$850 million CT proposal would be most dramatic riverfront redevelopment in this town in 50 years

$850 million CT proposal would be most dramatic riverfront redevelopment in this town in 50 years

$850 million CT proposal would be most dramatic riverfront redevelopment in this town in 50 years

A rendering looking north shows the proposed $850 million Port Eastside, mixed-use development, at right, along the banks of the Connecticut River in East Hartford. A new pedestrian bridge with a plaza also is part of the plan. (MBH Architecture)
By Kenneth R. Gosselin | kgosselin@courant.com | Hartford Courant

EAST HARTFORD — A sweeping, $850 million transformation of East Hartford’s riverfront could include as many as 1,000 new apartments, restaurants, entertainment venues, medical offices and a new pedestrian bridge across the Connecticut River, completing a walkable loop envisioned for decades that would connect East Hartford and Hartford.

The proposal for Port Eastside has been percolating for more than a year and would be the most dramatic redevelopment of East Hartford’s Founders Plaza area in 50 years.

While the plans are in the earliest stages, the developers completed another crucial step Thursday in assembling 22 acres, part of 30 acres initially needed for the project. The purchase of the 99 Founders Plaza, a former office building, for $4 million would be one of three structures along East River Drive that would be demolished to make way for the new development.

Demolition could begin by the end of 2023, and construction — a first phase of apartments likely going first — could begin within a year.

“We started to see the possibilities of taking back the Connecticut River on both sides of the banks,” said Marty Kenny, a longtime Hartford-area developer who joined the partnership seeking to develop Port Eastside earlier this summer.

A rendering looking south from the Founders Bridge shows the Port Eastside development, at left, beyond the Riverpoint on the Connecticut condominium tower, built in the 1980s. (MBH Architecture)

Kenny said clustering development on both sides of the river would be a potent magnet for visitors and tourism. But construction of housing — a combination of market-rate and “workforce” rentals — also would support broader economic development growth. The area would provide an attractive place for workers live and spend time as the region seeks to bring new businesses to the Hartford area, Kenny said.

Port Eastside could spawn more than 2,400 construction and 850 permanent jobs in the Hartford area.

“We’re tired of watching every other city do it. San Antonio. Chattanooga. Minneapolis.,” Kenny said.

Even with thousands of apartments added in the last decade in and around downtown Hartford, Kenny still foresees healthy renter demand in the coming years.

An aerial view of the 30 acres in East Hartford proposed for the $850 million Port Eastside redevelopment. The plans include 22 acres, plus 8 acres for greenway improvements along the Connecticut River. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“We’re taken a hit during the pandemic, but we’ve maintain above 95% occupancy with our apartments,” Kenny said. “The idea here is to create more housing and to create more people able to go on both sides of the river and have more entertainment opportunities.”

Kenny said he also sees the addition of workforce housing, with rents below market rate, as dovetailing well with the Gov. Ned Lamont’s goals of bringing more affordable housing options to Connecticut.

’50 years and nine mayors’

A key component of the proposal is the pedestrian bridge across the river. The new bridge would connect the existing walkway on the Founders Bridge and the riverwalk in Hartford back to East Hartford.

Improvements along 8 acres of the East Hartford riverfront would include a promenade built on top on top of the existing river dike — in the spirit of New York’s High Line — completing a 1.3-mile loop for pedestrians and bicyclists. The existing boat launch and recreation areas in Great River Park would remain and be upgraded, Kenny said.

The walking and biking improvements also would complete another link in the East Coast Greenway. The greenway seeks to connect 15 states and 450 cities and towns for 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida.

A map shows the area, at right, outlined in red where the Port Eastside development could be built (Google Maps)

East Hartford Mayor Michael Walsh said the Founders Plaza area stands in sharp contrast to the development that has taken place directly across the river in Hartford in the past two decades. The development stretches from Coltsville north to Mortensen Riverfront Plaza.

So strongly does Walsh believe in this project is that he is not running for a second term and will devote time to working on Port Eastside in an unpaid position.

“It’s been 50 years and nine mayors, including myself, and not a thing has gotten done there,” Walsh said. “The project looks real. The developers are real. They are known to central Connecticut, and it’s substantial.”

