Hartford — The dust is settling downtown in Connecticut’s capital city.
Dust from construction, that is.
While plenty of smaller projects are still underway, the grand opening of the University of Connecticut’s new branch campus Wednesday means for the first time in about a decade and a half, there is a lull in major redevelopment downtown.
And for the first time in two decades, the city has no concrete vision in place to serve as a blueprint for wide-reaching downtown redevelopment in the years to come.
Since the late 1990s, downtown redevelopment has largely been driven by former Gov. John G. Rowland’s “Six Pillars” and the blueprint his administration developed with leaders in the private sector.
Though it evolved over time, the bulk of it ultimately became what is now known as Adriaen’s Landing and the Front Street District, a nearly $1 billion investment over 15 years that led to the construction of the Connecticut Convention Center, Science Center, a new retail district, housing, parking and – most recently – the new UConn campus.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy updated the vision when he took office in 2011, making a greater push for downtown housing, while strongly backing the relocation of UConn’s Greater Hartford branch from the suburbs to a new home in the city.
With UConn settling its new building on Prospect Street, the redevelopment efforts at the Adriaen’s Landing site – stretching from the riverfront to Main Street – are now largely complete. One last apartment building is under construction on Arch Street, and a handful of retail spaces in the UConn building are still being completed as well.
But what major projects are coming next? That remains unclear.
What is clear is that two projects that would have an outsized impact downtown remain on hold. This pause in development, of course, had not been planned.
The first of the two projects is the city’s stalled redevelopment of the area just north of I-84. Officials broke ground on what’s being called Downtown North, or “DoNo,” in 2015 with the hope of transforming a swath of surface parking lots into a vibrant retail and restaurant center with housing.
At its center would be the city’s new minor league baseball stadium, Dunkin’ Donuts Park. In July 2016, after the developer – Centerplan Construction Co. – missed numerous deadlines, the city took control of the project and turned the ballpark’s completion over to another developer. The $71-million stadium was completed in 2017 – a year after Centerplan initially said it would be.
A second wave of construction – mixed-use buildings surrounding the stadium – was supposed to be underway at this point. But the city is tied up in a legal battle with Centerplan over the decision to remove them from the project. Centerplan still owns the surrounding surface parking lots, which has put a hold on farther development around the stadium for months. It is unclear how long it will take for the dispute to be settled in court.
The second project is a proposal Malloy put forward earlier this year to spend $250 million on top-to-bottom renovations of the city’s aging downtown arena, the XL Center. State lawmakers have yet to decide whether to approve it.
Even if a comprehensive blueprint for broad redevelopment existed, moving forward still would prove difficult, as both the city and state are struggling financially.
Hartford is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or state takeover, prompting two of the three major credit ratings agencies to downgrade the city’s bonds to “junk” status. This limits the city’s ability to make any significant long-term investments.
The city has spent months awaiting a signal from the state legislature on whether a takeover is in the works or if bankruptcy remains the only alternative should circumstances necessitate action.
The indecision on the part of state officials is a product of the two-year, $3.5-billion deficit projected for this fiscal year and the next. Lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on a budget despite the state being seven weeks into the new fiscal year.
These budgetary challenges have led some lawmakers to voice concerns about how much the state should be borrowing to fund redevelopment projects in Hartford, as well as other cities and towns across Connecticut.
Hartford in particular faces greater scrutiny, because some lawmakers and business leaders have expressed skepticism about its ability to use these public investments to spur significant private-sector growth while the city’s property taxes remain far and away the highest in the state. The city has a mill rate of 74.29 – nearly 55 percent higher than it was about a decade ago. Waterbury is second at 58.22 mills. No other municipalities have rates above 50 mills.
Just over half of the Hartford’s property is tax-exempt – government buildings, colleges, hospitals, nonprofits, religious institutions and a wastewater treatment plant – leading the city to argue it has had no choice but to dramatically raise its mill rate to offset increasing debt service and pension costs in recent years.
Hartford officials and business leaders agree the rate needs to be lowered, but the city’s budgetary challenges have made it all but impossible.
Larger forces also stand to complicate future development. Two potentially far-reaching changes – new routes for the city’s two major interstates and a relocation of the city’s transit hub – are in the planning stages, and will limit all other discussions about the city’s future until they are finalized.
These factors have left public officials and business leaders with little idea of what the future holds for the capital city.
“To sit here and speculate on what downtown looks like five years from now would be foolhardy,” said Oz Griebel, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce. He said there are too many unanswered questions about the city’s finances at this time.
“I think the devil will be in the proverbial details,” Griebel said of whatever solution the city ultimately pursues. “What is the plan? What does it look like? Who’s going to be responsible for paying what? What haircuts are going to have to be taken? What changes to tax-exempt properties, if any, are going to occur?”
XL Center: Renovate or demolish?
The $250 million renovation of the XL Center remains on the table as budget negotiations continue at the Capitol.
