Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

March 28, 2022 Deal Watch

$60M redevelopment of former Ames HQ could give Rocky Hill a long-sought town center

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Developer Michael Belfonti stands in front of the defunct former Ames headquarters in Rocky Hill, which he plans to convert into a sprawling mixed-use apartment development.

The former Ames headquarters in Rocky Hill went from a bustling office building with hundreds of workers to a sad, abandoned hulk over two decades.

Now, after years of planning and negotiation, officials voted in February to approve a mixed-use development proposed by Hamden developer Michael Belfonti for the 12.1-acre property.

The plan is to knock down the roughly 225,000-square-foot building and replace it with 213 apartments in 11 buildings, 11,067 square feet of office space and 9,959 square feet of retail.

Town leaders say the Ames redevelopment could be the start of building a true downtown center for Rocky Hill, a central-Connecticut bedroom community of about 21,000 that has been the fastest-growing municipality in Hartford County over the past decade, according to U.S. Census figures.

“It’s a super-important redevelopment project because there are a number of significant benefits to the town,” said Mayor Lisa J. Marotta. “It will grow the grand list. It will add support for businesses along Route 99. But perhaps the most important thing is it’s a gateway to something we have lacked for a long time – a downtown area.”

The Ames property sits at the end of a commercial stretch of Silas Deane Highway populated by small to midsize shopping plazas and freestanding stores. Visitors drive in on a 40-miles-per-hour road to visit individual businesses.

Town officials hope, over time, to create a more traditional, walkable New England-style town center.

They also want to connect this downtown to amenities along the Connecticut River about a half-mile away, including a town park, the historic Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry and a seasonable restaurant – possibly with more riverside development to come.

Belfonti’s plans will help by creating additional street-facing retail, along with public spaces including a parklet on one corner of the property and a public gazebo on another. Belfonti’s plans include sidewalks, trees and lighting along the front of the property, which borders Main Street and Dividend Road. These improvements will mirror $2.5 million in streetscape work recently completed in the area, officials say.

“Rocky Hill doesn’t have a downtown,” said Raymond Carpentino, the town’s economic development director. “That’s what we are trying to build. We are trying to build a community center where people can walk around, maybe do some shopping. The Ames property is the beginning of that.”

The town is on the hunt for grant funding to extend sidewalks and pedestrian lighting down nearby Glastonbury Avenue to its riverside park, Marotta said. Rocky Hill is also considering traffic-calming measures to slow motorists in the area, making it more pedestrian friendly.

The hope is that it will promote mixed-use infill development, Marotta said.

Marotta said she also plans to consult residents about the potential to abandon a short stretch of Dividend Road between the Ames property and town green. That would enable expansion of the central park, making it a better host for community activities.

A long wait for redevelopment

Marotta said the Ames property has sat fallow for 20 years partly due to a “healthy resistance” to development in Rocky Hill.

The mayor said she’s worked to counter a misconception that apartment development will mean a tax burden through new schoolchildren. That helped get the development across the finish line.

So has some state funding.

The state Bond Commission, last spring, approved $500,000 to help demolish the Ames building. The town is close to securing a $990,000 state brownfield grant to help with the cost of clearing hazardous building materials from the Ames property and a small patch of subsurface pollution, Carpentino said.

Carpentino has seen other proposals floated for the site over the past 15 years, including a self-storage facility and other purely residential developments. This is the first one to offer retail and public spaces as well, he said.

The Ames property is currently owned by Mr. Rocky LLC, a company headed by Robert Danial, of Miami Beach, Fla., state records show. Danial bought it in 2014 for $1.8 million.

Jeff Dow, president of Dow Realty Co. of New Haven, represented the seller in that 2014 deal. Dow said it was a challenge to find a redevelopment proposal acceptable to the town. Potential buyers had something other than a mix of residential and retail in mind.

“We had a lot of users who would have bought or leased it, but the zoning wouldn’t allow them to move in,” Dow said. “The vision of the town was to have a town center there. You couldn’t do warehousing with trucks. You couldn’t do self storage. There was a lot of that stuff we could not do.”

Dow said a big difference this time was that town leaders and Belfonti collaborated to achieve an acceptable reuse. He also credited State Rep. Kerry Wood (D-Rocky Hill) with securing state backing to make a project financially feasible.

“I’ve known Michael Belfonti for a long time,” Dow said. “He gets projects like this done. He has a history of it.”

Attracted to the area

Belfonti, who is the CEO of Belfonti Cos. LLC, said he was pursuing local approvals for a $50-million, 160-unit apartment development in Cromwell about three years ago when he began looking for another area property to develop.

He said he liked Rocky Hill’s demographics and the fact the project could provide housing to commuters heading to either Hartford or New Haven. He drove by the Ames site and saw the sign for Dow, a company he knew.

“You had a big, huge building that was empty; that was a big white elephant in a great part of town at the end of the Silas Deane Highway,” Belfonti said. “It had great potential.”

Belfonti’s first redevelopment plan was rejected by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission in January, only to be approved a month later after he agreed to buy a half-acre property with a 1,620-square-foot office building at the southeast corner of the lot.

Belfonti plans to knock down the small office building at 1 Dividend Road, and replace it with a mixed-use property containing 5,000 square feet of first-floor retail and apartments above. The purchase allows him to shift the building away from houses adjacent to the Ames property.

Pending action

Belfonti said the project still requires approval from the Connecticut State Traffic Commission. He hopes to secure that permission, then close in June on the Ames property at 2418 Main St., and the adjacent Dividend Road office building. Belfonti puts acquisition costs at approximately $2 million. Demolition would begin this year with construction launching in 2023 and lasting about 18 months, he said.

Belfonti estimates $60 million in overall development costs, including more than $2 million for demolition and soil abatement.

State grants could cover $1.5 million. Belfonti expects to invest about $20 million in equity, with the remainder coming from conventional loans.

The final development would include amenities such as a play area for children, fitness center, coworking space, pool, clubhouse, dog washing station and dog park. Belfonti said 10% of apartments will be affordable. The rest will be market rate, with monthly rents currently estimated at about $1,500 to $2,500.

Eager to erase eyesore

While there has been debate about the value of adding apartments, few tears will be shed for the long-empty Ames building.

Carl J. Tavarozzi owns T&T Structural, the company that is selling its Dividend Road office property to Belfonti. He said he has watched the neighboring building sink from a busy office complex to wreck slowly over two decades.

“It would be great to see something happen here,” Tavarozzi said. “Anything is better than this.”

Dawn Satagaj, a Realtor with William Raveis and a board member with the Rocky Hill Chamber of Commerce, said anticipation has been building over many years. She moved to town in 2002, the same year Ames closed its headquarters. Her husband’s family has been in town for generations.

Satagaj agrees with many of the arguments in favor of the redevelopment, that it will help foster a downtown, benefit nearby businesses and eliminate an eyesore. She also likes that the privately-developed property will have publicly-available green spaces.

“I think anytime someone is willing to invest this amount of money in your town it’s worth giving them the opportunity to do so,” Satagaj said.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF