June 5, 2017

Region's older office space refreshed to woo tenants, talent

PHOTO | Bill Morgan
PHOTO | Bill Morgan
Westport landlord Brian Kohn inside the remodeled atrium in his Goodwin Square office tower, 225 Asylum St., in downtown Hartford.
PHOTOS | Bill Morgan
New seating and planters adorn the reworked entry-lobby at CityPlace I, 185 Asylum St.
PHOTOS | Contributed
Counterclockwise, from top: Fiduciary Investment Advisors’ Windsor workspaces at 100 Northfield Drive as re-envisioned by Bloomfield office-interior designer Infinity Group U.S.
PHOTOS | Contributed
(Above) The open, inviting design of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.’s technology “help desk’’ and a fitness center are among employee amenities at its Hartford campus.
PHOTOS | Contributed
(From left) Bright colors replaced much of the dark wood in the lobby at 500 Enterprise Drive in Rocky Hill. At center is a lounge area; far right, another view of the recast lobby.

A youth movement is underway among the Hartford region's urban and suburban office buildings.

Aging downtown Hartford skyscrapers, including the Gold Building, Goodwin Square, CityPlace I and The Hartford's midtown campus, have completed, or are close to, makeovers of their entry lobbies, common areas and/or office suites, installing such amenities as seating and sitdown or standup tables accessible to mobile phone-charging stations and free Wi-Fi. Sleek technical "help desks," fitness centers and outdoor patios also are among offerings for which landlords say tenants and their employees clamor.

The suburban landlord of 500 Enterprise Drive in Rocky Hill recently replaced most of the 29-year-old office-building's staid, dark wood in its lobby/atrium with lighter colors and a geometric wall hanging. A new outdoor patio will expand seating options for the building's cafeteria, and a proposed indoor arcade/lounge area will appeal to tenants' staff of Millennials.

It's all meant, say building owners/managers, space designers and lease brokers, to modernize spaces in their decades-old edifices at a time when tenants are eager to have offices that help them attract and retain talent, particularly younger workers.

"We're seeing a big push toward more amenities,'' said architect Tony Amenta, a principal in downtown Hartford's Amenta Emma Architects, which redesigned the lobby of One Financial Plaza, known as the Gold Building. "From what we're seeing, landlords want to position older buildings in keeping with amenities newer buildings have.''

"But it's really about attracting a workforce,'' added Joel Grieco, executive vice president in the Hartford office for realty broker Cushman & Wakefield, which handles leasing for 500 Corporate Ridge. "It's the most current thinking on what motivates people and makes them the most productive in the workplace.''

The major difference now, Grieco says, is that amenities that were once limited to newer, high-profile office space are showing up in older buildings. They provide, he said, a relatively inexpensive way to stand out against the competition and to attract or retain tenants, who in turn rely on them to attract and retain talent.

That push also extends, Amenta says, to reconfiguring individual tenants' office spaces to include more open areas, small fitness rooms, and kitchenettes, or "work cafes,'' equipped with Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and food-beverage vending machines that allow them to double as dining and meeting rooms. One downtown Hartford financial company is looking at integrating some of those features into its office space, Amenta said.

The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. has a head start remaking much of the space at its Asylum Hill campus, with recruitment and retention in mind. Among the touches is a renovated technical "help desk,'' evoking Apple Inc.'s "Genius Bar'' setup in its stores, and an upgraded fitness center.

Susan Johnson, head of diversity and inclusion at The Hartford, said the renovated offices "create a more contemporary environment that appeals to all workers, including Millennials."

For example, The Stag's renovated headquarters has an open design with natural light, state-of-the-art technology, Wi-Fi throughout the building, collaboration spaces to encourage teamwork, soft seating in common areas, video-conferencing capabilities, a fitness center and on-site coffee shops, she said.

Its Tech Express help desk, Johnson said, "has the look and feel of a modern computer retail space, including a vending machine for common computer parts that need to be replaced."

Suburban facelift

Four years ago, Boston landlord KS Partners bought four Rocky Hill office buildings — three it still owns. One of those is 500 Enterprise Drive, a four-story, 306,000-square-foot office building in the sprawling Corporate Ridge office park.

Aside from the lobby makeover and new outdoor patio being installed, KS added an upper-floor multimedia conference room, a new roof, updated the building's heating/cooling systems, and resurfaced the parking lot, said KS regional real estate director Thomas Hulk Jr. An existing conference room adjacent to the building's cafeteria will soon be converted to a game-room/lounge area with TV, foosball and air-hockey tables, and a fitness center will follow.

"It breathes new life into an existing building," Hulk said.

Among 500 Enterprise's two dozen tenants is Acadia Insurance, a unit of Greenwich insurer W.R. Berkley Corp., that houses a regional team of agents/brokers in the building. California global civil-engineering giant AECOM Technical Services Inc. has a branch there. Zurich Insurance and AT&T, too, are tenants.

"A lot of our tenants' own [worker] demographics are changing from an older to a younger generation," Hulk said. "Tenants want their employees to stay and work and get done the things they need done.''

To that end, they insist on "a dynamic setting'' to help them attract and retain talent, he said.

In the building's lobby, much of the mahogany paneling installed when it opened in the '80s, was removed and the walls coated in grays and whites, to give the space a lighter, open feel, Hulk said.

With similar improvements to the lobby/common areas at 55 Capital and 175 Capital in Corporate Ridge, the landlord has so far spent about $1.4 million, Hulk said. Including the estimated $700,000 budgeted for the patio, game room/lounge, conference room and fitness center, the tab to make over 500 Enterprise Drive alone runs about $1.5 million.

Since buying 500 Enterprise and making interior/exterior updates, KS Partners has lifted the building's occupancy from 82 percent then to 94 percent now. Nearly 2,000 people work in all three buildings, Hulk said.

The improvements also have allowed the landlord to "start a slow increase in rents'' to recoup its investment, he said, despite a generally soft market for rent hikes.

Shortage impact

In downtown Hartford, the updating of decor and electro-mechanical systems at Goodwin Square are complemented by extensive upgrades that a new owner made to reopen the companion Goodwin Hotel.

In addition to the hotel's ground-floor bar-restaurant, the Goodwin office building's retail tenants include a juice bar fronting Asylum Street, and Bin 228 Restaurant on the Pearl Street side.

But not everything is peachy. Landlords/tenants and their renovations contractors must contend with a red-hot construction market in which skilled hands, such as electricians, are in short supply due to demand for new apartment construction/renovation.

Also, rising prices and shortages for certain building materials complicates office landlords' renovation schedules and budgets, observers say. Rising materials and labor prices have pushed commercial renovation costs from $25 a square foot two to three years ago, to $35 to $40 a square foot now.

"Suppliers, general contractors and subcontractors have been busier than they have been in the past,'' Hulk said. "You have to have a well-maintained [work] schedule to keep them booked.''

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