August 22, 2016

Downtown New Britain's transit-oriented makeover takes off

HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
New Britain Herald's former home is among several downtown redevelopments.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Hartford nonprofit Chrysalis Center Inc. plans to renovate this vacant Court Street apartment building.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
Avner Krohn is retail landlord of these spaces along West Main Street.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
The Hatch Building.
HBJ PHOTO | Gregory Seay
The former police station site will house the $58 million Columbus Commons residential-commercial development.

Establishing Connecticut's transportation infrastructure hasn't always worked out well for the city of New Britain.

Opening of highways Route 9/Route 72 in the late 70s, early 80s obliterated many older buildings and homes and bifurcated New Britain in a way that "blew the heart out of downtown," its sitting mayor says.

But decades later, the opening of the 9.5-mile CTfastrak busway corridor, that makes it about a 15-minute bus ride from its central hub into downtown Hartford, has created an expressway for millions of dollars in public and private investment to flow into redeveloping the Hardware City's downtown.

William Carroll, business development coordinator for the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, says total investment in rehabilitating various downtown buildings, including creating a new home for a dialysis-treatment clinic, beautification infrastructure and other pending projects, will approach $100 million within the next five years.

"We haven't seen growth like this since probably before my parents were born,'' said Mayor Erin Stewart, scion of ex-Mayor Timothy Stewart.

Indeed, since CTfastrak debuted its downtown New Britain terminal in March 2015, at least a half dozen redevelopment projects have been announced or completed in downtown. The city, too, is working through a multi-phase, master-planned scheme to improve its streetscapes and other infrastructure.

"People want to invest in cities that are investing in themselves. And we're certainly doing that,'' Erin Stewart said.

That's exactly what the state envisioned from the publicly funded $567 million busway, said state Department of Transportation Commissioner James P. Redeker, a staunch advocate of transit-oriented development.

"When you get economic development that's driven by the private sector, that's a real win,'' Redeker said.

The newest private redevelopment downtown is 1 Herald Square, the New Britain Herald's former home, set for formal dedication in a few weeks. The reconstituted property, blocks from the city's new police station, houses a soon-to-open dialysis-treatment center in about a third of its 31,000 square feet.

The city has also chosen a New York City developer to convert its former police station site on Columbus Boulevard into a $58 million mixed-use development, Columbus Commons. On top of that, New Britain has found buyers for a pair of vacant, blighted buildings that will be restored as apartments and office space.

Cromwell investor William Coons Jr. says New Britain's eagerness to remake and revitalize its central core, plus the location of the CTfastrak terminal, drew him and his company, Opportunity Real Estate Equities (OREE), to the city. OREE owns and redeveloped the 1 Herald Square property.

"We feel New Britain is a city that recognizes that development is good for their city,'' Coons said.

The city-OREE relationship blossomed such that, even before the 1 Herald Square conversion was complete, OREE inquired about other city properties available for redevelopment.

Just so happens, the city had two, Carroll said. OREE agreed to pay the city $25,000 for one, a dilapidated structure known as The Hatch Building on Washington Street. The new owner's plan is to remediate the former insurance-company and chamber of commerce office building into retail and office space.

"The interest is a true display,'' said Carroll, "of New Britain being proactive in working with our developers by providing seamless continuity in moving these projects forward. Our end result being enhancing our tax base, providing jobs, residences and beautification.''

Hartford nonprofit Chrysalis Center Inc. is buying another of the city's derelict properties, a vacant apartment building on Court Street, just blocks from the CTfastrak terminal, which it will rehabilitate into 24 units of market-rating housing — four reserved for veterans — called Courtland Arms.

Chrysalis will pay $48,000 for the building and buy a vacant lot next door for parking — a relative bargain considering the building is full of mold, asbestos and lead paint that will cost thousands more to abate, said Chrysalis CEO Sharon Castelli.

Still, the site fits Chrysalis' mission of social services and affordable housing, Castelli said.

"We love the idea that it's downtown, on the new busway,'' she said. "It will allow individuals and families that live there to get into Hartford to work, or to other places along the [busway route]."

More downtown development is coming. In July, the city chose developer POKO Inc. to reimagine its former downtown police station site into 168 apartments and retail and office space at Columbus Commons.

"It's a downtown, walkable lifestyle for the project that we're proposing,'' said POKO Managing Director Andrea Kretchmer.

New Britain's bid invitation to developers was key to POKO's involvement, she said.

"That means they're welcoming development," Kretchmer said. "It's not our focus to try to convince cities about something they need.''

Feet on the street

New Britain, with its mayor leading the charge, has clearly signaled its willingness to accommodate development, developers say. They say they have regular contact with either Erin Stewart or her chief of staff, along with key officials in the city's planning and zoning and building departments.

Stewart said the "end game'' for the city's redevelopment blueprint is to add to and expand the overall value of its real estate grand list in order to spread and minimize the tax burden on local property owners. After avoiding a tax hike a year earlier, New Britain was forced to raise this year's mill rate due to state cuts in municipal aid and smaller collections in lieu of taxes on properties the state owns in New Britain, Stewart said.

But amid all the new and planned construction and renovation, New Britain faces another, perhaps even bigger challenge, said Carroll, the chamber official.

"Downtown needs feet on the street," he said.

This summer, Carroll and Stewart say they've noticed more people congregating in the city's revamped former town green. Brick pavers and bright plantings now frame the area, where most days downtown visitors can ply any of several parked food trucks. A farmer's market occupies the same green space other days, Carroll said. The presence of Central Connecticut State University's (CCSU) downtown campus on Main Street has helped boost downtown's pedestrian traffic.

The pair of highways linking New Britain to all four corners of the state potentially now are gateways to bring visitors, tourists and workers into the Hardware City, Carroll said.

New Britain's existing downtown landlords welcome the fresh players. New York developer Avner Krohn says that in the last decade he has purchased and overhauled five properties totaling about 110,000 square feet of housing, office and retail space — an investment totaling $9 million to $10 million.

His latest underway is the conversion by fall of a former Taco Bell into an AFC/Doctors Express clinic. Next spring, Krohn breaks ground in the city on a medical-office building.

"I look at downtown [New Britain] as a unique version of what Middletown was 10 years ago,'' Krohn said. Empty storefronts that once lined Middletown's Main Street corridor are now filled, mostly with restaurants, and anchored by the police station, he said.

New Britain's transition mirrors Middletown's in that it began with the relocation of the police station to a more visible stretch of Main Street downtown. Like Middletown, New Britain, too, is home to a college — CCSU — that each semester draws about 200 pupils, faculty and staff daily to its satellite Main Street campus.

Through a spokeswoman, CCSU says it supports redevelopment of downtown New Britain and continues to consider options for expanding its presence there. In the past three years, CCSU says it has relocated about a dozen entities — including internal auditing, continuing education and the CCSU Foundation — from its main campus to space it owns and rents downtown.

According to Ian Fishkin, in-house general counsel to New York developer Henry Justin, who owns The Plaza office tower (formerly ACMAT Plaza), 233-235 Main St. downtown, the landlord has pressed CCSU to relocate its art department to his building.

"They think it's a great idea,'' Fishkin said. "But like everything with the state, it's a process. They understand the need for people downtown.''

Downtown New Britain's nascent transition, he said, is akin to the evolution that took root, also led by the arts community, in New York City's Manhattan-Soho and Brooklyn-Williamsburg neighborhoods decades ago.

"Without people on the streets, it's all for naught," Fishkin said. "We want people. We want corporations. … There's no reason downtown can't be great again, especially with CTfastrak.''

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