As UConn returns, a chapter in Hartford’s history is completed

UConn’s place in the Hartford skyline.

Hartford — For nearly a half-century, the University of Connecticut has had no place to call its own in the state’s capital city. Today that changes as Connecticut’s flagship university opens the doors of its new $140-million downtown branch campus on Prospect Street.

The arrival of the campus, which comes after five years of false starts and setbacks, is a milestone for the university and the city of Hartford. Hundreds attended the grand opening ceremony downtown Wednesday morning.

For UConn, it marks the institution’s return from the suburbs into the heart of the city – where the school first opened its Greater Hartford branch in 1939. It moved to West Hartford in 1970.

The university, in the years since, had been able to continue to claim a “presence” downtown. Some of UConn’s graduate business programs are housed in a space it leases in 100 Constitution Plaza, and the university’s basketball and ice hockey teams play games in the XL Center every season.

But now, UConn will have a place to call “home.”

“It absolutely does feel like a return,” UConn President Susan Herbst said. “We have always had a presence in the city, but there is no comparison to relocating our entire campus there, because of the major new physical presence downtown and the fact that all of our academic programs, students, faculty and staff will be housed there.”

“This is one of the most significant things UConn and the state will do in our lifetime,” she added.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

UConn President Susan Herbst claps during the grand opening ceremony at the new campus Wednesday.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said its opening will be “one of the most momentous days in UConn history,” while Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said it is “a tremendously significant development for not just the Front Street or Adriaen’s Landing area, but for the entire city.”

For Hartford, UConn’s move means – at the very least – another vacant building is now filled and more foot traffic is coming to the Front Street District.

The Hartford Times building, which had been empty for more than a decade and a half, was incorporated into the façade of the new UConn building – a design crafted by Robert A.M. Stern, former dean of Yale’s architectural school.

The university says more than 2,300 students are enrolled at the campus for classes this fall, with 200 full- and part-time staff joining them. City officials hope their arrival will spur greater economic development.

But the opening of the campus also is a symbolic end, perhaps, to a sweeping project that began two decades ago when one CEO’s vision for redevelopment and a too-good-to-refuse offer from the New England Patriots collided at the desk of a governor looking for a win in one of Connecticut’s urban centers.

Though the last phase of the Front Street District development is still in progress – a relatively modest apartment building on Arch Street – the buildout is largely complete, said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capitol Region Development Authority.

And, many argue, it has been a success.

The university’s new campus sits in what many city officials and business leaders say is an expanding pocket of vibrancy at the core of a city whose fiscal challenges may be deep enough to necessitate bankruptcy or state takeover.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

The crowd started gathering outside the historic Hartford Times building well before the ceremony began.

That pocket of vibrancy – known as Adriaen’s Landing to some, or the Front Street District to others – is the product of an undertaking that fundamentally transformed a large portion of the city’s downtown. UConn’s new campus was not initially included in the project, but Freimuth called it “the capper” on it.

Measuring the impact of the investment in that site – which amounts to nearly $1 billion over the past 15 years – is difficult in concrete terms.

The city has gained little in the form of revenue from the development. Under the state law that authorized the creation of Adriaen’s Landing, the retail spaces were designated tax-exempt. Nearly all of the other buildings also are non-taxable, as they are owned by the government or nonprofits.

Civic leaders are quick to point to the increase in foot traffic, and say the impact is best illustrated on days like Monday, when 3,000 people visited the Connecticut Science Center and stood shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the partial solar eclipse at the riverfront. That would not have been possible a decade ago, Freimuth said.

“If you’re not watching, you’re not seeing it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s right in front of you.”

One man’s vision

Most state and local leaders don’t disagree with the notion that what exists at Adriaen’s Landing now is far better than the vast parking lots and underdeveloped properties that existed before.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

A sign directs drivers to the destinations in Adriaen’s Landing downtown.

Yet, perhaps most intriguing is how much of what exists came together because of the brief-but-tumultuous period in 1998 and 1999 it appeared possible the New England Patriots would relocate to Hartford.

“The concept of the redevelopment of downtown came about to a large degree as a result of (Gov. John) Rowland’s failed attempt to lure (Robert) Kraft and the Patriots here,” said Oz Griebel, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce.

The process began years before the Patriots became involved, however.

Much of the credit for Adriaen’s Landing belongs to the persistence of one man: Robert W. Fiondella, former CEO of Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Company

Fiondella has largely stayed out of the public eye over the past decade and a half, but in the 1990s and early 2000s, he was one of the foremost public figures in Hartford.

He first put forward the concept of Adriaen’s Landing in 1997, which he began developing in 1994 after being named CEO of Phoenix. He and his two partners – Bill Mead, an architect, and Cy Kirby, an engineer – spent three years working on the proposal.

Both Mead and Kirby have since died, but Fiondella has lived to see his vision put into practice. In his first interview in more than a decade, Fiondella told the Connecticut Mirror he is proud of what he was able to accomplish.

“I think Hartford’s better off for it,” Fiondella said. “I think there’s a lot of vibrancy down there, and a lot of jobs have been created.”

That was not the case two decades ago, he said.

“In 1994, there was not a single crane anywhere in Hartford,” Fiondella said. “There was no construction. Certainly, in downtown, there was nothing going on. Insurance companies and banks were either struggling or merging or being acquired. Corporate headquarters had moved.”

“So, Hartford, I would say, coming into the ‘90s, was in a state of economic and psychological depression over the future,” he said.

