October 8, 2018

Amid its success recasting downtown, what's next for CRDA?

Photo | HBJ File
Photo | HBJ File
Michael Freimuth, a former Stamford economic-development official, is the first and only executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority. He is credited inside and outside the quasi-public agency as the consummate dealmaker.

Six years after its formation to restitch downtown Hartford's tattered inventory of aging office buildings into needed housing, the Capital Region Development Authority is at a crossroads.

The successor to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a key proponent for creating the quasi-public, taxpayer funded land- and economic-development entity, will decide the fate of not only CRDA's mission, scope and funding, but prime state assets it oversees, including Hartford's aging XL Center.

All of the major candidates running to replace Malloy generally agree CRDA's mission is valid and that it should continue in its efforts.

But there's far less consensus on how much money the state should invest in CRDA-backed projects, including maintaining and upgrading Connecticut's key public sports/entertainment venues or building new housing downtown, especially given the fiscal climate.

Malloy has led the way in investing tens of millions of dollars in Hartford-related projects during his two terms in office, not including his controversial bailout of the city's nearly $550 million in debt.

At one of his final meetings Sept. 20 as chair of the Bond Commission, the Democratic governor and his fellow commissioners greenlighted $52.7 million in funding for, among other CRDA-involved projects: a downtown Hartford grocery store; a new downtown parking garage to accommodate the planned Bushnell South development; and up to 200 new apartments in the shadow of Dunkin' Donuts Park, in the city's Downtown North quadrant.

Meantime, CRDA's top leaders, including its chair, say they do not expect post-election changes to the agency, its mission or core staff, led by Executive Director Michael Freimuth, a former Stamford economic-development official.

They also say they've successfully been able to move toward the goals and mission set out by the legislature in 2012, which includes erecting 3,000 new housing units downtown.

According to its latest annual report, CRDA has invested close to $100 million of bonded taxpayer funds to leverage redevelopment of 23 ex-commercial buildings into 1,546 housing units in Hartford with a total construction value of $413 million. Those buildings are now generating north of $1 million in new tax revenue to the city.

Moreover, landlord-borrowers in some of CRDA's earliest housing-conversion deals, namely downtown's 26-unit The Grand on Ann and 190-unit Spectra apartments, have repaid most or all of their CRDA obligations, said Freimuth, whose seven-year CRDA contract runs through 2023.

CRDA's most visible success, Freimuth said, has been focusing initially on the "dirty dozen'' of center-city and near-downtown buildings most in need of rehabilitation. CRDA also manages seven downtown parking garages, with 17,445 spaces.

An intangible benefit from CRDA's work, he said, is how it has turned from negative to positive the narrative about Hartford and the region as users and residents flock to its newest work, live and play amenities.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, an ex-Malloy aide who sits on CRDA's board, agreed, saying the agency has "changed both the reality and the attitude'' about the city.

"CRDA has been the single most effective economic-development initiative in the Capital City in decades,'' Bronin said.

The next step, Bronin says, is for CRDA and the city to collaborate on "in-fill'' development of its vacant, blighted and underused parcels, including Spinnaker Real Estate Partners' planned 108-unit market-rate apartment project at the corner of Park and Main streets.

Eleven of the dirty-dozen Hartford buildings have now been converted to apartments or other uses, including the former Bank of America building at 777 Main St.; the former Capewell Horse Nail factory in the South End; the former downtown Capitol Lofts, being converted to the Teachers Corner apartments; and the former Hartford Times Building, home to UConn's downtown campus. The lone holdout: the vacant former YMCA high-rise on Jewell Street that Northland Investment Corp. owns.

Those early deals, Freimuth says, were testbeds for creative approaches to financing developments, particularly instances where landlords needed help filling gaps not covered by borrowings or equity. State and local housing tax credits, along with CRDA support, have often filled funding breaches.

Meanwhile, CRDA and landlords of some of its latest sponsored developments will face a challenging 2019, he said, as the local housing market absorbs 467 new apartments next year.

"The market is going to be impacted,'' Freimuth said of space absorption.

Developer role

Today, CRDA is evolving, he said, into less of a "banker,'' helping identify and structure loans, equity and tax credits, and more of a property co-developer and manager. Its staff's technical expertise not only assists Hartford, but neighboring communities in the region with their economic-development aspirations.

The state, for instance, retained CRDA to oversee redevelopment of a pair of office towers at 450 Columbus Blvd., now housing state employees. CRDA also helped the city negotiate with owners of Hartford's new pro soccer team on a Dillon Stadium lease and renovation plan.

In East Hartford, CRDA is working closely with the town, Pratt & Whitney, Goodwin College, and others, to redevelop the Silver Lane corridor — a major boulevard linking the town to Hartford and Manchester.

The agency also is assisting East Hartford, town officials confirm, in buyout talks for the 26-acre former Showcase Cinemas site fronting I-84 East, where the town once hoped to land a casino. CRDA also is expected to advise East Hartford about redevelopment options for the property.

CRDA also is advising East Hartford in talks with Founder's Plaza's landlord about a possible parking garage to free acres of surface parking on the riverfront office campus to development.

"East Hartford has less than 5 percent of raw land left for development," Mayor Marcia Leclerc, a member of CRDA's board, said via email. "In order for the town to grow the grand list, we must work in priority areas that offer that potential and the riverfront area offers that opportunity."

Important role

Leclerc was one of several current CRDA board members and executives who said the next governor and legislature should keep the agency, perhaps even cloning versions of it to serve other regions of Connecticut. Freimuth said a brief effort to do that died in the legislature.

"CRDA has put the Greater Hartford region on steroids,'' Leclerc said, "and everyone should be watching and eager to see what is next."

CRDA is the successor to another development agency, CCEDA, spawned under former Gov. John Rowland to develop Hartford's Adriaen's Landing and Front Street mixed-use projects.

With the final stage of Front Street, construction of new apartments along Arch Street, nearing completion, Freimuth said CRDA is finally close to "stitching together'' downtown back to the riverfront.

CRDA also is in talks with representatives of landlord Larry Gottesdiener and his Northland Investment Corp. about tying in his Hartford 21 atrium to the XL Center, to improve visitors' access and experiences there. An eminent domain seizure of Northland's atrium space, too, remains on the table, Freimuth said.

Gottesdiener confirmed talks with CRDA about a potential sale of the Hartford 21 atrium to the agency.

"As a long-term, committed Hartford investor and developer," Gottesdiener said via email, "we are seeking an amicable resolution that is in the best interests of Hartford and the Capital Region."

Indeed, Freimuth says most of CRDA's time and energy are centered around ongoing electrical, mechanical and other problems with the aging building's infrastructure. He said CRDA considered relocating XL Center elsewhere downtown, but the time and cost to assemble buildable parcels was problematic.

One alternative under review would scrap plans for a massive $250 million XL Center rebuild, to one in which the upper and lower seating "bowls'' are reconfigured to modern standards, a move Freimuth says could cut the price tag in half, to $125 million.

Funding the project will likely be the decision of the next governor.

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