October 19, 2015

West Hartford's latest building boom leads to new offices, apartments

HBJ PHOTOs | Gregory Seay
HBJ PHOTOs | Gregory Seay
(Above) New apartments at 24 N. Main St. in West Hartford. (Left) 15 N. Main St. in West Hartford.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Foundation work is underway for the Delamar West Hartford Hotel, opposite Whole Foods and the town police station.

West Hartford Center just got denser.

A pair of North Main Street developments — an 18-unit apartment building and a 16,800-square-foot office building, both in the shadow of Blue Back Square — are proving their promoters and the town justified in proceeding with their multimillion-dollar investments.

Developer Niko Koutouvides has signed leases for half the $2,000- to $3,000-a-month units in his apartment building at 24 N. Main St., but so far only four or five units are occupied.

Diagonally across the street, landlord David Sessions and his realty partners have filled all but 800 square feet on the ground floor of their new office building at 15 N. Main that opened earlier in the month. Major tenants Janney Montgomery Scott Securities and temp office-space provider Regus are West Hartford newcomers.

Just down North Main, the Kaoud family is converting the former Masonic lodge into street-level retail topped with 24 apartments. On the edge of Blue Back Square, across from Whole Foods, work is underway on the Delamar West Hartford luxury hotel.

In the town's Bishops Corner neighborhood, the former Haven Health Care nursing home is being converted into 64 apartments. On North Main, in an existing apartment property across from Big Y Supermarket, a developer is adding more units. On Steele Road, a 150-unit luxury apartment community is rising.

All of these developments, plus a handful of others outside the center but equally important to the town's culture and economy, "are indicative that West Hartford attracts high-quality development and people want to live here,'' said Mark McGovern, West Hartford's director of community services.

West Hartford's building boom is courtesy of a rebounding local, state and national economy, plus the spillover benefit of an exploding healthcare sector that is generating expansion at the UConn Health Center, and that brought Jackson Laboratory and hundreds of new jobs to Farmington. Workers at those venues have sought shelter in West Hartford, as well as neighboring communities like Bristol and New Britain.

But to Dan Matos, master developer of East Hartford's Rentschler Field and a partner in the Delamar hotel project, topping all of West Hartford's attributes is stable leadership.

"They're a town that's blessed with good governance,'' said Matos, who is a resident. Its current mayor has served the longest in its history, Matos said, while its town manager is a long-time town employee and resident.

"To a developer like us," Matos said, "that's a crucial element of future stability.''

New Britain-born Koutouvides, who spent the last few of his nine years in the National Football League as a linebacker with the New England Patriots, said he and his partner-brother were drawn to West Hartford's wealthy demographics, which he says can sustain a quality development like 24 N. Main.

Rents are $1,999 for the apartment's 11 one-bedroom units and $2,999 for its seven two-bedrooms. All units have 10-foot ceilings, bamboo-wood floors, walkout balconies or patios, and access to indoor parking, among other amenities. His one-bedrooms are most in demand, Koutouvides said.

A man on the premises recently told Koutouvides that he had just leased one of the units so he could relocate his mother from Rhode Island, to be nearer to the man's family.

"We're seeing a lot of people setting up their lease, but not moving in right away,'' he said. Some are waiting to sell a home. Others, he said, are in no hurry but wanted to act now to preserve a space for themselves in the building.

"We kind of designed this building for young professionals,'' Koutouvides said. "We bring an urbanized, new kind of product. There's nothing that's really contemporary here. I think it fits well with the center."

Even the Kaoud apartment building underway just three blocks east, on North Main, doesn't faze Koutouvides. He says he recently met with Abraham "Abe'' Kaoud and offered him construction and other advice to help with his residential project.

"We're just as happy for him or the next guy,'' Koutouvides said. "We want everybody to succeed.''

Healthcare boom

Sessions harbors similar sentiments about his office building. Compared to the 50,000 square feet and larger medical-office buildings that dominate Casle's development backlog nowadays, his North Main Street office building is small.

But its compactness and amenities, even its tenant base, are ideally suited to the West Hartford market, Sessions says.

"A very prominent site in this market. Walking distance to shops,'' he said. It also comes with one other much-in-demand suburban-office amenity — free parking.

Regus, for instance, caters to entrepreneurs, traveling professionals and companies looking for a temporary, affordable office outpost. It occupies around one and a half of 15 N. Main's three floors, he said.

About 40 percent of the building, he said, was pre-leased before construction got underway. Collecting tenant commitments in advance also helped with financing, which was done through Berkshire Bank.

"We've hit our projections,'' Sessions said.

Common design

Despite being newly constructed, both 24 N. Main and 15 N. Main share some design elements for which the developers won town approval to incorporate into their projects, to give both a sense of continuity with the surrounding neighborhood.

Both are sheathed in red brick and feature light-hued masonry elements that match almost identically with surrounding brick structures dating back a half-century or longer.

With 15 N. Main, the "contextual design'' that a Casle architect incorporated dovetailed with the town's insistence that it convey an "urbanist feel.'' The result was a building that sits closer to the curb than most suburban buildings, Sessions said.

It also presented the developer with some interesting challenges. First, there was the unexpected rock, or ledge, that the contractor found. Also, there was the obstacle of building next door to the older pair that it replaced, but keeping the older structures occupied until the very last minute.

"This was,'' Sessions said, "the most difficult logistical project we've ever done.''

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