November 21, 2016

Bloomfield's development spurt tinged with housing

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Bloomfield Town Planner Jose Giner at the site of a 215-unit luxury apartment community rising at 700 Bloomfield Ave., in the shadow of Town Hall.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Two of Bloomfield’s newest apartment communities — Mallory Ridge and The Hawthorne At Gillette Ridge — face fresh competition, says Town Planner Jose Giner.
Mallory Ridge
The Hawthorne At Gillette Ridge

Bloomfield is in the midst of its biggest commercial-residential development surge in nearly a generation.

This year alone, Hartford's abutting neighbor has seen developers declare their intent to erect more than 500 luxury and age-restricted apartments over the next few years.

In October, the 132-luxury unit Arbors At Brighton Park opened off Woodland Avenue; a second phase launches soon that will add 60 adjacent luxury townhomes in this town of some 20,500 residents.

Also off Woodland Avenue, Niagara Bottling's controversial bottled-water plant is near opening, employing dozens. And, specialty-alloy and precision-parts maker Deringer-Ney Inc. is about to occupy a newly built manufacturing-headquarters facility off Woodland, replacing its long-time, crosstown leased home sandwiched between Cottage Grove Road and Blue Hills Avenue.

The local McDonald's in Copaco Shopping Center recently reopened after an extensive facelift, while just up Cottage Grove Road, the Wendy's restaurant is shut for renovations.

Seabury Home retirement community is undergoing a major expansion for which earlier this year it bonded up to $80 million to add new independent- and assisted-living units, skilled-nursing beds and an expanded memory-care unit.

Two years ago, another in-town retirement community, Duncaster, launched its $10 million expansion.

That's not all. New Jersey developer Calamar has submitted plans for a 138-unit apartment community for tenants age 55 and older at 1136 Blue Hills Ave., in the shadow of First Cathedral. Building cost is pegged between $14 million and $18 million.

Those are just the tip of Bloomfield's development iceberg, with the town due to launch in 2017 nearly $34 million in taxpayer-approved building projects.

Bloomfield Planning Director Jose Giner said the town hired two more building officials this year to keep up with land-use applications. The town generates revenue from building permits and other fees, plus recurring annual income from taxes on the developments.

Just a few months into its 2016-2017 fiscal year, Bloomfield already has doubled the $300,000 in permit fees it budgeted to collect over 12 months, Giner said. A year earlier, the town also surpassed its permit-fees forecast.

"We permitted $171 million worth of construction just in the last fiscal year,'' Giner said. "That doesn't include the apartments behind Town Hall. That was more than the last six years combined.''

Behind Town Hall, a half-dozen single-family houses on six acres between Bloomfield and Jerome avenues were razed and ground broken in August for a 215-unit luxury apartment community presently known as 700 Bloomfield Ave.

Citizens Bank recently issued a $33.75 million construction loan for the project to Fairfield developer Post Road Residential and partner Carlyle Realty Partners VII L.P. When ready for occupancy by early 2018, rents for one-, two-, and three-bedroom units will average about 900 square feet and rent for $1,400 monthly.

Meantime, First Cathedral, one of the region's largest African-American churches, is pursuing a development of its own — 60 units of senior housing near the intersection of Blue Hills Avenue and Cottage Grove Road.

Favorable land-use

Bloomfield, through Sept. 30, leads surveyed Connecticut cities and towns in housing permits, mostly for apartments, with 403 issued vs. 14 granted from January to September 2015, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development. Fairfield is the next closest, with 227 permits issued in the first nine months of this year, followed by Simsbury, with 224.

Bloomfield's current property tax rate of 36.65 mills, or $36.65 for every $1,000 of assessed value, compares favorably to neighboring communities, such as West Hartford's 39.51 mills, Simsbury's 37.12 mills, and Windsor's 31.52 mills. Bloomfield, Simsbury and Windsor also have separate fire-district tax assessments.

Griffin Industrial LLC, a major commercial landlord with buildings and undeveloped acreage in Bloomfield, singled out the town's transparent land-use review process and sound economic-development blueprint as contributors to its development explosion.

"Commercial users need certainty with respect to [land-use policies] in order to select a site, as their decision directs millions of dollars of their capital going forward,'' said Griffin Industrial Senior Vice President Tim Lescalleet. "Therefore, they need to have confidence in the municipality where the site is located."

George Hermann, president of Windsor Federal Savings, which has branches in the town, said Bloomfield has several things going for it right now.

"Bloomfield is a fair, easy and reasonable place to do business,'' Hermann said. "Bloomfield taxes are fair. We have a much improved school system that has developed a strong reputation. Commercial developers recognize this, and they find that the permitting process is straightforward."

Challenges do exist

Not all is rosy. Ace Hardware, in the Amazing Plaza on Park Avenue, is shutting doors after 18 months, citing weak sales traffic. The store is less than 5 miles from The Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement center, both in the heavily-trafficked Cottage Grove Road commercial corridor.

Landlord Matthew Levy, owner of Amazing and its companion Northeast Plaza, located about two blocks away on Park Avenue, declined to talk about Ace's exit. But he welcomed the prospect of more residents in town.

"Happy to see it,'' Levy said. "It's good for all the businesses.''

Farther along Park Avenue, in the town's center, the Wintonbury Mall, which several years ago landed in foreclosure, still has empty retail spaces adjacent to a handful of restaurants, shops and a movie theater.

The mall, home to Carbone's Kitchen, which is preparing to open a second location in Rocky Hill, and the town green are within walking distance of the apartments going up on Bloomfield/Jerome avenues.

Town Manager Philip Schenck said the mall, an anchor in downtown Bloomfield, has a new owner who has stabilized it. An urgent-care facility will soon occupy space there.

The risk also exists that Bloomfield will wind up overbuilt with apartments. Before this latest round of development, the town's youngest apartment communities were the 78-unit Mallory Ridge that opened in 2014, and 246-unit The Hawthorne At Gillette Ridge, that bowed in 2004, next door to Cigna's corporate campus.

The town also is home to The 600, a 161-unit '70s-era luxury apartment community at 600 Cottage Grove Road, that for many years housed young executives/professionals working for Cigna predecessor, Connecticut General Insurance Co. and Aetna. Today, The 600's tenants include a number of students attending nearby University of Hartford and University of St. Joseph.

Bloomfield has benefitted, Schenck said, from both good planning and good timing with the economy. The town, too, has offered property-tax abatements in some cases to promote development, he said.

"The town has reached a point where people recognize the values in Bloomfield,'' Schenck said.

Residents have approved, he said, an $11.6 million renovation-expansion of the town's public works garage, and a $22.3 million replacement of its human-services center housed in a former junior high school on Park Avenue. Work on both will begin next summer, Schenck said.

Repaving, too, is set to start next year, he said, on Woodland Avenue, a heavily-traveled east-west connector between Wintonbury Avenue and Blue Hills Avenue Extension. The town also has collected some $2 million in state/federal grants to begin work next spring on a leg of the East Coast Greenway, stretching from Tariffville Road to Day Hill Road.

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