Hartford Focuses on Bringing Life to Downtown
Jamie Bratt says that when many people think of Hartford, they envision the city as it was decades ago; a bustling metropolis where a lot of people worked and lived.
A sharp decline began in the ’80s, but over the past decade there has been a gradual upswing, and a flood of investments that began several years ago are aimed at restoring it to its former vibrancy.
“It’s a very exciting time for the city,” the director of Economic Development told BusinessWest. “One of the things that makes Hartford attractive is its size. It has an extremely robust arts and cultural scene, great restaurants, and access to the movers and shakers in state government, but it’s a small city that’s easy to get to.”
Mayor Luke Bronin, who took office in January, agrees and says economic development is focused on three main areas downtown: increasing the number of residential living units; adding new transportation options; and growing the number of medical and educational facilities.
The city is making major inroads on all three fronts, but the first is critical to growth, and there has been a concerted partnership between the City of Hartford and the state to increase the number of downtown residences.
“We’ve added 650 units over the past five years and the projects hold a lot of promise,” Bronin said, noting that many of the new apartments are in converted office buildings, the majority have been completed over the past 18 months, and the Capital Regional Development Authority (CRDA) established by Gov. Dannell Malloy to stimulate economic development and new investment in and around Hartford has served as an economic engine by providing gap financing and coordinating a significant number of public-private partnerships.
And although surveys indicated that downtown housing would be difficult to rent out, that prediction has been proven to be inaccurate. “Studies showed we would be lucky if five units a month were leased,” Bratt said. “But developers have been beating performance expectations and have been leasing 10 to 20 units a month.”
She added that the majority of renters come from outside of the city and are Millennials; the average age of people leasing new units is 40, although empty nesters also comprise a fair share of that population.
“Millennials don’t want to have a lot of property or a large house. They like to live in cities and a large number don’t have cars or a driver’s license,” Bratt contined.
Increasing the number of people who live downtown will balance the weekday versus weekend equation, because in recent years there has been a decided difference, as the population on weekends is reduced by 100,000 people.
“We’ve focused on establishing a balanced equilibrium and so far we have been very successful,” Bratt told BusinessWest. “The jobs are here and if residential living follows, retail growth will increase in response to it.”
The CRDA has also been working to expedite what Bronin referred to as a “long and stagnant development effort” on Front Street, which is finally coming into its own as a restaurant and entertainment district.
“It was a wasteland before, but now there’s a collection of retail shops and restaurants across from the Hartford Convention Center. They all involve new construction and have become a strong draw for residents,” Bronin said, explaining that the Front Street neighborhood includes the Marriott Hotel and the Connecticut Science Center, which attract large numbers of visitors as well as business travelers.
There is also a new 121-unit apartment building that was built as part of the second phase of the Front Street District development project that features 15,000 square feet of street-level retail space with five stories of studio and one and two-bedroom apartments priced at market rates.
For this edition, BusinessWest takes an inside look at major changes taking place in downtown Hartford that are expected to promote vibrancy and make the city an attractive place to live, work and play.
Laying the Groundwork
The University of Connecticut (UConn) left the city in 1970 and moved to West Hartford, but it is returning to its former home and creating a large campus downtown.
“It will really add energy and feet on the street,” Bronin said, adding that the university is part of the push to attract more educational facilities to the city because they have been shown to increase growth, diversity, and job options.
Indeed, UConn and city and state leaders have said the 220,000- square-foot downtown campus will transform the area into a thriving neighborhood with 2,300 students and 250 faculty members, especially since food service will be limited, which will make downtown eateries inviting.
The center of the UConn Greater Hartford Campus will be situated in the old Hartford Times building, which is undergoing a $115 million renovation. Its façade is being maintained, but the interior is being entirely renovated, and a three-story atrium and classroom building will be added to the back of the building. The new campus is expected to open sometime in 2017.
Other institutions of higher learning add to the mix. Bronin noted that Trinity College is a long-standing Hartford institution, the University of St. Joseph has its School of Pharmacy in a state-of-the art building downtown, and Capital Community College redeveloped the former G. Fox building 10 years ago.
“It was a huge risk for them, but they were early pioneers in downtown development,” he noted.
News is also taking place on the medical front: Hartford Hospital held a ribbon cutting earlier this month for its new $150 million Bone and Joint Institute downtown. Surgery is expected to begin next month and will help the hospital compete with leaders in bone and joint surgery in New York and Boston.
