The city of Hartford is ramping up efforts to rehabilitate office spaces and convert them into apartments, to fill a gap in the city’s housing market.
Hartford resident Leila Gallupe moved into her current apartment, located in the former Bank of America headquarters, in December. She knew the building at 777 Main St. had been a bank of some sort, but learned more about the history of her new home as time went on.
It was initially the building’s modernity that attracted Gallupe and her boyfriend to the space, but features of the original building design added to their comfort.
“Because it was an office building, they had the floor-ceiling windows, and you really don’t get to experience the outdoors when you live in a city, but because the windows are so big, it makes it feel more open and like you’re more connected to what’s happening outside,” Gallupe said.
The 1967 building was converted into apartments in 2014. Of the building’s 285 units, 226 are market-rate rents and the other 59 units are affordable rentals for households earning up to 50% of the area median income.
The former Bank of America corporate office is one of several downtown buildings that saw rejuvenation in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the effort to fix up existing structures for housing has become more pertinent in the post-pandemic era, according to Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.
Two historic downtown buildings, on Pearl and Main Streets, are in the midst of restoration and will add more than 70 apartments to the city once the work is done.
“One of our top priorities well before the pandemic was to try to increase the residential density in the downtown so that we weren’t so overly dependent on commercial buildings to bring feet on the street and create that energy and activity in our downtown core,” Bronin said. “For a number of years, we’ve been focused both on converting old empty office buildings and building ground up on infill development opportunities and vacant lots.”
The former firehouse at 275 Pearl St. and municipal offices at 525 Main St. are under construction, with plans for work to increase this spring and summer, according to a development services presentation to the Hartford city council last month.
The properties are owned by Wonder Work Construction, which is based in Manhattan, and completed four apartment buildings in Hartford, all under the name Spectra, in the last decade. Wonder Works Construction did not respond to a request for comment.
The firehouse and city office building were sold to Wonder Works in 2021. The firehouse stood vacant since January 2020 and was sold to the construction company for $360,000, according to city documents.
The office building was underutilized since the city’s Department of Public Works moved to a location on Jennings Road. It was sold to Wonder Works for $425,000.
“From our perspective, we want to get as much residential density as possible, and we have not seen that limit,” Bronin said. “The demand for the residential that we’ve built, I think it becomes that much more important for us to try to be creative in pursuing these conversions.”
Bronin was recently quoted by the Associated Press regarding the feasibility of converting existing buildings to multi-family complexes, saying some buildings aren’t conducive for the switch.
A market report published in March by CBRE showed not many cities are taking advantage of the office-to-multifamily (OTM) conversion, and those that are show little impact on the need for more housing in inner cities.
“We would expect to see a corresponding increase in the rate of OTM conversions over the past two years if the relative demand of the office and multifamily sectors drives conversions, but despite the perfect cocktail of multifamily/office vacancy rates, the rate of OTM is little changed over the past 10 years,” the study read.
These conversions made up approximately 1% of multifamily units established over the past 20 years, according to the study.
“Repurposing unique, historic office buildings and contributing to downtown revitalization may not have an immediate macro impact on housing, but it is a meaningful contribution to urban sustainability, with likely spillover effects further down the line in rejuvenating neighborhoods,” the study read.
However, Bronin said the conversions are successful in Hartford and are sought after.
“We have a statewide housing shortage and so when new, quality units come online, the demand is strong, which is why I remain confident that we can continue to build at a rapid pace and without seeing that demand slow down,” Bronin said.
This story was first published May 5, 2023 by Connecticut Public.