December 11, 2017

Spectra Boutique Apartments developers lure downtown tenants with amenities

Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever
Spectra Boutique Apartments developer Jeff Ravetz (left), of New York-based Girona Ventures, and his project partner Joseph Klaynberg of Wonder Works Construction, recently showed off their new creation, Spectra Wired Café, which is an amenity that aims to attract tenants and serve as a social gathering place downtown.
Photo | Steve Laschever
Spectra Wired Café (above and below) has a modern look with ample seating.
Photo | Steve Laschever
Spectra Boutique Apartments has tried to differentiate itself from other downtown apartments with amenities like a movie theater and exercise facility.
Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever
Spectra Boutique Apartments also has a basketball court.
Photo | Steve Laschever
Photo | Steve Laschever

When Jeff Ravetz, president of New York-based Girona Ventures, first acquired the former Sonesta Hotel on Constitution Plaza in 2011 — with the goal of converting the building into 190 upscale apartments — he did not have a plan for the building's 5,000 square feet of street-level space.

"We initially thought we'd lease it to a retailer," Ravetz said, "but as we spent more time in Hartford, and saw the positive things unfolding, we decided we wanted to create an active community space that would enhance the city in a way that a traditional retailer could not accomplish."

This past September, two years after the completion of Ravetz's Spectra Boutique Apartments project — which was developed in tandem with Joseph Klaynberg's New York-based Wonder Works Construction — Spectra Wired Café debuted, a modernly designed venue with cement floors, wooden shelving and partitions and ample casual seating.

"We've created an all-purpose café where working people can stop for coffee and breakfast in the morning and we also serve wine and beer so it's a place for people to go after work as well," Ravetz said.

Chris Doscas, an associate with Girona Ventures, said his company's newest offering is meant to be an amenity for the building's tenants, but also to Hartford's downtown community.

"We wanted to create a destination that would enhance our apartment building and create foot traffic and buzz because there are a lot of young people in the city," Doscas said. "And that's where a lot of the economic and social growth and change comes from in any developing city."

Downtown's rising population of young professionals, and others, has been a strong driver of demand for Spectra Boutique Apartments, which has consistently had occupancy rates of 95 percent or higher since leasing started in 2015, according to Laurie Waddell, the building's property manager.

Those numbers don't surprise Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), a quasi-public agency created to invest in projects that convert downtown properties into housing units.

"Young professionals both nationally and in Connecticut want to go into an urban core," he said. "For years people were saying nobody's going to rent downtown, but the problem was there was nothing to rent."

That's been changing in Hartford, which has seen more than 1,000 new CRDA-supported apartments hit the market in the past few years.

"At certain points, [the market] was doing 40 to 50 new units a month, which was four or five times the rate we expected to do," Freimuth said. He noted that while there is a broad range of apartments — from modern to rehab to new construction — amenities are a big driver of demand. In terms of market value, downtown Hartford apartment rents typically go for around $2 per square foot.

And amenities are where Spectra has tried to differentiate itself. The building features a 35-seat movie theater, a 24-hour hardwood basketball court, fitness center and library conference rooms — a popular attraction among graduate students who account for a fair percentage of the building's occupancy.

Those amenities are expected to increase by 2019, when Girona Venture's two newest Hartford properties — the long-vacant office buildings at 101 and 111 Pearl Street — are expected to be converted into nearly 260 new apartments.

"Tenants in all three buildings will be able to access and share each building's amenities, as if they lived there," Doscas said.

Despite the Capital City's financial woes, Ravetz said Hartford is ripe for investment and he's encouraged by the state's and city's efforts to revitalize the city. He points to the relocation of more than 2,000 state employees to nearby Connecticut River Plaza, UConn's new downtown campus presence, and the opening of Dunkin' Donuts Park as signs of transformation.

"Hartford has a lot of runway in front of it to continue to grow," he said, noting commercial property pricing is much cheaper and financing is more readily available in Hartford than in the region's other major metropolitan centers.

"It's difficult to have a huge impact on New York City, but we felt like we could in Hartford," Ravetz said.

CDRA's Freimuth said he is also encouraged by the signs that he sees. "In the past five years, we've seen five new coffee shops open downtown," he said. "These are small entrepreneurial efforts capitalizing on a changing environment downtown."

He notes that Spectra's Wired Café opened under a building that was empty for 17 years and now houses more than 200 residents.

"These [converted] buildings are changing from empty shells into performing rental properties," Freimuth said. "And (they) have added about $1 million to the city's tax revenues, not to mention the discretionary income from tenants to support downtown restaurants, retailers and entertainment."

Ravetz said he also wants Spectra Wired Café to be a community partner.

"We want to help local artists display their art, and have local musicians play," he said. "We want to be an integral part of the community and its growth."

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