Simsbury Facing 'Big' Problem: The Office Complex Left Behind

The Hartford's sprawling campus at 200 Hopmeadow St. in Simsbury is up for sale. (RICK HARTFORD)

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.

Health insurer Aetna demolished its 1.3 million-square-foot campus in Middletown in 2011, once touted as the office park of the future. The 260-acre property remains on the market.

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.