From the landmark Heublein Tower, the scenic view of Simsbury shows most properties as specks on the landscape — with the exception of one: the sprawling suburban campus of The Hartford Financial Services Group.
Even from a distance there is no mistaking the 173-acre parcel and its 641,000-square-foot main building, the size of four Walmart supercenters.
Now it's up for sale by The Hartford, which is looking to cut costs. The huge parcel's fate will dictate the future direction of an entire section of Simsbury — and have no small impact on the town's grand list. The Hartford pays $1.6 million a year in property taxes.
The site is the latest in a growing number of single-tenant suburban campuses in the state and nationally that are rapidly becoming outmoded as the space needs of corporations shrink.
"It's a little like when the Roman empire fell and the Barbarians came in," Patrick Pinnell, a Hartford-area architect and planner, said. "What do we do with all these temples?"
Husks Of Another Era
In the past decade, suburban corporate campuses around Connecticut — some built as recently as the 1980s — have been abandoned. Technology has replaced workers who once did routine data entry and other tasks. Corporations are allowing an increasing number of employees to work from home. And lean economic times have led companies to get along with fewer employees.
The town of Ridgefield bought the former Schlumberger-Doll Research Center in 2011, after it sat vacant for five years. One of the buildings on the campus was designed by Glass House architect Philip Johnson. Only now is the town trying to sell off portions of 45-acre site to recoup its $7 million investment.
And in Groton, Pfizer is knocking down a 750,000-square-foot research center amid a dramatic downsizing in the state.
"These large buildings after many years don't fit the typical size of tenants in our current market," said Jonathan Putnam, a broker at commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield in Hartford.
Experts say the era of the large, single-tenant office complex in the suburbs is rapidly coming to an end. There are some exceptions, such as state-subsidized Jackson Laboratories research complex in Farmington that seeks to capitalize on being close to the University of Connecticut Health Center.
The Hartford will continue to pay real estate taxes to Simsbury as long as it owns the property. But the revenue will be drastically cut when it vacates the property in the next few years, removing computers and other taxable property. The money spent in town by workers at the 200 Hopmeadow St. complex also will dry up.
"The early 1980s was certainly significant with The Hartford coming to Simsbury," Hiram Peck, the town's director of development, said. "The hope is we will be successful in attracting other uses for the property. And then that would be the next chapter for The Hartford's property."
Changing With The Times
The Hartford's arrival in Simsbury, on the banks of the Farmington River, was preceded by a divisive debate in town between those welcoming new, large-scale development and those who worried about urbanization of the bedroom community.
The issue was so hotly contested that 3,000 residents jammed the town meeting to vote on the matter. At that time, the town meeting was the largest in Simsbury's 311-year-history.
The campus opened in 1984. At its height, The Hartford employed about 3,000 people at the complex, which includes a massive data center and a building with three distinctive wings. The Hartford wouldn't say how many workers are in Simsbury now, but in February, when the insurer first announced its intentions to leave, there were about 1,500. Of the sale, the insurer would only say the process was continuing.
The Hartford is a much different company than when it first arrived in town. When the insurer built on land it bought from the town, it was expanding its life insurance operations, which found a home in Simsbury. Today, amid a dramatic restructuring set into motion by the recent recession, The Hartford sold off portions of those operations and is consolidating remaining workers at its Hartford headquarters and a newer, smaller campus in Windsor.
When the $50 million complex in Simsbury was constructed for The Hartford, it was the largest business center in the town. This time around, the redevelopment of the property could be just as dramatic.
This fall, the town, in conjunction with The Hartford, researched possible uses for the property and came up with a myriad of options that could mix bioscience research, technology or higher education with a strong component of housing, possibly mixing single-family houses, condominiums and apartments. Housing would be paired with shops, restaurants and other services.
One option would return some of the property to farmland for growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables.
Peck said the redevelopment essentially would create a new section of town. Housing options would encourage workers to live in the same neighborhood so they could walk to work.
The vision is far-reaching and would likely require a master developer, Peck said. New zoning regulations are being written, and development would likely take a decade or more. The wild card is the economy, and uneven job growth could further stretch out the timetable.
John M. McCormick, executive vice president at commercial real estate services firm CBRE/NE in Hartford, hired by the insurer to market the property, said there has been early interest in it. He declined to identify the parties.
McCormick said the redevelopment of a portion of the Cigna campus in Bloomfield serves as one model. In 2003, the Emhart building, or North Building, was demolished and in the years that followed apartments, single-family houses, a golf course and shops rose on the site. Retailers are a mix of national chains and local independent operators, he said.
Studies by a consultant hired by the town — part of a "charette" — shows Simsbury has similar potential, McCormick said. In addition, the office building is easily divided for smaller tenants, he said.
"This is an underdeveloped site that has all sort of attributes that could provide live, work and play opportunities," McCormick said.
'Urban Vibe In The 'Burbs'
Nationally, complexes like The Hartford's are increasingly being reimagined as "small cities," said James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
"You make it multi-use by surrounding it with other uses," Hughes said. "What you're trying to do is create an urban vibe in the suburbs."
One recent example, Hughes said, is in Bridgewater, N.J., where a 1.2-million-square-foot office and research park formerly occupied the Sanofi, the French pharmaceutical giant was purchased by a developer. The developer wants to create a hotel, retail, restaurant and possibly, apartments.
In Connecticut, the redevelopment of the former Union Carbide headquarters in Danbury took a similar course. The new owners of the 1.2 million-square-foot building, designed with pods to resemble a molecule, have invested $20 million into the structure since buying it for $74 million in 2009.
Aaron Smiles, director of corporate leasing for the owner, Matrix Realty Group, based in Long Island, N.Y., said the complex — vacated by Union Carbide after it was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2001 — already had two major tenants when Matrix purchased the property: pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and Praxair, a former Union Carbide division.
Those tenants, still anchors, accounted for 45 percent of the complex, a plus, but there had been little investment in the property by two owners that followed Union Carbide.
"You stepped into the building, and you were right back at Union Carbide," Smiles said. "Nothing had been done. We started ripping everything up."
In four years, Smiles said, the building is now 75 percent occupied, accommodating tenants who need as little a couple hundred square feet to tenants of 100,000 square feet.
"We act as an incubator for large companies as well as small companies," Smiles said. "This is now our flagship building."
Key to the makeover has been the addition of amenities: a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, child-care center with outdoor playground, a massage therapist, a bank, a hair salon, a Starbucks and a nail salon. The building also has been promoted for use for conferences and wedding.
"It's a little city," Smiles said. "It's absolutely a little city."
How quickly such a redevelopment would be embraced by Simsbury remains to be seen. Several years ago, residents turned out in force to oppose big-box retail development just down the road on Hopmeadow Street.
Hughes said redevelopment of sites such as the one in Simsbury can be jarring, at least at first, for town residents.
"You're talking about intensifying the use," Hughes said. "It's not the quiet facility surrounded by grass and trees anymore."
An early version of this story mistakenly reported the annual tax payment on The Hartford's Simsbury property. The assessed value is $44 million. The annual tax payment is $1.6 million.