The big, splashy apartment projects draw most of the attention — and the public dollars — in Hartford, as the city works to attract downtown dwellers. But now some of that money is beginning to flow to a growing number of more modest developments, in and around the central business district.
"It's an effort by us to fund, on a smaller scale, projects that can fill in or use vacant buildings, many of them that are historic," said Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, which wants to add 1,000 rental units to the downtown area in the next five years.
The CRDA is considering financing five of the smaller conversions, mostly in the Asylum Street area near Union Station, and there is potential for more, especially in and around Pratt Street, Freimuth said.
The pending projects include converting a former home, dating to the 1840s, at 36 Lewis St. into eight apartments, as well as 65 units at the Capitol Center at Asylum and High streets.
Most of the conversions will be in commercial property, much of it old office space. So, while the strategy is to bring more residents downtown, the projects also will push up the values of the buildings by filling them with paying tenants, Freimuth said. And, if the buildings' values rise, so, too, would the property taxes paid to the city.
As CRDA pursues its housing strategy downtown, the number of units in various stages of approval and financing are adding up to nearly 1,000. Freimuth said he believes, based on studies, that the market will be able to absorb the planned units, but he acknowledges that the downtown residential market has yet to be tested.
"The market is changing, in part, because we've created the market," Freimuth said. "We're mindful of the rate of expansion, and we have to properly calibrate that."
City officials say that demand for apartments in downtown Hartford could also be stoked when the University of Connecticut relocates its West Hartford campus to the city. Although the campus has a heavy commuter population, some might choose to live downtown and walk to classes, they say.
The developers of one of the five buildings under review — 179 Allyn St. — say their market research has shown that there is pent-up demand for apartments for young professionals, whom they hope to attract.
Marc Daigle, principal of Dakota Partners Inc. of Waltham, Mass., said that their forecast for rentals is bolstered by encouraging signs of revitalization in downtown.
"There is a lot of excitement in the city," Daigle said.
Freimuth said that most of the apartments in the smaller buildings will be market-rate, studio and one-bedrooms units. They typically will range in size from 600 to 900 square feet, with rents likely between $1.60 and $1.75 a square foot. For a 600-square-foot apartment, the rent probably would be from $960 to $1,050 a month, plus parking.
For developers, CRDA offers financing in the form of loans and equity investments, the idea being that the money that is paid back will later fuel other projects, Freimuth said.
Daigle and his partner, Roberto Arista, plan 63 one-bedroom units, ranging in size from 550 square feet to 900 square feet. The average rent will be between $900 and $1,000, plus the cost for parking.
The partners plan to restore and retain the brick-and-terra cotta facade, and such attributes as the marble lobby. Windows will be replaced with ones that fit the period of the building, but they will be energy-efficient, Daigle said.
Daigle and Arista are purchasing the building, near Union Station, from a foreclosure. They hope to begin construction later this year. In addition to CRDA financing, the partners say their lender, Bank of America, is supportive of the project.
On a recent visit to the building, Daigle and Arista walked up a stairway to one of the top floors. Daigle pulled on a doorknob and it flew out of his hand and clattered into a corner.
"We'll fix that," Daigle said.