April 30, 2018

Farmington is on the cusp of another development wave

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
Farmington Economic Development Director Rose Ponte is flanked by two public-private development projects finishing up in the town's historic Village section. Behind her, the state is close to wrapping its $12 million makeover of the congested Route 4-Farmington Avenue/Route 10 and Main Street/Waterville Road interchange. Over her left shoulder, Torrington developer PAC Group LLC is finishing its 12-unit luxury condominium development on the site of former Chuck's Steak House.
Photo | Contributed
Connecticut Children’s Medical Center has a state-of-the art surgery center in Farmington.
HBJ Photo | Greg Bordonaro
Farmington’s medical-office development has mushroomed in the shadow of UConn Health and Jackson Laboratory.
Photo | Contributed
The Residences at 299 is one of the town’s newest apartment communities.

Farmington is on the cusp of another growth spurt, one where new development of apartments, condos, senior-living spaces and medical offices predominate.

The affluent, suburban enclave seven miles west of downtown Hartford has about 25,000 souls who lay heads there at night, but its daytime population swells to 32,000 — the result of commuters who arrive daily to work at UConn Health, Jackson Laboratory, Carrier, Otis Elevator and Stanley Black & Decker.

With a name derived from its once lush farmland and a history of bivouacking Colonial and French troops during the Revolutionary War, Farmington today is highly regarded for its diversity of employment in manufacturing, health services/medical research; its many recreation options; and its quality schools despite possessing one of the lowest property-tax rates in the state, at 26.68 mills.

The latter is courtesy of a large commercial tax base, achieved with the foresight of town leaders who more than a generation ago created an industrial park to house commercial employers, to shoulder the property-tax burden. Farmington does not offer tax or other incentives to lure companies.

"Our philosophy is that our economic incentives are our low taxes,'' said Town Manager Kathy Eagen.

Those elements have combined to reignite a fresh wave of planning and construction, says Rose Ponte, the town's economic-development chief and other town leaders. But with nearly all of Farmington's developable acreage built out and homebuilding slowing, Town Planner William Warner says the focus now is to allow commercial developers, in certain areas, to pack more structures onto a lot.

Among projects underway or planned is a 12-unit luxury condo community on the former Chuck's Steak House site in Farmington Village, the town's historic section; an assisted-living facility with companion seniors-only apartments on Route 4, opposite Wood-n-Tap Bar & Grill; and an upgrade of the town's sewage-treatment plant.

Meantime, behind the Starbucks on Route 4/Farmington Avenue, Newington landlord Reno Properties Group is eyeing the site of a historic home to erect apartments, Ponte said.

"Rentals are so in demand right now,'' she said.

More recently, a West Hartford church put up for sale an undeveloped 18.5-acre tract on Farmington Avenue, opposite UConn Health and Jackson Laboratory. With barely 8 percent of the town's developable land left, Farmington Avenue Baptist Church's parcel could draw a high price tag, observers say.

Jackson Lab's arrival in Oct. 2014 exposed a need in Farmington for more apartments — particularly smaller, affordable units — to shelter young scientists and other professionals.

Robert Wienner, developer of West Hartford's successful Blue Back Square residential-retail-office development, is eyeing a makeover of a strip fronting Farmington Avenue/Route 4, in the Farmington Village district.

There, Wienner subdivided the tract, keeping the Farmington Avenue frontage and selling the rear portion that once held Chuck's to Tolland builder/developer PAC Group LLC. PAC is finishing The Pennington, a 12-unit luxury condo community overlooking the Farmington Country Club.

Wienner say he's deliberating what to do with his leftover strip, but his plans will be consistent with the town's vision for its eastern "gateway."

"The town's vision is to turn the village into a more pedestrian-friendly, walkable area,'' he said. "It's an unusually charming and desirable place. They're really smart and clear-thinking about what they wanted to happen in the Village, and I wanted to be a part of it.''

Nearby, Newington landlord Reno Properties Group LLC owns a 4-acre parcel, site of a 300-year-old farmhouse, bought 10 years ago for $900,000 to redevelop into a retail center, anchored with a bank branch, said Reno broker Dan Garofalo.

"We felt it was a great town. A great corner. A gateway site,'' Garofalo said.

