December 11, 2017
Redeveloping DoNo

Bidders, vision emerge for development around Dunkin' Donuts Park

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
Downtown Hartford's minor-league ballpark is flanked by underdeveloped parcels the city owns and has re-offered for commercial development. At least two potential bidders have emerged so far to succeed Centerplan Construction of Middletown, which lost its development rights following its stadium construction debacle.

The New York landlord of downtown Hartford's Stilts Building and 100 Pearl Street office skyscrapers wants to reinvigorate "desert" acreage around Dunkin' Donuts Park into a viable commercial mixed-use development.

Principals with Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC confirmed they are planning to take a run at redeveloping some 20 acres of city-owned land, grouped into four parcels now used for commuter and stadium parking, into apartments, retail — including possibly a supermarket — and other amenities.

Also considering a redevelopment proposal is Florida hotel owner/operator Inner Circle, owner of downtown Hartford's 18-story, 350-room Radisson Hotel, 50 Morgan St., overlooking Dunkin' Donuts Park, according to Inner Circle advisor and board member Mark Hall. Inner Circle has been working to convert 200 rooms in the hotel to 96 apartments, but has hit some construction setbacks. It hopes to finish that project early next year.

Shelbourne and Inner Circle are among eager bidders interested in redeveloping the Downtown North, or "DoNo," parcels after the city in October fired Centerplan Construction Co. of Middletown and its DoNo Inc. affiliate as developers. The city recently issued a new request for proposals for the project and is hosting a question/answer session for interested developers Dec. 14. Final DoNo bids are due in Feb. 2018.

Centerplan garnered the city's ire after it fell behind on construction of Dunkin' Donuts Park, which anchors the DoNo parcels. Principal Robert Landino and partners were originally chosen for both projects by the Segarra administration after wowing the city with their vision of office, retail, more parking, apartments and condos. Later, Landino announced plans for a Hard Rock Hotel in DoNo.

Centerplan was also fired from the ballpark project and sued the city for wrongful termination. The legal dispute remains ongoing.

Meantime, the city is eager to get DoNo development moving because repayment of millions borrowed to build the stadium hinges not only on rent the ballclub pays but also on the collection of property taxes from DoNo buildings and parking revenue from visitors to the development. According to the city, annual debt payments alone on the ballpark debt runs about $4.6 million.

The 6,000-seat stadium's first-year success in attendance and glowing reviews for its design is seen by some as a promising omen for DoNo's eventual transformation.

"What's happened over there with the ballpark has been great," said Jim Lewis, owner of Harvey & Lewis Opticians, a long-time downtown retail fixture. "To keep building on that is terrific."

Yard Goats owner Josh Solomon said the ballpark proves that "if you build a quality product, the right product for this market, people will come."

Ahead of the city's Dec. 14 question/answer meeting, the Hartford Business Journal sampled some of the city's downtown landlords and other neighborhood stakeholders about their interest in the project and wish-lists of DoNo amenities.

Shelbourne and Inner Circle are the only potential DoNo bidders HBJ has identified. Some other landlords and developers said they had no interest in redeveloping DoNo or didn't return calls seeking comment.

Shelbourne officials say they are assembling a "world class" team to bid on DoNo. They say the downtown relocation of UConn's suburban campus, plus demand for downtown housing signals "that the city is on the verge of a breakout."

"It is true that the budget debacle, out of control property taxes and the threat of bankruptcy created a hostile atmosphere for investors, but Shelbourne is and will continue to invest in Hartford," Principal Bernard Bertram said via email.

New York City-based Shelbourne, whose 20 Church St. property also houses its Upward Hartford co-working spaces, did not elaborate as to its specific vision for DoNo. However, officials say that in 2018, Shelbourne intends to demolish and rebuild the parking garage at Main and Talcott streets that LAZ Parking owns.

Developers' options

The DoNo redevelopment area consists of 32 properties that fall within four distinct clusters, three of which overlook the ballpark. A fourth parcel is adjacent to the city's new public safety complex, a 150,000-square foot building located on a 5.7-acre site that houses Hartford's police, fire, and first responder dispatch operations.

Developers can propose to purchase the land or do a ground lease. They can redevelop parcels individually or in any combination, according to the RFP.

The city hopes to receive a plan for a mixed-use urban neighborhood that reestablishes essential connections between Hartford's north side neighborhoods and downtown.

