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September 18, 2023 Editor’s Take

Bordonaro: It’s time to leverage the riverfront

RENDERING | CONTRIBUTED A rendering of a proposed pedestrian bridge spanning the Connecticut River that would connect Hartford and East Hartford.

Development proposals along the Connecticut River have come and gone over the years.

In November 2019, right before the pandemic washed up on Connecticut’s shores, a New York developer proposed a sprawling $40 million mixed-use complex on the Connecticut River in downtown Hartford. The proposal incorporated use of land-based floating technology — known as an amphibious promenade — that the developer said would float and rise with the water during flood conditions.

The project never gained serious traction, especially after the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection expressed opposition over flooding concerns — a key issue that has held back other waterfront proposals.

Greg Bordonaro

Now, a new $841 million riverfront development proposal has emerged in East Hartford, backed by prominent Greater Hartford business leaders with the credibility needed to make a project of this magnitude happen.

The ambitious plan to redevelop the roughly 50-year-old Founders Plaza office park in East Hartford includes demolition of several office buildings to make a roughly 30-acre development site along the river.

The project would mix up to four mid- to high-rise apartment buildings with 300,000 square feet of commercial space, serviced by a new transportation center, elevated greenway and a pedestrian bridge that spans the Connecticut River into Hartford.

The project development team includes Hartford-based Lexington Partners, founded by prominent apartment developer Marty Kenny, who died suddenly on Sept. 16. Other project partners include: parking magnate Alan Lazowski; Hoffman Auto Group co-Chairman Jeffrey S. Hoffman; Manafort Brothers Inc. President Jim Manafort; Peter S. Roisman, head of Houston-based multifamily investor REV; and Figure 8 Properties principals Harris and Bruce Simons.

MBH Architecture President Nicholas P. Michnevitz III is leading project design.

Besides the practicality of the build out itself, a key issue that will determine this project’s fate will be financing. The developers say they will need an estimated $145 million in public support, including $45 million through a tax agreement with the town of East Hartford, and another $100 million from state and federal sources for the transportation links, including the pedestrian bridge.

While plans are still in the very early stages, local, state and federal officials should give this project serious consideration. It’s time for Hartford and East Hartford to truly leverage their waterfronts, which are economic drivers in vibrant cities across the globe.

The plan has early support from Riverfront Recapture, a nonprofit that for years has worked to activate activity along the Connecticut River, largely through recreational activities.

“This exciting project will help connect people with the Connecticut River, a longtime mission of Riverfront Recapture,” CEO Michael Zaleski told me. “I believe the initial project design recognizes the important role that the flood control system plays in protecting East Hartford. The river annually overflows its banks in the spring, and lately at other times throughout the year. A creative and resilient design will allow for development to take place adjacent to the levee and provide seamless access to Great River Park and the river.”

Riverfront Recapture has its own riverfront development proposal in the works. Earlier this year, it unveiled a plan for a mix of multifamily housing, retail and restaurants on a portion of a 60-acre property it acquired in 2021, along the Connecticut River on the Hartford-Windsor town line.

Getting riverfront developments over the finish line will never be easy, as they face significant environmental and other hurdles. But many cities have figured out ways to overcome the challenges inherent in building along waterways.

It’s time for Hartford/East Hartford and the state of Connecticut to do the same.

The Founders Plaza riverfront redevelopment is the kind of project the Hartford region desperately needs to make it a more attractive place to live, work and play. Let’s hope an effective public-private partnership can be hatched to make it happen.

Editor's Note: This column went to press on Sept. 13, three days before the sudden and unexpected death of prominent developer Martin Kenny, who recently joined the development team for the Port Eastside project. The online version of this column has been updated to reflect Kenny's recent passing.

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