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August 7, 2023

Could downtown Hartford see its first homeownership opportunities in more than a decade?

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Dennis Menard, a 65-year-old retired IT professional, purchased a one-bedroom condo in downtown Hartford in April.
HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Dennis Menard, a 65-year-old retired IT professional, purchased a one-bedroom condo in downtown Hartford in April.

With the help of tax breaks and low-interest financing from the Capital Region Development Authority, Hartford has added thousands of market-rate rental apartments to its downtown in recent years.

But no new multifamily homeownership opportunities — like condos or row houses — have debuted in the center city in more than a decade.

That could change under a $100 million mixed-use residential development recently proposed for a 2.8-acre city-owned parking lot just south of Bushnell Park.

The latest plan by The Michaels Organization — a New Jersey-based firm selected to develop the site — calls for 15 owner-occupied units in three row house-style buildings, along with 233 rental apartments.

It would front Capitol Avenue and face the recently renovated State Office Building.

The Michaels Organization included row houses to satisfy city officials’ expressed desires for homeownership opportunities in the broader 20-acre “Bushnell South” redevelopment area. That desire was reflected in the request for qualifications issued by the Capital Region Development Authority, which selected Michaels as the preferred developer for this section of the Bushnell South development area.

However, the addition of those owner-occupied units is still far from certain. The developer is much more enthusiastic about the apartments than the row houses, according to Jay Russo, a vice president with The Michaels Organization.

“Typically, homeownership is not something we like to do,” Russo said.

Russo said owner-occupied housing would not make sense at this moment, as higher interest rates have slowed the sale of homes and condominiums.

Michaels is hoping the city will allow it to build the apartments first, then potentially add row houses at a later date.

“Right now, we’ve kind of carved those parcels out of the conversation,” Russo said. “That would most likely be a second phase.”

Not a deal-killer

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said he has promoted homeownership in the mix of residential development across the city. But he doesn’t have “strong preconceptions” for the type of housing Michaels Organization must build on its portion of the Bushnell South redevelopment area.

“To me, the most important thing is to use this as an opportunity to knit parts of the neighborhood back together, to replace a sea of surface parking with a new community, and to add more feet on the street and more people to a downtown that has seen so many office workers staying home,” Bronin said.

Bronin lives in a row house he owns just south of Bushnell Park, a short distance from the redevelopment area targeted by Michaels Organization.

The market for downtown living is proven, he said, with rental units of all sizes filling “almost as soon as they are built.”

While the Democratic mayor believes there would be strong interest in new downtown ownership opportunities, he acknowledged it could prove difficult to find lenders willing to finance construction given there have been no new owner-occupied dwellings in years.

“We’ve tried to pursue the expansion of homeownership opportunities throughout our community and we’d love to see that as a component of this development as it goes forward,” Bronin said.

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said his agency continues to work with Michaels Organization on a final development plan, which he concedes may not initially include a homeownership element.

But Freimuth said he’s not ruling it out in the future.

Unsatisfied market

Rebecca Koladis, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England, said she is certain there would be demand for new condos in downtown Hartford.

Rebecca Koladis

At present, the options are limited, with only a handful of center-city condo buildings. And two of them are unable to get mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because more than 30% of their units are used as rentals, Koladis said.

That further narrows already slim options for would-be homeowners who would need to finance their downtown purchase.

“You have people looking and, usually, they end up in the suburbs if they can’t find what they are looking for downtown,” Koladis said.

Dennis Menard, a 65-year-old retired IT professional, paid $155,000 in April for a one-bedroom condo in the Bushnell Tower complex on Gold Street. That building complements the nearby Bushnell on the Park property that includes a mix of condos and rental units.

Menard also maintains a three-bedroom, 3,700-square-foot house outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

After retiring, Menard said he originally rented a downtown Hartford apartment while he searched for a second home in Connecticut to be closer to family and escape sweltering southern summers.

His search took him to Haddam, Middletown, Berlin and Manchester, before he opted for his downtown Hartford unit.

“I see potential in Hartford,” Menard said. “Now that I’ve come back here after all these years, the city is really beautiful. I don’t know what it is. There is just something about Connecticut I really like now. That goes for downtown Hartford as well.”

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