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Updated: August 25, 2020 Town Profile: East Hartford

$50M apartment proposal at Showcase Cinemas site leads East Hartford development project trio

Rendering | Contributed A rendering of potential apartments that could be built on the former Showcase Cinemas site in East Hartford.

For most development directors in Connecticut, having one major project in the pipeline is a big deal.

East Hartford Development Director Eileen Buckheit has three.

But don’t expect all of them to come online soon. That’s not the way economic development — especially in the Land of Steady Habits — works.

Buckheit, who has been in her current role for seven-and-a-half years, said getting major developments off the ground can take up to a decade or longer, and in the meantime it takes many small steps — from making changes to plans of conservation and development to gaining local approvals and funding sources — to get major projects off the ground.

And that’s precisely what she’s been working on in her time in East Hartford, which has three major developments in the works: potential redevelopment of the former Showcase Cinemas site into apartments; a new commercial building being erected by Goodwin University as part of a larger master plan; and the addition of a large potential apartment community at Founders Plaza.

Eileen Buckheit, Development Director, East Hartford

“My philosophy is to keep marching forward, keep pushing and taking the next step,” Buckheit said. “These are projects that we’ve been building for the last 7.5 years.”

Buckheit said the town faces a few obstacles to economic development. First, it doesn’t have a ton of open space so new projects tend to be redevelopments of already existing sites. Second, there is some pushback against new apartments, particularly at the site of the old Showcase Cinemas, where long-established residents think a big-box retailer should go.

“East Hartford is transitioning into something that is more urban, but it’s facing a lot of resistance,” she said. “But if all these projects happen, it’s a game changer for us.”

Here’s an update on the three major developments in East Hartford:

Former Showcase Cinemas site

After remaining a vacant eyesore for nearly 14 years, the town of East Hartford in early 2020 finally razed the former Showcase Cinemas building on Silver Lane in hopes of clearing the path for a potential mixed-use residential development.

The town recently completed a request for proposals and received one bid to potentially redevelop the site.

East Hartford Development Co. LLC — led by Domenic Carpionato, a principal at Rhode Island-based real estate development company Carpionato Group — responded to the RFP proposing a $50-million, mixed-use residential development, Buckheit said.

Phase one would include construction of 204 market-rate apartments (131 one-bedroom and 74 two-bedroom units) and 72,000 square feet of commercial space that could be ready for development next year.

A second phase would include an additional 108 apartments (76 one-bedroom and 32 two-bedroom units) on acreage that leads to Forbes Street.

Both phases would have access to modern amenities, including a clubhouse, pool, dog park, etc.

Buckheit said the land is most suitable for apartments, even though some town residents would prefer to see another theater or big-box retail.

“That logic is flawed,” she said. “Big box is not where the retail market has taken us.”

[Read more: HBJ examines developments in CT towns, cities]

Buckheit said the town hasn’t had new apartment construction since the 1970s putting it behind its neighboring communities — including Manchester, Glastonbury and Hartford — which have all built new residential projects that have attracted Millennials and empty-nesters.

The redevelopment of the site is critical to the revitalization of the Silver Lane neighborhood, Buckheit added.

She points to the success Hartford has had in building new apartments that have been leased up. She said East Hartford would differentiate itself by offering more of a suburban lifestyle.

The town bought the Showcase Cinemas property in early 2019 for $3.3 million. The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) is helping out on the project.

Goodwin University commercial building

Goodwin University recently secured Rebel Dog Coffee Co. as the second tenant for its $8-million, 25-000-square-foot commercial building meant to expand and revitalize the East Hartford school’s riverside campus.

Rebel Dog Coffee, which operates locations in Plainville and Farmington, signed a lease to occupy roughly 2,500 square feet of ground-level space at the three-floor commercial building.

The coffee shop will be located next to East Hartford-based American Eagle Financial Credit Union, which was the first tenant to commit to the mixed-use development.

Both companies are expected to begin operating when the building debuts sometime this fall, said Bryant Harrell, Goodwin’s vice president for physical facilities, IT and security. Up to four more tenants — including retailers, medical offices and other businesses — could occupy the remaining available space on the second and third floors.

According to plans, the commercial site on Main and Ensign streets will feature flexible space for the 4,000 daily student population and some 600 faculty/staff at Goodwin. It will also provide on-site parking and access to the CTtransit bus route.

While Goodwin is a not-for-profit college, the building is projected to add about $1.3 million to East Hartford’s tax rolls over an eight-year period and is part of the school’s larger 10-year master plan of development.

In 2018, Goodwin announced an ambitious redevelopment vision that included construction of a 60-slip marina and riverfront hotel and restaurants, and those projects are still in play, Harrell said, though the pandemic has slowed progress.

Still, developers are showing interest in the potential development and a new stormwater drainage system is being installed that will make it possible to build more and larger buildings along the Connecticut River.

That should help entice developers to the area, Buckheit said.

Goodwin owns the majority of the Connecticut River neighborhood it inhabits on and around Riverside Drive.

Founders Plaza

East Hartford’s most notable office building — the half-century-old Founders Plaza office tower on Pitkin Street — is being eyed for a mixed-use residential-retail center with up to 2,000 new apartment units.

Rendering | Contributed
A rendering of the vision to build up to 2,000 apartments around the Founders Plaza office tower.

The town has partnered with building owner First Merchant Group (led by Larry Nirenberg), CRDA and Tecton Architects on a district master plan to create a new “live, work, play” urban destination, which the town currently lacks.

The plan estimates an initial buildout of 250 or so residential units, with a potential to develop up to 2,000 units in the future.

The 12.5-acre site is covered by parking lots suitable for infill development that could take advantage of being a stone throw’s away from downtown Hartford, Buckheit said.

“When Founders Plaza was built in the 1970s it was supposed to be higher-density development, but it never came to fruition,” she said. “It’s a very important gateway to us.”

Buckheit views the project — now called “East Bank” — as a public-private partnership that she would like to see happen sooner, rather than later, although the COVID-19 pandemic has likely delayed things a bit.

There is no official project timeline right now.

“We are trying to walk very carefully on this,” she said. “It’s an ambitious and important plan.”

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Steve Robinson
August 26, 2020

The local and in-state developers will avoid projects in East Hartford because of the building department's rightful reputation as being "difficult". Anybody bidding on work in East Hartford adds 10-20% knowing that they can expect the unexpected!

August 25, 2020

Every time government is involved it seems
very little gets done and that it costs a lot of mon.

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