Despite the stadium's inaugural success, Solomon, who besides being a team owner is president and chief investment officer of a Massachusetts realty company — DSF Group — that has invested more than $2.5 billion in properties, says he has no plans to pursue development of DoNo.

"Hartford is much better served with me as the owner of the baseball team," he said.

However, Solomon and others had some ideas of what they would like to see — or not — DoNo transformed into.

Top of the list, of course, was a desire for a full-size supermarket, more retail products and services vendors, apartments, and additional dining, cultural and entertainment attractions.

"I'd love to see more of what Hartford already offers in terms of a vibrant mix of living, working and cultural venues," said 777 Main apartment tower landlord Bruce Becker.

Downtown streetscape improvements the city completed just as the ballpark opened last April have benefitted pedestrians and motorists, but more can be done to connect downtown's hub to the ballpark and DoNo, Becker said.

Eco-friendly, or "green," enterprises housed in DoNo would be a welcome addition to the center city, he said. One example, he said, is an urban garden whose crops could be harvested by paid staffers and sold/distributed to needy pockets of the city.

Another idea favored by Becker, who drives an all-electric Tesla automobile and is a member of the Westport Electric Car Club, is to house a Tesla service center in DoNo. Recently, state lawmakers rejected Tesla's pitch of $14 million in direct investment in the state if it were allowed to bypass dealers and sell direct to consumers.

"Couldn't the state use that $14 million in their budget?" Becker said.

Albany Avenue impact

Envisioned as a "gateway" to the city's North End, others say a fully developed DoNo would have immediate and lasting benefits not only to residents but to businesses housed along the Albany Avenue corridor that stretches to West Hartford.

Marilyn Risi, executive director of Upper Albany Main St. Inc., which supports and promotes 125 businesses, many posted along the corridor, said her group welcomes more DoNo retail. But Risi said it should be complementary retail, not more of what North End merchants already offer.

"There is very sparse retail, like a Kohl's or a Target," she said. "There's no florist. No supermarket. What we're trying to do is get some diversification."

Risi said she would like to see more venues — either bars/restaurants, retail, etc. — filling the four DoNo lots that now primarily serve as commuter- and game-day parking. Her least favorite DoNo amenity: Hair salons.

"You'd like to see something new and fresh … something conducive to the area to make people want to come" downtown, Risi said.

Rex Fowler, CEO of the Hartford Community Loan Fund, which promotes neighborhood development and improvements, said, "our hope would be that new development wouldn't simply be a northward expansion of the current downtown development, but would represent thoughtful development that values local and regionally owned businesses … along with the cultural assets of the adjacent Clay Arsenal and other North End neighborhoods."

Apart from DoNo, Fowler said the fund is collaborating with the city to identify an ideal downtown location for a full-service supermarket.

Another potential bidder

Inner Circle's Hall said the Ormond Beach, Fla., hotel owner-operator has experience updating dozens of older hotel properties nationwide. It currently owns 13 hotels, mostly existing properties that it redeveloped.

A legal dispute between Inner Circle and the contractor it hired to do millions of dollars in work to convert the Hartford Radisson Hotel's upper floors into apartments was one of the reasons for the project's delayed completion date. Two floors of the project are complete, while other floors are in various stages of completion, most within six to eight weeks of wrapping up once additional private financing is in place. Inner Circle received $6.5 million from the Capital Region Development Authority for the housing conversion.

It's unclear what impact the delay could have on the city's choice of Inner Circle as a potential DoNo developer, if the firm submits a bid.

The RFP does require bidders to disclose any legal actions they've been involved in. It also requires bidders to disclose financial, bonding and insurance capacity.

Hall said Inner Circle's DoNo concept could take several forms, but likely would create spaces for a pizza and/or sushi restaurant, possibly a dry cleaners. He also envisions more DoNo housing, with eight in 10 apartments and the rest condominiums. An industrial use or tenant would be the developer's least ideal, he said.

"These would be for people who are now commuting downtown," Hall said. "That, in turn, would drive more retail demand."

Centerplan approached Inner Circle early into its construction of the ballpark about partnering to convert the Radisson entirely to apartments. Centerplan offered, he said, to build Inner Circle a new hotel on one of the DoNo parcels.

"We were already planning to convert rooms to apartments, so we didn't see where [Centerplan] was adding much value" to Inner Circle's plan for its Hartford asset, Hall said.

Related story: A breakdown of DoNo properties

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