Fiondella and his partners wanted to do something groundbreaking, but believed one facility alone would not be enough. So, he said, they initially decided to marry five separate-but-critical projects. Those projects were:

  • A new hotel and convention center, which Mayor Michael Peters initially wanted closer to I-84 near the current site of Dunkin’ Donuts Park;
  • A second “destination” facility – first pitched as an aquarium, but in the end, became the Connecticut Science Center, which had been slated for construction across the river in East Hartford;
  • A football stadium to serve as the home for UConn’s soon-to-be-Division I football team – an issue that had yet to be resolved;
  • A retail and restaurant center with housing units – which went through several iterations before being hammered out as the Front Street District that exists today; and
  • Access to the riverfront, a project already underway by Riverfront Recapture that was refocused and, ultimately, expanded through its connection to the new facilities.

The name of the site – Adriaen’s Landing, which has fallen out of common use today – was Fiondella’s idea to win over additional private investment. He wanted to name the site after Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer who sailed up the Connecticut River and landed in Hartford in 1614.

Rowland gets involved

The trio developed several drafts over time, which caught the attention of Gov. John G. Rowland.

“My recollection of the initial designs or the concept drawings that were produced by Bob Fiondella and his team, they were very, very, very dramatic,” said Brendan M. Fox, a senior advisor to Rowland at the time and, later, executive director of the Capitol Region Development Authority’s predecessor, the Capital City Economic Development Authority. “That captures the attention of a lot of people.”

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

The Connecticut Convention Center and the Marriott Hotel, part of Adriaen’s Landing.

Rowland formed a state task force at the end of 1997 to refine the original proposal.

In May 1998, Rowland unveiled what he called “six pillars” for Hartford’s economic redevelopment, which included the task force’s draft of Adriaen’s Landing. In some ways, the pillars largely mimicked the goals Fiondella laid out: building around a central location, expanding housing, developing the riverfront and increasing parking.

But Rowland’s vision was broader than Fiondella’s. It called for the opening of a community college downtown and the revitalization of the civic center.

Shortly after the announcement, Fiondella said, Rowland approached him and his team with something of a bombshell: The New England Patriots, he told them, privately had expressed interest in relocating to Connecticut.

Almost immediately, they began redrawing the designs and, by July 1997, determined it would be feasible to place an NFL-caliber sports megaplex next to the convention center to accommodate the Patriots’ request, Fiondella said.

And for a short time, it seemed to have paid off. Just two years after the departure of the Hartford Whalers, the city’s longtime NHL franchise, the New England Patriots announced in November 1998 the franchise would move to Hartford.

It proved to be a short-lived victory, however. Rowland watched as Patriots owner Robert Kraft used his deal with Connecticut as leverage to sway the Massachusetts legislature to invest millions into a new stadium and infrastructure upgrades in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

When the Patriots formally backed out of the deal with Connecticut in 1999, it proved to be a bitter defeat for Rowland. He decided to push forward with Adriaen’s Landing anyway, though he opted to move the football stadium to East Hartford when United Technologies Corp. offered the land at Rentschler Field to the state.

The core of Fiondella’s original vision emerged from the Patriots fallout intact, though many of the cosmetic details had changed – and would continue to change in the years to come. State lawmakers eventually gave the plan final approval in May 2000, paving the way for a decade and a half of development. That chapter in the city’s history closes, at least symbolically, with the opening of UConn’s new campus today.

Completing the connection

While Fiondella is not actively involved in the city’s economic development anymore, he still keeps up with the latest news – including UConn’s move to the Front Street District.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin

He said it’s no coincidence that is the site they chose.

“Would UConn be moving to that place if Adriaen’s Landing did not exist?” Fiondella asked. “Probably not, but moving there really enhances that whole region.”

Herbst doesn’t disagree.

“The fact that Front Street was already a growing neighborhood certainly played a role in selecting the site,” Herbst said. “But its proximity to the Wadsworth, Science Center, City Hall, major companies, the Convention Center, and Hartford Public Library, among other things, was just as important.”

“Because our campus will both draw from all the area has to offer and will also add additional life to it. The campus and the surrounding area complement each other perfectly,” she added.

The interconnectedness of the campus with its surroundings is significant, Bronin said. He said he believes the campus will play pivotal role in connecting two critical parts of the city’s downtown.

“What’s so exciting about the UConn campus is that it does complete one important connection,” Bronin said. “It links Front Street to the beautiful area where you have city hall, the Wadsworth Athaeneum and the Travelers Building, which has in turn been linked by the iQuilt Project down to Bushnell Park.”

A long-term investment

Still, one of campus’ major drawbacks was the continued rise in its cost. Originally projected at $70 million, it was completed at a cost double that – $140 million.

“The odds are that you are going to run into unexpected costs whenever you undertake a project like this,” Herbst said. “The work and the resources required to bring this to a reality are well worth it and a day will come when no one will be able to remember a time when there wasn’t a vibrant university campus in downtown Hartford.”

One of the major obstacles UConn ran into probably came with incorporating the Hartford Times façade into the final design, Freimuth said. He said the university had to physically elevate the building for an extended period of time while making some critical repairs – something that likely was not anticipated initially.

The university also acquired several neighboring buildings to add more space at the campus, which was not included in the original budget.

Whatever the added cost might have been, Freimuth said, it was worth it.

“Great public places need to be something that inspire. I think they’ve achieved that when you go in that building. They’ve achieved that sense of place, that sense of permanence, that sense of public-, civic-mindedness,” he said. “So you’re going to pay a premium for it.”

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