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Wethersfield Welcomes Development, But Some Question Its Financing

Wethersfield officials and residents have expressed hope for a developer’s plan to flip a long-vacant amusement center, whose principal value for the town has been a place to dump excess snow. The fashionable, five-story, 111-unit apartment complex dubbed “The Borden” is Wethersfield’s “most significant development project in the last few years,” said Peter Gillespie, the town’s director of planning and economic development.

Town officials offered the developer, Lexington Partners LLC, a six-year, $1.4 million tax abatement, which will supplement a $5 million contribution from the State Bond Commission.

Apart from a recent project on Ridge Road, Wethersfield has not seen a large-scale apartment development in two decades, Gillespie said, and while the town isn’t exactly suffering from a housing shortage, there’s a dearth of up-to-date apartment housing with modern and marketable amenities.

The Borden, which will sit on Silas Deane Highway just south of Wethersfield’s major shopping plazas, will feature a dog park, a fitness facility and commercial and restaurant space on the ground floor.

“It offers a product we haven’t seen in town for quite a few years,” Gillespie said.

Lexington Partners told the town The Borden will cost roughly $28 million to build, and requested — and received — both state and town aid for the project.

Wethersfield gets receives $46,000 a year in taxes on the vacant Fun Zone property. Under the terms of the abatement, Lexington Partners will continue to pay that amount for each of the next six years, but pay no additional taxes for the first two years. Taxes will be levied on a sliding scale for the subsequent four. The town also will receive roughly $250,000 in permit fees when developers break ground sometime this month, according to documents filed with the town.

In a presentation to the council last month, developers estimated that the complex will increase enrollment in Wethersfield’s schools by eight to 16 students. Distributed among the K-12 schools, the new students would have “essentially … zero impact on the education budget,” an urban planner told the council.

“They’re not all entering one grade, one classroom, one place, so it doesn’t really affect the schools. We’d be pretty stable,” said Bobbie Hughes Granato, chair of the school board. “This is on a scale that Wethersfield could easily handle.”

The developers are seeking to attract younger tenants, she said, namely recent college graduates who tend to be unmarried and without children, which would minimize the project’s impact on local schools.

When the Fun Zone opened in 1995, residents were delighted to have a laser-tag and video game hub in town, and the council modified an ordinance that year to allow children under 18 to visit amusement centers without a parent or guardian. A 1997 Courant story called the Fun Zone “a playground for the mind and body.”

But the amusement center went south not long after that, and the property “has been vacant and blighted, depending on who you talk to, for the last 15 to 20 years,” Gillespie said.

Today, it is an empty, low-slung building, an age-speckled white save for patches of cream where graffiti has been painted over. Most recently, the town has used its lots as dumping grounds for built-up snow.

That the derelict Fun Zone property should be replaced is virtually undisputed in town. The property has featured in Wethersfield’s master development plans for the past decade, Gillespie said, and Deputy Mayor Steve Barry called The Borden development a “long-term home run.”

But some residents are questioning the financial prudence of giving the developers, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, a $1.4 million break, especially when they’ve already received significant funds from the state.

“Ultimately, it sets a bad precedent going forward,” said Mark Pappa, a Wethersfield resident who works as a financial adviser in Glastonbury. “Anybody who comes to us is going to say, ‘OK, the last two developments have gotten big tax breaks. Where’s mine?’”

Pappa was referring to the Ridge Road development, which in 2015 received a two-year, $400,000 tax abatement.

“I think anything is better than the Fun Zone,” Pappa said, “[but] my issue is that, the way the Democrats have run this town, spending money and giving away money everywhere, the only way to get anything done now is to give a big tax abatement to investors.”

Tom Mazzarella, a longtime resident who is running for a seat on the town council, objected to the tax abatement’s terms at a council meeting last month.

Mazzarella, who recalled bringing his kids to the Fun Zone for laser-tag and birthday parties 25 years ago, said some people misconstrued his comments as criticism of the project itself, rather than of the deal brokered between the town and the developers.

“That’s not the case,” he said. “[The Fun Zone] has been an eyesore, a piece of junk, for 20 years. All I wanted [the council] to do was sharpen their pencils.”

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