December 15, 2014

Spec Route: Busway seen as ticket to realty development spurt

HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Randal P. Davis, right, the state transportation agency’s CTfastrak project liaison, flanked by the New Britain station. Above, a former West Hartford auto dealership in the busway’s shadow is prime for redevelopment.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
In West Hartford, the former Faxon Engineering site at Flatbush and New Park avenues, top, is proposed to give way to a Cumberland Farms convenience store-gas station. Farther down New Park, the former Pontiac Center dealership, above, also has drawn redevelopment interest.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles

In barely four more months, thousands of daily commuters will start riding the 9.4-mile CTfastrak busway linking the downtowns of Hartford and New Britain, with eight stops in between.

With seven-day-a-week runs set to start March 28, landowners and developers already are lining up to have their tickets punched for what is shaping up as the biggest spurt of transit-oriented property development ever witnessed in Connecticut, authorities say.

In talks with area commercial realty brokers, landlords and state-transit and municipal land-planning officials, The Hartford Business Journal has identified at least a half dozen actual or planned residential-and commercial developments situated within a mile or closer to the 10 stations on the $570 million busway. Another half dozen, including acreage along Flatbush Avenue, opposite the Charter Oak Marketplace shopping center, are also said to be under consideration for development, brokers say.

Projects range from the conversion of upper-story office space in a downtown New Britain building to a convenience store/gas station at the junction of Flatbush and New Park avenues in West Hartford. In West Hartford, a defunct Pontiac dealership on New Park Avenue, in the shadow of CTfastrak's New Britain Avenue station, recently went under contract to the West Hartford Housing Authority, for a housing-retail development, the town manager says.

Cumberland Farms confirms that it chose the Hartford/West Hartford gateway for its proposed retail/gas station because CTfastrak's Flatbush station is directly across the street.

Although not exactly a land rush, it's the kind of development activity that is precisely what state transportation authorities and others say they expect the busway to spur, although some say it will take time.

"The areas around the 10 CTfastrak stations are already seeing increased interest and investment,'' said Randal P. Davis, special assistant to the state transportation commissioner and the busway project liaison with communities and their leaders. "There have been brownfield remediation grants awarded, and improvements to potential investment properties."

The state has about $4 million available to provide technical assistance to communities eager for transit-oriented development.

Moreover, the Hartford region's potential for transit-oriented development is heightened by plans to expand passenger-rail service between Hartford and New Haven from six to 17 daily roundtrips and up to 12 roundtrips between Hartford and Springfield. Berlin, Enfield, Meriden, Newington, Windsor, Windsor Locks are among communities that have or will have rail stops along the route.

In Berlin, $3.3 million construction has resumed on unfinished Depot Crossing, a three-story, 24,000-square-foot building across from the train station that will have offices and retail on its lower level and apartments above.

In Windsor Locks, the town in early December bought the former Amtrak train station building in the center of town for conversion of future redevelopment. Indeed, CTfastrak is more than just a commuter link between two urban centers, observers say.

Take downtown New Britain, for instance. As the busway's main terminus, several buildings are undergoing transformation. New York landlord Avner Krohn is nearly done converting the upper floors of his Rao Building, 160 Main St., into five apartments. Krohn says he is considering a similar conversion for another downtown building he owns.

"The 'fastrak is a conduit for federal and state grants that will make the downtown and the areas around the downtown walkable,'' Krohn said, adding he bought his second New Britain building with transit-oriented redevelopment in mind.

"We anticipate more students moving downtown and living downtown and playing downtown to regentrify downtown,'' he said.

Former New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart, now president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, said Central Connecticut State University stands as possibly a major beneficiary from the busway link to its downtown campus. CCSU also owns 100 acres off Cedar Street for future campus-related development. Through a spokeswoman, CCSU said it has no immediate plans to develop the site.

Also, the Hardware City's vacant downtown buildings, such as the old Burritt Bank building on Main Street and the former city police station on Columbus Boulevard, too, are ripe targets for redevelopment into housing and commercial space, Stewart said.

"It really just takes somebody with a vision and deep pockets to come in there,'' Stewart said.

Cleveland’s experience

Six years ago in Ohio, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) launched a 7.1-mile busway, linking that city's downtown to its suburbs. A senior transit official there says ridership is up to 16,000 daily vs. 9,000 previously, but more than that, over $6 billion in construction and other realty development has occurred along the route since it opened.

"That's way more than what we would have expected,'' said Mike Schipper, GCRTA's deputy general manager for engineering and project management. "There's something of everything out there.''

It runs the gamut, Schipper said, from local hospitals and colleges investing in new and renovated facilities to private investment in clean and tech lab spaces to townhouses and apartments. In downtown Cleveland, "old and tired" multi-story buildings are undergoing adaptive reuse, akin to downtown Hartford's conversion of its older structures into housing.

Meantime, excitement over the busway's commercial prospects in Greater Hartford is building among neighboring merchants and businesses in communities it bisects.

Barbara Lerner, executive director of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, said the New Britain Avenue station and streetcape improvements, where it sits at the corner of New Park Avenue, were main topics at a recent breakfast meeting of local merchants.

"Imagine living in an apartment right next to the busway if you don't have a car?'' Lerner said.

Stop & Shop has three supermarkets in the busway's shadow, two of which are within stone's throw of the Kane Street and Fenn Road/Newington stops.

Brooklyn, N.Y., realty investor-developer Yisroel Rabinowitz who is buying and redeveloping properties in downtown and suburban Hartford, says a local realty broker pitched him recently about a Hartford site close to the busway that he says could be suitable for low-income housing.

"I'm just starting to explore that now,'' he said.

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