddam architect-urban planner Patrick Pinnell is an outspoken proponent of the restoration of the village center-as-hub-of-economic-cultural life known as "new urbanism.'' Pinnell says Blue Back embodies the concept.

Often, Pinnell said, projects like Blue Back Square are seen as stand-alone developments to be plopped down, cookie-cutter style, onto a community. That, he said, is the fallacy Blue Back has successfully overcome.

"You have to think of them like fish in a fish bowl,'' says Pinnell. "It's the kind of water the fish are in that determines whether they survive or not.''

Indeed, Blue Back is a template for several other mixed-use projects: Storrs Center, a commercial-residential project under way adjacent to the University of Connecticut campus; the planned redevelopment of South Norwalk; and New Quincy Center, a $2 billion downtown redevelopment in Quincy, Mass., that involves a Blue Back co-developer.

Blue Back is less of a template for Great Pond Village, Windsor's proposed $750 million development from scratch to be anchored with 4,000 units of housing, says Massachusetts developer David Winstanley.

"Theirs is primarily retail with a little bit of residential,'' Winstanley said. "Ours is residential with a little bit of retail.''

Still, Winstanley, whose company owns or has developed commercial properties throughout Connecticut and New England, says the quality Blue Back exudes is noteworthy.

"I like the standard they've set and we'd like to maintain the same kind of standard,'' he said.

Intentional or not, Blue Back opened in time for the intersection of two of the most significant demographic age groups in the nation's history, Pinnell says. In 2014, two huge population groups undergoing a major shift in their long-term housing needs — "baby boomers'' and the age 20-29 cohort known as the millennial — will peak.

Both groups will drive demand for apartments and condominiums in the U.S. and in developments like Blue Back, experts say.

Blue Back represents another milestone in a nation that as recently as two centuries ago displayed its economic and cultural vitality vertically, observers say.

New York City in the 1820s was erecting three-story buildings, superseded by six-story buildings in the 1860s as it population swelled. By the 1950s, the U.S. had replaced its vertically stacked development model with a horizontal spread to the suburbs.

"The legacy of Blue Back Square for Connecticut and other places in Connecticut,'' Pennell said, "is that it reconnects with the older patterns of development and increased [population] size.''

West Hartford wanted to get the most from a few underachieving parcels adjacent to its already renowned Town Center, a cluster of shops and restaurants largely bounded by Farmington Avenue, North Main Street and La Salle Road.

A pair of old car dealerships, an American Legion hall, a condominium building, plus portions of the Town Hall complex anchored what is today's arguably the most recognized patch of commercial property in the town.

But more than just a suitable patch of real estate on which to build, the town offered developers another prize — good economic "bones,'' said Van Winkle, the town's economic development director at the time.

Among the "bones'' was the town's desirable demographic of well-paid executives and white- and blue-collar professionals, he said. It already had a thriving center, in which office and retail rents were climbing.

Attorney Garrett Delehanty moved with his commercial realty-litigation law from across Main Street in West Hartford Center into much larger quarters in Blue Back in mid-2008.

"It's an attractive, comfortable streetscape,'' said Delehanty, a Simsbury resident and partner in Kroll, McNamara, Evans & Delehanty LLP. "The ambience is very nice.''

Together with West Hartford's reputation for rising housing values tied to good schools, relatively low crime and proximity to employment centers like Hartford and New Haven, Blue Back Square was in a position to succeed from the start.

"People were saying within a week of its opening, 'It's like it's always been there','' recalls West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka, who was deputy when Blue Back first emerged.

Slifka says he subscribes to "new urbanism,'' but adds that doesn't mean every such project will work.

"You have to treat it as a neighborhood,'' he said.

He cites Hartford's ill-fated downtown urban renewal in the 1960s as an example of what not to do.

"Constitution Plaza's legacy blew apart an entire neighborhood and replaced it with concrete and glass,'' Slifka said.

Rather than the notion on which Constitution Plaza rested that if "you build it they will come,'' Blue Back developers' tough sell was that they were building to an existing market, Slifka said.

"When you say 'new urbanism,' 'density,' people get nervous,'' said broker Tom York, assigned to fill space in Blue Back. "I think the formula has been proven.''

But some communities are struggling to embrace it, like the still-born River Oaks mixed-use development to Simsbury.

The project got mired, observers say, in the usual "not in my backyard'' turf squabbles.

"I have never seen resistance to change as strong as it is in Connecticut and New England,'' said Michael Goman, York's realty partner who was involved with River Oaks.

Caught in the balance anytime a project like Blue Back comes along is the community's resistance to change and its lack of vision of what the project can do for it, he said.

Blue Back's success, he says, evens the scales for similar projects down the road.

With Blue Back, as with most everything in real estate, timing is important. The development officially opened in November 2007, a month ahead of the economic peak and a year before the near financial meltdown in October 2008.

That means almost all of Blue Back's operating life has occurred amid the sweeping recession. But it could have been worse, officials say.

"We would not be the center of attraction that we've become,'' said Rob Rowlson, West Hartford's director of community services. "Even in recession it's been successful.''

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