Hartford Has New Vision For Bushnell Neighborhood

by Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, talks about a proposal to develop what is now a parking lot for a state office building on Capitol Avenue into a low-rise housing development.

HARTFORD — The Bushnell has no trouble drawing crowds to its performances, but with an expanse of parking lots on either side of Capitol Avenue there just isn't a lot to get ticket holders to stick around after the show.

Now, a decade-long push by The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts to create a neighborhood of housing, restaurants and bars in the shadow of the state Capitol is gaining traction as the state moves closer to renovating the venerable State Office Building across the street.

The makeover of 1931 edifice carries a hefty, taxpayer-funded price tag of $205 million, but the project — expected to get underway next year — will empty the building and, more importantly, remove vehicles from the vast parking lot to east, the first area targeted for redevelopment, possibly rowhouses, apartments, or both.

The Bushnell is collaborating with the city, the Capital Region Development Authority and two state agencies — the Department of Administrative Services and the Office of Policy and Management — on an agreement to cooperate on the redevelopment of the three-block area between Washington and Hudson streets.

This spring, the Bushnell and CRDA jointly financed a $100,000 study by the National Development Council, with the Bushnell kicking in $75,000. The council is determining what combination of development would make the most economic sense and how to structure a public-private partnership to pay for the project.

And by the end of the year, CRDA plans to seek preliminary proposals for what is being called "Bushnell Square."

"Opportunities to correct the big mistakes of the past don't come around all that often," Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said. "This is a strategic few blocks which have the potential to reconnect Main Street to the Capitol area, and have the potential to reconnect Park Street down to downtown. Right now, it is a sea of surface parking lots that acts as a barrier to both."

The overall cost for the redevelopment, which also would boost the city's tax base, has yet to be determined; but it could easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. Public funding is expected to be the catalyst, but will be at a premium, given the state's budget troubles. The bulk of the financing would have to come through private developers.

The Bushnell also says it wants to invest in the development, although it has not determined how much. In addition to creating a 24/7 neighborhood where only a 9-to-5 one exists, the Bushnell's investment would reap a financial return that would go back into expanding programs at the performing arts venue.

"We have a lot at stake getting this done and getting this done right," David Fay, the Bushnell's president and chief executive, said. "We are at the center of it."

Avoiding Another Parking Lot

The Bushnell's vision was preceded by similar plans going back to the 1970s and first surfaced as part of iQuilt, a plan to make the city more walkable and better link together cultural and historical attractions.

Development on both sides of the street could unfold over five or more years.

Besides the State Office Building renovation, Fay said there are other reasons for urgency: The former state laboratory building will be demolished, possibly next year, opening up redevelopment options just east of the Bushnell on Clinton Street.

Michael W. Freimuth Redevelopment Proposal
Michael W. Freimuth Redevelopment Proposal
Cloe Poisson
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of CRDA, has proposed a development project for the parking lot behind the state office building at 165 Capitol Avenue. The proposed development would include housing and restaurants.
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of CRDA, has proposed a development project for the parking lot behind the state office building at 165 Capitol Avenue. The proposed development would include housing and restaurants. (Cloe Poisson)
The state owns wide swaths of parking, but assembling land won't necessarily be easy. Key parking lots near Hudson Street are privately owned and would likely figure prominently into any future plans. No agreements have been struck with the owner, real estate giant Simon Konover Co. of West Hartford, to either acquire land or partner in future development.

Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of CRDA, says redevelopment should get underway while the State Office Building is being renovated.

"If we don't do it, it will be a parking lot all over again," Freimuth said.

Meanwhile, the renovation of the state office building on Capitol Avenue, across the street from the Bushnell, includes the replacement of a 450-space parking garage at the corner of Washington and Buckingham streets with a larger one that would have 1,000 spaces. A new entrance on the east side of the 85-year-old building and a wide, pedestrian plaza — about the width of a football field — also are part of the project.

Melody Currey, commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, said the renovations will no doubt spark other development in the area. The wide plaza would open up the area and make it more inviting for pedestrians, both workers and potential future residents.

"This could be really beautiful, I think, and encourage residential development in this area," Currey said.

In theory, the redevelopment vision is clear, but the choreography, in practice, is another matter. The new, larger parking garage needs to be built first before development begins on the state office building's parking lot. The Bushnell's patrons who now depend on the lot also would need another place to park. And while Currey supports the area's redevelopment, she is clear: "It can't impact our project." Currey said she also needs to find another 450 parking spaces beyond the 1,000.

CRDA's Freimuth envisions between 50 and 100 rowhouses on the state office building's parking lot. The buildings would face out to Capitol Avenue and Buckingham Street, perhaps with a new internal road. They could have three or four bedrooms and sell for between $200,000 and $500,000, and parking could be under each rowhouse. Apartment rentals are another option, Freimuth said.

For this housing and other future development to work, land now privately owned in the area will be need to be figured into the equation.

"Given the fact that the state appears to continue along its path, the area is ripe with a nice runway for redevelopment," James Wakim, president and chief operating officer at Konover, said. "Everything is very preliminary. There is no soup on the stove, so to speak, but we are happy to be part of this dialogue."

Konover will have a major stake in Bushnell Square, beyond its parking lots. The state now pays Konover $5 million a year to lease the building at 55 Elm St., in the northeastern corner of Bushnell Square. But when work on the State Office Building is complete, state employees in 55 Elm and elsewhere will be permanently relocated to the renovated building, part of a larger state office space consolidation.

The Elm Street building has long been targeted for conversion to housing, with its views to Bushnell Park. CRDA, active in providing financing for a string of housing conversions downtown, may find itself with some leverage to either acquire and partner in the development of Konover's parking lots in exchange for helping to finance a housing conversion at 55 Elm.

Creating A Neighborhood

When the Bushnell was built in the late 1920s, the streets in the immediate area were lined with homes and shaded by trees. Even then, there was speculation that the Bushnell would spur redevelopment for apartments, stores and offices. In the decades that followed, though, the State Office Building and other government edifices rose, followed by the steady expansion of parking lots as workers increasingly commuted from the suburbs.

The shops, restaurants and apartments were never built, even with pushes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Other cities have successfully merged theaters with real estate development. In mid-town Manhattan, the off-Broadway Signature Theater became part of a block-long building that included a hotel, a restaurant and condominium units in 2012.

Cleveland's thriving Playhouse Square district rose from the city's historic — but rundown — theater district, beginning in the 1980s. Today, the two-block district boasts a mix of apartments, office space, restaurants and bars, the result of about $350 million in private investment and public subsidy.

"We've created a neighborhood," Art Falco, Playhouse Square's president and chief executive, said. "For the office workers and those living in the neighborhood, there is a continuous sense of excitement. It doesn't happen overnight, but you develop one project that's successful and that gives developers confidence for the next."

In recent years, Hartford has had success in leasing new apartments in an effort to draw more residents into downtown, an effort also dependent on public subsidies. Those strides, however, have come as the city struggles with deepening fiscal troubles.

"Even as we wrestle with the severe fiscal challenges we have right now, I think there is still a strong sense that we are at a moment of real opportunity in this city," Bronin said. "If we can get our foundation strong, we'll be able to see that potential."

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