Ambitious, even daunting

The scope of Port Eastside is ambitious, even daunting. It faces significant hurdles, including $100 million in state and federal funding — $55 million for the bridge alone — plus $42 million for the greenway and $3 million for new transit center tucked under a mid-rise apartment tower. The transit center would accommodate buses, bicycles, shuttles and other modes of transportation.

In addition, the town of East Hartford would have to approve a $45 million “tax incremental financing” agreement to build a 1,000-space parking garage that would be hidden behind a structure to buffer it from the river. Such a financing agreement allows governments to uses taxes on future gains in real estate values to pay for new infrastructure improvements.

The developers also would seek an additional unspecified amount to subsidize the construction of the workforce housing, Kenny said.

An aerial view of 300 East River Drive and Great River Park in East Hartford and the Colt Building across the Connecticut River, the area is targeted for an $850 million redevelopment. 300 East River Drive is one of three structures that would be demolished to make way for the project.(Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

 At a recent meeting with state and local officials, some eyebrows were raised at the public subsidy that would be needed for the project.

“Everyone did a deep swallow when we talked about this,” Kenny said.

But Kenny said he pointed out that it represented less than 20% of the overall cost, the rest coming from private investment.

The development partners also come to Port Eastside with experience, in some cases, decades in real estate and development, Kenny said.
They are Bruce Simons and Harris Simons of West Hartford-based Figure Eight Properties, both formerly of the family-owned Simons Real Estate Group. The brothers were initial proponents of the Port Eastside Project, with the redevelopment’s architect, Nicholas P. Michnevitz III, president of MBH Architecture in West Hartford.

Partners also include Jeffrey S. Hoffman, the well-known co-chairman of the Hoffman Auto Group in East Hartford; James Manafort, president of the Plainville-based Manafort Bros. Inc. construction company; Peter S. Roisman, a Hartford-area native, who is now president and chief executive of a Houston-based apartment leasing company; and Alan Lazowski, founder and chief executive of the LAZ Parking empire.

Great River Park in East Hartford would be targeted for upgrades as part of the $850 million Port Eastside redevelopment. The iconic blue, onion-shaped done of the Colt factory complex is visible across the river in Hartford.(Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

Kenny, founder of Hartford-based Lexington Partners, and Lazowski have partnered on real estate investments, including in downtown Hartford.

With construction materials costing 30% more and borrowing rates at 20-year highs in the aftermath of the pandemic, the partners are investigating the potential for less expensive modular construction. One of those companies, FullStack Modular, relocated to Hamden from New York City earlier this year.

“We can cut the construction period by two thirds, and it could be built in Connecticut,” Kenny said. “It could be built in Connecticut. We could actually ship those up the Connecticut River to the site as a creative way to make these things work.”

Inspiration from the river

A first phase of apartments — perhaps 750 units — is expected to launch construction along with commercial space that would eventually encompass 300,000 square feet. The project would likely need to expand beyond its current footprint to accommodate 1,000 rentals. Kenny declined to comment where that might be.

Construction could take five years to complete, with the timeline for the bridge and walkway stretching out longer. Work in and around the river will require a lengthy period to secure permits. Public funding also must be put together.

Walsh, the East Hartford mayor, said there is strong support locally from the town council, state legislative and Congressional leaders, including U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-East Hartford.

Port Eastside would join other proposed redevelopment on the eastern banks of the Connecticut. Those include plans by the Simon Konover Co. for about 130 market-rate apartments just to the southeast of the Port Eastside property. Beyond that, Goodwin University also has plans for a hotel, restaurants and housing, but has shelved a plan for a $4.5 million marina.

The inspiration for the architectural designs of the new buildings at Port Eastside comes from the river, according to MBH’s Michnevitz.

Michnevitz said conceptual renderings show gentle curves rather than sharp, angular lines to reflect the movement of water.

The design for an eye-catching plaza in the middle of the pedestrian bridge is a drawn from the pattern of a drop of water from the river. The water is subjected to vibration in a method known as “cymatics.”

“Under a microscope, it starts to form a shape,” Michnevitz said. “It’s similar to the geometries of a snowflake when it freezes. The same thing happens with water under liquid vibration. And under the microscope that image is actually the molecular makeup of the Connecticut River where this development is.

”Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at kgosselin@courant.com.

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