The new facility will create jobs and draw visitors and other medical professionals to Harford as is expected that the hospital will collaborate with other medical facilities. “Hartford Hospital is a growing major employer and has become a center for many medical subspecialties,” Bronin told BusinessWest. “We’ve worked closely with them on their new building and another one that is under construction on the southern edge of their downtown campus that will house a training center for robotic surgery, which is a program that brings in healthcare professionals from all over the country.”
The third critical pillar of economic development is transportation, and the planned increase in commuter rail service will make a difference, especially to people who choose to live or work downtown. Twenty trains a day are expected to start running in 2018 that will travel between Springfield and New Haven, Conn.
“They will be a major driver of economic growth and the combination of new housing, medical, and educational facilities will really support revitalization of a vibrant city center,” Bronin said, adding that the rail service will extend to New York, and the hope is that Massachusetts will complete the link between Worcester and Springfield.
Additional access to the city may come via the I-84 viaduct that runs over the city. Bronin said the roadway is reaching the end of its useful life and the Connecticut Department of Transportation is planning work that would lower sections and reconnect it to parts of the city.
Hartford also just adopted a Complete Streets policy, and earlier this month was feted as a Bicycle Friendly Community by The League: Bicycle Friendly America.
In addition, 10 streetscape projects are in various stages of development and two are finishing up downtown, that include widening the promenade that borders Bushnell Park.
Economic development is also taking place north of the downtown area. Chester Bowles Park public housing complex, which was built after World War II in the city’s Blue Hills neighborhood, is being demolished to make way for a new mixed-use development called Willow Creek. Hundreds of old buildings have been taken down and 62 mixed-income rentals and 29 town houses are being built as the first phase of the project, which will cost about $40 million.
The park is part of a larger, 130-acre complex that includes Westbrook Village, which contains 360 units of public housing on 65 acres that were also built after WWII. The plan is to demolish outdated structures and replace them with a mixed-use development that will include housing, retail, and commercial space.
Bronin said the project is especially significant because Westbrook Village fronts Albany Avenue, which is a main city corridor.
The CRDA has $20 million set aside for neighborhood development in the North End Promise Zone,” he told BusinessWest, explaining that the federal designation gives the area priority in terms of funding because it has been deemed “high need.”
Entrepreneurship in Harford is also poised to grow, thanks to two projects.
Avon residents Bryan Patton and his wife Devra Sisitsky have raised $1.3 million to build the state’s largest Maker Space at the Colt Armory Complex. They hope to attract 400 members and plan to outfit the space with CNC machines, lathes, a sand-blasting booth, a water-jet cutting machine, a metal-fabrication area, design software and monitors, 3D printers and other equipment that could be used by hobbyists and professionals for a monthly fee.
Another space for start-ups known as Innovate Hartford recently opened at 20 Church St. with the goal of bringing in 100 high-tech companies a year to a 27,500-square-foot space in Stilts Building.
Bronin said the former Colt Armory was one of the first factories in the nation and a tremendous amount of repurposing has been done there.
“The city has partnered with the state and private investors to revitalize the residential neighborhood and attract new commercial tenants,” he noted, adding that the National Park Service adopted a large portion of the complex and turned two buildings into a museum that will become part of a national park.
The Capewell Horse Shoe Nail Company building, which is a 10-minute walk from downtown, fell into disrepair about 30 years ago but has also been redeveloped.
“The Corporation for Independent Living purchased it, turned it into apartments and began leasing them a few weeks ago,”Bratt noted, explaining that the building is one of about 15 properties that have been under construction, with the majority being renovated for residential use.
“They include diverse options; some are affordable housing and others are market-rate,” she said. “Hartford is a wonderful choice for anyone interested in an urban lifestyle.”
Officials say attracting Millennials to the city, bolstering transportation options, creating new maker space, and adding new medical and educational facilities will make a real difference in downtown Hartford’s vitality.
“Revitalization all comes down to feet on the street, and that is increasing,” Bratt said. “Progress is a patchwork quilt of individual projects slowly knit together over time and each one of these projects is a patch that will help make the city more beautiful, walkable, and connected.”
Hartford at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1784
Population: 125,432 (2014)
Area: 17.95 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $74.29 (at 30% of fair market value)
Commercial Tax Rate: $74.29 (at 70% of fair market value)
Median Household Income: $72,275 (2015)
Family Household Income: $91,759 (2015)
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: State of Connecticut, Hartford; United Technologies Corp.; Yale New Haven Health System
* Latest information available