The 42-year-old arena – formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center – draws thousands of people from across the greater Hartford region each year for sporting events, concerts and other showcases.
It is the home court for roughly half of UConn’s basketball games each season – both men’s and women’s – as well as all of the school’s men’s ice hockey games. It also is the home to the Hartford Wolfpack, a hockey team in the AHL.
Malloy first floated the renovation plan in February as part of his two-year budget proposal, but the notion is hardly new. Rowland included the “rejuvenation” of the facility in his six pillars two decades ago – but fell short of that goal. The arena continued to age, and fell into the state of near-disrepair that it is in today.
Leaving it alone, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, is not an option.
“That investment is critical, because the alternative is to close and demolish the building,” he said. “And if you’re going to close and demolish a building of that size, you’ll likely be sitting on a blighted, vacant hole in the ground for decades to come.”
Malloy is still pushing for the project to be included in the bond package approved as part of the budget process. He said he “can’t imagine a Hartford without the XL Center.”
“And I know that preserving this existing structure would be a lot cheaper than building a new one,” he added.
But the cost still has many balking at the idea. The plan’s detractors have accused state and city officials backing the project of chasing extravagances – such as a second concourse in the facility and new luxury boxes – in an attempt to lure an NHL team to the city. Hartford was home of the NHL’s Whalers until the franchise left for North Carolina in 1996. Bronin flatly denies such a motive.
“Investment in the XL Center is not being made in the hope that by doing that you’d attract an NHL team,” Bronin said. “It’s that there are only two options.”
When asked whether there is any way around the $250 million price tag, Michael Freimuth – executive director of the Capitol Region Development Authority – gave an unambiguous answer: “There’s not.”
“After making this investment to reposition downtown Hartford, why would you then turn around and let something go away?” Freimuth asked.
Brendan M. Fox, a former senior advisor to Rowland during his administration, said Malloy’s plan is an opportunity to complete what Rowland tried to do two decades ago.
“The civic center is important to the vitality of downtown Hartford,” said Fox, who served as executive director of the Capitol Region Development Authority’s predecessor, the Capital City Economic Development Authority. “Two hundred and fifty million dollars is a lot of money, but if that’s what CRDA says it takes, then I certainly don’t disagree with them.”
Patchwork projects, more private dollars
Regardless of whether the XL Center project is given the green light, city officials still want to move forward with what they describe as smaller, targeted projects that will open up more vacant buildings for housing and connect disparate pockets of vitality downtown.
Those projects are funded by CRDA, a quasi-public entity that loans out public dollars – usually a modest percentage of the total cost – to spur private investment.
“We really need to stay committed over the long term to the effort that’s been led by CRDA to fill in those gaps and bring those empty, vacant parcels not just back on the tax rolls but back to life,” Bronin said.
“Recognizing the incredible power that CRDA’s investments have had is very important,” he added. “With a relatively modest capital investment, buildings like the Bank of America building downtown or the old Sonesta Hotel or the Capewell Factory or the Hartford Office Supply building have been given a new life.”
Freimuth said CRDA has invested $60 million in housing initiatives over the past three years, and drawn $200 million private investment in return.
Whether CRDA can continue to loan out as much as it has remains a question as its budget grows tighter, a reality he acknowledged.
“I think we, as an entity, are going to focus less on being a banker to various proposals to renovate buildings downtown,” Freimuth said. “We’re going to do less of that and be more of a stimulant, more of an initiator of new investments.”
Freimuth said developing the vacant lots near The Bushnell, for instance, has earned higher priority because there appear to be more private dollars in play.
Uncertain future for Hartford’s interstates, transit hub
The next sweeping plans for Hartford’s redevelopment and growth will have to account for two major changes that are still in the works.
The first change is one that has been born of necessity. The I-84 viaduct that weaves through the heart of downtown is 10 years past its expiration date. State officials are pursuing an option that would lower the interstate slightly below grade. They also are exploring the possibility of moving its junction with I-91 farther north of the city center.
The plans have not been finalized, and it appears to be years away from breaking ground on its construction.
Complicating matters for state officials, however, is U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District. He is pushing for the federal government to grant Connecticut billions in funding to pay for the construction of tunnels beneath the city for both I-84 and I-91.
That would allow for the construction of new boulevards across the city and open up the Connecticut River to development. The riverfront is currently blocked by the route of I-91.
His plan has yet to gain traction, and it remains unclear what major transportation spending, if any, the federal government will pursue before Connecticut moves forward with the state plan.
The city also has begun exploring moving its transit hub, Union Station, which currently sits on the west side of the downtown area.
This process is in its earliest stages, but the new location of the hub will play a role in future development as well, as the city looks to capitalize on the arrival of commuter rail between New Haven and Springfield next year.
“We’re going to be cognizant of that,” Freimuth said. “There are dynamics that are bigger than what’s at stake and invested next year. They’re bigger, frankly, than the XL or CRDA or anybody sitting in a high position today.”