There, state transportation contractors are due to wrap in June their $12 million makeover of the heavily-congested Route 4/Route 10 interchange.

Crews have widened, repaved and re-signaled a stretch of Route 4, leading from the curve that once housed a Chevy dealership, to the Route 10-Main Street/Waterville Road connector. (The length of the project has frustrated some local merchants who say the added congestion has cost them business).

That's atop an earlier widening and rebuild of a Route 4 bridge spanning the Farmington River a few years ago. Also underway is a long-awaited capacity upgrade of the town's sewage-treatment facility, once a frequent source of neighbors' odor complaints.

Floating zones

To streamline the development process and respond to market demand, the town's planning and zoning officials, Warner said, adopted an "innovation floating zone.'' It allows, he said, for a mix of uses envisioned in the town's plan of conservation and development, including expanded corporate headquarters, health- and biomedical-related research and development in a live-work-play environment. A similar "medical office research floating zone'' benefits health-and bioscience-related entities in the health center neighborhood.

But a key feature of both, Warner says, is that they give design and construction flexibility to developers to deliver what the market demands while adhering to residents' desire to preserve their town's character. The town also has eased its "lot coverage'' requirements for certain types of construction, allowing for denser development, he said.

The town has the opportunity to apply one or both. Warner says a 9-acre shopping plaza at 230 Farmington Ave., opposite UConn Health and Jackson Lab, that years ago housed a Loehmann's fashion-clothing store, is targeted for redevelopment into possibly apartments and more retail by area developer-landlord Geoffrey Sager, of Metro Realty, Warner said.

The site, Warner said, is targeted for a mixed-use redevelopment of possibly 200 high-end apartments and three multi-story retail/office buildings. Some of the apartments may feature "micro units,'' built to appeal to workers at Jackson Lab and UConn, he said.

Sager could not be reached for comment.

Less than a mile west on Farmington Avenue is a cluster of newer medical-office buildings and health suites Metro has built in recent years. Metro also developed in 2014 its 120-unit The Residences at 299 luxury apartments on Route 6/Colt Highway.

Just before that, realty broker-developer SullivanHayes Northeast Co. built the Hampton Suites, located next door to The Residences.

SullivanHayes currently is overseeing, on behalf of an investor, redevelopment of a triangular tract at the junction of Route 6/Colt Highway and Birdseye Road, known to locals as "Five Corners."

There, the unidentified investor plans an 8,173-square-foot plaza, housing five or six retail and services tenants, said SullivanHayes broker Jack Hayes, who declined to specify the development cost.

That the investor and developer settled on a triangular-shaped parcel along one of the town's busiest thoroughfares points to a growth challenge Farmington faces, officials say.

"There's very limited opportunities'' to develop virgin tracts, Hayes said. "That's definitely true.''

For that, he says he expects Five Corners to be targeted for development beyond what SullivanHayes' client plans for the site.

Challenges and opportunities

William Wadsworth is a former state representative and ex-member of the Farmington town council, who currently sits on the town's economic development commission.

"We've always run on high quality of life, low taxes and excellence in education,'' said Wadsworth, now a private consultant to commercial builders and contractors. "We tend to focus on those things.''

Wadsworth, who while in the state House voted for the $1-billion state package to upgrade-expand the UConn Health campus that ultimately attracted Jackson Lab, said the biggest challenge facing Farmington is the state's fiscal crisis, which threatens state funding to cities and towns for education and other services.

Also, he said the state's proposal to have all 169 cities and towns contribute millions to stabilize the state teachers' retirement fund "is unfair to every municipality in the state of Connecticut.''

Farmington's fiscal 2018 property tax rate of 26.68 mills is among the lowest in the state, and No. 2 after Windsor Locks for the lowest in the Greater Hartford region, according to the state Office of Policy Management's online mill-rate data.

While the West Hartford church awaits a buyer for its 18 ½ acres near UConn Health, Wadsworth and Warner say the town owns an adjacent former quarry-landfill at 406 Farmington Ave., with road frontage the church site lacks. They say the town hopes a developer will combine and develop both.

Opposite the quarry site and the church acreage is Metro Realty's cluster of medical offices.

"I would love to see that property developed into some similar use,'' Wadsworth said.

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