January 22, 2018
FOCUS: Advertising, Media & Marketing

Marketing UConn's former West Hartford digs for redevelopment a tricky venture

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Realty experts say the town of West Hartford and UConn must create a more coordinated effort to sell the school's former campus (above) in town.
Diagram | Contributed
An overhead view of UConnís former West Hartford campus, which is spread over 58 acres.

The 58-acre, 48-year-old former UConn satellite campus in West Hartford is big, with pockets of contamination, and as of this past summer, empty.

Large, complicated sites like this one, which was vacated last year as UConn moved to downtown Hartford, can be a challenge to market, especially in a real estate environment dominated by developers who want to invest in growth states like South Carolina or Texas.

Now that West Hartford has formally rejected a $1 million purchase-and-sale agreement from UConn — mainly because of the remaining (though partially remediated) polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) contamination from the 1960s — the town is studying property reuses by launching a community engagement effort, Town Manager Matthew Hart says.

At the same time, the owner and seller, UConn, is actively — but not aggressively — marketing the property through a dedicated online website, while keeping communication with the town open, says the school's spokesperson Stephanie Reitz.

Effective marketing strategies for sprawling properties like this one involve parallel efforts to determine market demand, financial feasibility and community preferences through an engaging "visioning" process, says Mike Goman, a principal with East Hartford real estate advisors Goman + York.

"We don't like to see pretty pictures of things that will never get built," Goman says, referring to sellers who don't evaluate the market and community input in tandem first to get a realistic picture of what might work at a given site.

Since the town rejected the purchase Dec. 12, UConn has fielded an undisclosed number of inquiries from possible buyers, but spent little on marketing the property, handling the queries in-house, Reitz said.

"We're watching the town's engagement process while at the same time keeping our options open and talking with potential buyers who contact us," Reitz said.

"You can put it out on the internet and get info about the site in the hands of as many developers as you can," Goman observed when asked about the university's approach. "We're not big believers in that. We think it's better to start with a really deep understanding of the market and layer on top of that what the community can support and thinks is a good idea."

Another real estate consultant with 35 years' experience, Nicholas Morizio, Colliers International's Connecticut and Western Massachusetts president, says UConn is smart to work collaboratively, if informally with the town. West Hartford has all the control for what ultimately can be approved there through zoning laws, he said.

Morizio, who graduated from UConn after spending a year on its West Hartford campus, says he estimates a charge to market the property would be 3 percent to 5 percent of the sales price.

"You've got to find out what the community wants, and is it feasible," Morizio says. "Meet with the town, ask them what they're looking for, and then come back to reality and say, 'OK, this works; this doesn't work.' "

Development options

A 2016 conceptual site development analysis by civil engineering and landscape architecture firm Milone & MacBroom shows possible housing, as well as passive and active athletic and recreational uses for the property that would fit in with the environment, existing zoning rules and the character of the area. That includes private property owners and the University of St. Joseph as neighbors, Reitz and Hart said.

Existing zoning rules permit single-family residential use or special use for religious, academic and other facilities, said Dallas Dodge, chairman of the West Hartford town council's ad hoc subcommittee on economic development. Future uses may be envisioned that require rezoning, he said.

"If the town is going to work in partnership with some developer, there's going to have to be some grand list growth," said Dodge. "There are certainly possibilities under current zoning. I can't speculate on possible uses. The town council is the final arbiter on land use, so I can't prejudge any potential zone changes."

Milone & MacBroom is being paid up to $20,000 to facilitate a community engagement exercise in February to gauge support for uses residents and taxpayers would like to see, Hart said.

"We'll likely go out [after that], and look for a development partner — not market the site per se — but [solicit] someone who can acquire the property from UConn in partnership with the town," he said, acknowledging UConn could sell the former campus before that happens.

Goman asserts that marketing properties like this one requires the seller to assess what may drive demand first. And that's not an inexpensive proposition.

"To do it the way we do it," said Goman, "and get the market study done, and understand the demand, and [create] conceptual site plans to use to engage the community — that process [costs] $100,000 to $200,000 and takes six months or more to get through. In our view, with sites like this one, it's the only practical way."

Ideally, the seller works concurrently on both feasibility — what's physically possible in the marketplace — and visioning — what the community would like to see, Goman said.

"At the end of the day, you need somebody to sign up to use this space and pay for it," he said.

Financial feasibility also must be determined: cleanup costs, road and infrastructure costs, and if the eventual project would generate "enough revenue to make the cost side make sense," he said.

Morizio said another idea Hart would like to implement — establishing a public-private partnership with the right developer — makes sense, because a public entity like the town is eligible for brownfield grants to remediate contamination that a private developer could not get independently.

Ultimately, Goman says, the way to market this kind of site in New England, where the seller is competing with "10 'opportunities' a week" put in front of any potential investor, is to craft "a well-thought-out, well-supported story that can be moved to the top of the pile in the marketplace."

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