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Revitalizing Hartford One Street at a Time
By Linda Reeder, AIA, LEED AP
The flight from urban areas began to reverse itself in many cities in the 1990s as empty nesters, young professionals, and others returned to the cities. Hartford, Connecticut is among those responding to new residents with residential development. After more than 20 years without new residential construction downtown, three luxury residential projects were constructed in the five year period ending in 2007 owing to a combination of government incentives and developer tenacity. The development at Temple and Main Streets, completed in 2007, is one example. The project included returning a side street to the city of 122,000.
“If I’d known I was getting into a ten year long effort I would never have done it,” developer Marc S. Levine of 18 Temple Street, LLC said of the $54.5 million mixed-use development in downtown Hartford, “But now that it’s done I’m pretty proud of it.” The project, designed by Roth and Moore Architects of New Haven, Connecticut, is on a tight one-block site (62,665 SF total land area) and includes 78 loft units (incorporating the restored 1898 former Sage Allen department store building) with ground floor commercial space, 42 townhouses designed to house 170 students, and a 343 parking space below grade garage. As a result of the development, the narrow Temple Street, blocked by a building in 1980, was restored to city traffic.
In addition to the housing and offices now overlooking Temple Street from either side, an internal food court across from the project site has been transformed into street-fronting food establishments. “I feel a change,” developer Levine, whose offices are across Temple Street from the new development, says. “We’re starting to animate the opposite side of the street. It’s a by-product of development.” Levine said housing 170 young people also adds vitality downtown. The 42 student townhouses are leased to the University of Hartford and other colleges during the school year, and to corporations to house interns during the summer.
The project is in the National Register of Historic Places’ Department Store Historic District. The 1898 Sage Allen department store, designed by Isaac A. Allen, had sat vacant for more than 13 years, symbolic of the fate of many downtown department stores, before it was converted to loft apartments. Its neighbors on Main Street include H.H. Richardson’s Cheney Building and Cass Gilbert’s G. Fox building—both now also converted from department stores to other uses. Developer Levine was also involved in redeveloping the Cheney building across Temple Street from the Sage Allen site.
The building known as the “Mixmaster” had been built on top of Temple Street so shoppers could move between neighboring department stores without going outside. When the downtown stores closed, the Mixmaster functioned mostly as an impediment to pedestrian and vehicular circulation. Patrick Pinnell, AIA, the project team’s urban planner and a contributing author of the Downtown Action Strategy Plan approved in 1998, says, “We suggested reopening the ladderwork of small east-west streets which had been shut to benefit downtown retailers. There was an impetus to restore the ability to drive around the block and get more street frontage. Temple Street is now functioning as a contributing element of downtown.”
The Hartford Courant reported that then-Development Director John F. Palmieri was also pleased when the street re-opened in early 2007. “The system was built to get people in and out of the city,” Palmieri is quoted as saying, “But now we’ve got to think about making it easy for those who want to circulate routinely on a daily basis—not just thinking about how do we get people to flood in and out of the city in morning and night. What Temple Street does is allow a connection at an important juncture.”
With 93 percent of the loft units, 85 percent of the townhouses, and 100 percent of the commercial space rented within a year of opening, it would seem the project was a success. Still, Levine says, “It’s going to take awhile for profits to ramp up. Residential market rents and sales in Hartford have not caught up with development and construction costs. Construction costs went over budget so it will take awhile for us to make a return on our investment.” To compete with other residential projects downtown, the developers decided to provide a free parking space as an inducement to rent the loft units at pro forma rates.
A series of governmental incentives helped make development possible, including the property purchase price from the city of $1, city assistance with some of the asbestos abatement costs, property tax relief from the city, sales tax relief from the Connecticut Development Authority, below market rate financing from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, federal and state historic tax credits, and financing at a nominal rate for ten percent of total project costs by the Capital City Economic Development Authority. The City of Hartford, aided by Federal funds, was responsible for demolishing the building that blocked Temple Street and for restoring the street.
Asked why, given the economic challenges of development in Hartford, he persisted with the project, Levine said (alluding to the fragrant mold that had grown in the abandoned Sage Allen building), “I was next door and I didn’t like the smell—it clearly had a negative impact on our adjacent building. And I’m a bit of a social worker.”
(Disclosure: The author was project architect on this project for Roth and Moore Architects from 1998 through 2004.)
Keywords: Design, Urban planning and design, City planning, Urban revitalization, Hartford, Connecticut, Historic preservation, Article