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March 4, 2024

‘More modest,’ but still ambitious redevelopment plan for East Hartford’s Founders Plaza to move forward

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Christopher Reilly is the president of Hartford-based real estate developer Lexington Partners, which is the managing partner of the Port Eastside project in East Hartford.

Last summer, a group of prominent local businessmen announced an $841 million plan to transform the aging Founders Plaza office complex in East Hartford into 1,000 apartments, 300,000 square feet of commercial space, new transport links and greatly expanded park and passive recreational amenities.

After crunching the numbers, the partners in the “Port Eastside” project are now pursuing a scaled-back version of the project.

The current concept is more tightly focused on multifamily residential near the east bank of the Connecticut River, said Christopher Reilly, president of Hartford-based real estate developer and investor Lexington Partners.

The developers have, for now, dropped their involvement in a planned transportation hub and pedestrian bridge over the Connecticut River, and reduced their expectation for new commercial space to about 70,000 square feet.

The developers will also be less directly involved in pushing for expanded park-like green space around their project.

“It is still ambitious, but it is a lot more modest,” Reilly said. “We are honoring as much of that vision as we can while being practical about it.”

Reilly said the original grander vision can’t be accomplished given the higher interest-rate environment and tougher lending market.

In addition to Lexington Partners, the development group behind Port Eastside includes 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.

Lexington Partners founder Martin Kenny and prolific Hartford businessman Alan Lazowski — longtime friends and business partners — were recruited into the Port Eastside partnership last year. Kenny subsequently died of a sudden heart attack in September, but his firm remains committed to the project, Reilly said.

Leading the charge

Lexington has been the driving force behind a string of high-profile developments around Connecticut in recent years. The largest — a $90 million conversion of a 22-acre Catholic religious campus in West Hartford into a 292-unit apartment development — was completed last fall.

The development company recently announced plans to partner with the owner of the Westbrook Outlets in Westbrook to transform the ailing shopping center into 595 apartments and 100 townhomes, along with a new hotel, restaurants and entertainment space less than a half-mile from the shoreline.

Lexington is currently acting as managing partner of the East Hartford Port Eastside project. It helped shape the plan into an achievable format under current conditions, Reilly said.

Port Eastside will be built in phases, he said, adding apartment buildings with several hundred units each, one at a time.

An early concept design for the first 300-unit residential building to be developed in the Port Eastside project.

As one building fills, another will be developed; Reilly estimates the market can accommodate up to 1,000 units.

If approved by the town, the first multifamily building could be delivered in about three years, and the entire project built out in a decade, he said.

“As things are absorbing, we can make the determination to go onto the next project,” Reilly said. “We need to prove to the bank and investors that it makes sense.”

The Port Eastside redevelopment is getting state support.

State policymakers set aside $6.5 million in bond funding to cover the development team’s plan to demolish portions of the 50-year-old Founders Plaza office park along the Connecticut River.

Meanwhile, town leaders are working on a project agreement with the development partners, spelling out their deliverables in exchange for the state funding.

Reilly said the development group expects to tap a portion of those funds in the second quarter of this year to begin demolition of a 182,890-square-foot office building at 20 Hartland St., which formerly housed Bank of America offices.

Port Eastside last summer paid $4 million for the building and accompanying 7.3 acres.

Reilly said the developers can’t delay the project with the hope that the lending and interest rate environments will improve because holding costs for the land are too expensive to keep it idle.

Waterfront views, workforce housing

The demolished office complex at 20 Hartland St. will be replaced by a 300-unit apartment building. Reilly expects construction to begin in the spring of 2025, and finish about two years later.

The building would have four floors sitting over a 20-foot-tall ground level, divided among parking and commercial space.

The raised ground floor will provide residents on the four upper floors premium river views.

Most of the units will be market rate, but there will be a portion of “workforce housing,” meant to encourage state investment in the project, Reilly said.

The building will include modern, in-demand amenities such as a rooftop deck, dog washing area, common rooms and a fitness center. An early design concept calls for wings spreading toward the river.

Outdoor amenities, including a pool and “quiet courtyard,” would be placed between these wings.

Reilly said Hartford HealthCare is in line to occupy the 20,000 square feet of commercial space planned for the first apartment building. This space will open toward a central courtyard on the side away from the river.

Commercial spaces in future buildings would host restaurants, cafes and other appealing retail that adds vibrancy, Reilly said. There are also plans for a freestanding performance venue.

Reilly said he also hopes the town will allow a portion of East River Drive that passes over a dike to be turned into green space that connects Port Eastside with the Great River Park along the Connecticut River.

The original plan called for supporting the possibility of a new pedestrian bridge over the Connecticut River to connect to downtown Hartford.

Now, Reilly said, Port Eastside won’t be involved in pushing for the bridge, at least not until after the development site has been built out. A transportation center mixing public and private transport options is also out of the updated plan.

Those projects are dependent on significant ($100 million) local, state and federal funding, and the development group will leave it to other nonprofit groups, like Riverfront Recapture and the iQuilt Partnership, to spearhead moving those efforts forward.

There will be a bus stop, however, Reilly said.

Connor Martin

East Hartford Mayor Connor Martin said his administration is “very committed” to supporting the updated vision for the Port Eastside project. That includes approaching state, federal and local agencies seeking development assistance.

“I think every great and transformative project like this starts with a vision, but at the end of the day has to be manageable and reasonable,” Martin said.

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