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Hartford Selects New Canaan Developer For Sweeping Downtown North Development
The article was originally published by The Hartford Courant. View the article on the publisher’s website.
The Downtown North development, one of the city’s most controversial and long-delayed projects, will get new life as Hartford leaders press ahead with plans to convert four vacant lots surrounding Dunkin’ Donuts Park into expansive housing and retail space.
City officials have selected RMS Companies, the sole bidder on the project, to lead development of the vacant parcels near Main and Trumbull streets. A contract between Hartford and RMS will go before the city council in the coming months, and construction could begin as early as next spring.
Randy Salvatore, the head of RMS, envisions 800 market-rate apartments flanked by 60,000 square feet of retail space and several parking structures. He has suggested a May 2019 groundbreaking for the six-year, multiphase effort that is expected to begin along Trumbull Street behind the Red Lion Hotel, a cluster of properties the city has collectively dubbed “Parcel C.”
The first phase would include 200 apartments and associated retail, Salvatore said. Construction would be continuous throughout the six years.
The more than $200 million project would be financed primarily with private funds. RMS will also pursue a loan from the Capital Region Development Authority similar to what the group has given others with robust developments, Salvatore said. He did not disclose a dollar amount.
“It’s very unusual to find this large of a piece of property right in the center of an urban area that has the availability for a development of the scale we’re talking about,” Salvatore, 48, said in an interview with The Courant. “That’s what got me interested, and the more time I’ve spent up here and the more I have talked to people, the more excited I get about the prospect of it.”
Details are still being ironed out, but Salvatore said the retail would be “service” driven, possibly restaurants, coffee shops and a brewery, along with storefronts that provoke intrigue, like an art studio.
His plans call for a 30,000-square-foot grocery store, though he’s still trying to determine if the Downtown North site is the best place for it. Salvatore said he has already talked with some community leaders and intends to launch a series of public discussions about the development. That could include visits to neighborhood group meetings and community forums throughout the city.
So far, the plan does not incorporate “affordable housing” — units priced for lower- and middle-income households. Salvatore said he would listen to community feedback and may adjust his proposal. If affordable housing is added, he would seek additional public funds.
John J. Thomas, an activist in Hartford’s North End, said affordable housing would spur vitality and diversity needed in the development.
“If you are truly aiming to mesh downtown with the surrounding neighborhoods, that would be a way to bring people together,” he said. “I would love to see some element of affordable housing in Downtown North.”
Marilyn Risi, head of the nonprofit Upper Albany Main Street, a community revitalization group in North Hartford, said enticing retail, such as a Starbucks, would be a welcome addition.
She noted that a Shake Shack and an REI recreation store had recently sprung up in West Hartford.
“There is no dedicated area for shopping and you have an opportunity to put it there, along with housing,” Risi said. “I also think a grocery store on this side of the city would be nice.”
Mayor Luke Bronin pointed to Salvatore’s $100 million, mixed-use development in New Haven and the rehabilitation of Hartford’s Goodwin Hotel as examples of his ability to wage successful projects. The New Canaan developer has more than 20 properties under his belt, mostly in southern Connecticut.
He has teamed with Freeman Cos., Torti Gallas + Partners and Kenneth Boroson Architects for the Downtown North effort.
“He is a serious developer with a strong track record,” Bronin said. “I think he is a credible developer. We will continue to do our diligence and try to reach an agreement.”
City leaders are moving forward with the project despite a lawsuit by the former Downtown North developers. Centerplan Construction Co. and DoNo Hartford LLC, who won the original bid and had planned to build retail, housing and office space at the site, were fired after they missed two key deadlines to complete the minor league baseball stadium. Another firm finished the ballpark, which opened in 2017.
The ousted developers sued for wrongful termination, and have placed liens on the Downtown North properties.
Bronin said that did not discourage the city from inviting a fresh round of applicants. Tax revenue from the surrounding parcels is desperately needed to help Hartford pay for its $72 million, taxpayer-funded ballpark.
“We terminated Centerplan and we are confident that the termination was justified,” Bronin said. “We believe we have every right to proceed with negotiations for a [new] development agreement.”
This is the second stalled project that the city has given a hard push to recently. The renovation of Dillon Stadium in Colt Park, which halted after its developers came under scrutiny for financial mismanagement and the theft of public funds, got back on track this spring, with a new company attached. Demolition of the dilapidated stadium is set to begin this month.
For 50 years, redevelopment has largely eluded the 13 acres in Hartford’s Downtown North neighborhood. The area was severed from the city’s central business district by the construction of Interstate 84 in the 1960s, its legacy a jumble of parking lots and overgrown, vacant land.
Casino magnate Steve Wynn set his sights on the properties in the 1990s. So did proponents of an alternative location for an ill-fated New England Patriots football stadium. But a firm plan to overhaul the neighborhood didn’t take shape until 2014, when then-city officials greenlighted a blockbuster, $300 million project helmed by Centerplan and DoNo Hartford. The properties have remained vacant since that effort collapsed.