HARTFORD — Two prominently-located downtown Hartford office buildings — one, a historic, former bank on Pratt Street and the other, directly across from Bushnell Park — could be converted and add another 120 apartments — and ease the stockpile of lower-grade, older office space that has gotten even tougher to lease after the pandemic.
The proposals also would capitalize on the continued strong demand for residential leasing in the downtown area.
The Simon Konover Co. of West Hartford is proposing a $7 million conversion of the upper floor offices of 31-45 Pratt St. — once the headquarters of the old-line Hartford lender Society for Savings — into 37 market-rate apartments. The existing Society Room of Hartford, the banquet and event venue in what was the old bank lobby, would remain.
Two blocks to the south, the 5-story, 1920s building at 15 Lewis St. would be converted in a $26.7 million project to 78 apartments — 10% of them at affordable rents — and its main entrance would relocated from Lewis to Jewell St. The building new name — “The Jewell” — would reflect the change and new orientation to the park.
Lexington Partners, founded by the late Marty Kenny, a major developer downtown and in the surrounding region, is partnering with building owners LAZ Investments, an arm of parking giant LAZ Parking founded by Alan Lazowski, and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, downtown’s largest commercial landlord.
“It’s an obvious recognition that the ‘B’ market space is done,” Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said. “It’s not inconsistent with what we have been doing downtown over the last few years anyway. The projects that we have been doing is ‘B’ space to a new use. It’s their recognition of it and they are basically going this route because they see the market going there.”
Occupancy levels are falling in top-of-the-line, marquee office towers downtown. Employers are downsizing their leases as more office employees work from home full- or part-time. There is some hope that tenants that once sought out ‘B’ space will move up a rung to more modern space and negotiate favorable leases. That would cut into the space coming onto the market.
CRDA, which has helped finance apartment redevelopment downtown in the last decade, is being asked to approve a low-cost, state-taxpayer-backed $1.1 million loan for the Pratt Street project and a $5 million loan and $2 million equity investment for Lewis Street.
Those requests will be considered Tuesday by CRDA’s housing committee. They also must pass muster with the full CRDA board of directors and later, the State Bond Commission.
Since 2013, the downtown area has added more than 3,000 apartments. Another 440 are under construction and an additional 400 are closing to securing financing. On top of that, another 1,200 are in the “pipeline,” including the first phase of Bushnell South.
If the Pratt Street proposal were successful, it would join in a revitalization of the brick-lined, pedestrian-only street in the heart of downtown The recent conversion of 99 Pratt St., at the corner with Trumbull Street, into 97 apartments now has a 100% occupancy a year after first beginning leasing.
The street also is seeing an increasing uptick in new storefront restaurants, bars and other shops, partly financed by the city’s Hart Lift grant program.
“Tenants are increasingly hard to come by in ‘B’ office space in downtown Hartford, and we see the opportunity to turn it into high quality apartment living in downtown on Pratt Street,” said Newt Brainard, Konover’s vice president of development and acquisition. “We see that as a ‘win-win’ for both the city and our property.”
According to CRDA, projected average monthly market-rate rents would range from $1,300 for studios to $1,600 for a one-bedroom. Average unit sizes would range from 400 to 750 square feet.
The building at 15 Lewis has stood vacant for more than three years. Prior to the pandemic, there was some consideration given to turning the structure into a “micro hotel” but that has not been financially-feasible as the hospitality industry recovers from a battering during Covid.
While the building’s smaller interior spaces no longer make it desirable for modern offices, they do lend themselves to apartments, the developers say. And the pink-colored Sandstone piers and arched windows at ground-level make a strong statement, they say.
“We believe the site is probably one of the nicest sites available in all of the downtown,” Jane Davey, director of asset management and acquisitions at LAZ Investments, said. “The views of the Capitol are phenomenal. The structure of the building — it’s got some great features in it: nice high ceilings, great high windows, so we began to revisit the concept of doing housing there.”
The new apartment building also would likely have a rooftop space for tenants and a restaurant would likely occupy the storefront once leased by Vito’s on the Park, Davey said.
Projected average monthly rents would range from $1,500 for a studio to $2,300 for a two-bedroom, according to CRDA. “Affordable” monthly rents would range from $1,400 to $2,000, CRDA said.
Units range in size from an average of 380 to 800 square feet.
The conversion of the building would complete the transformation of a block that also once included two highly-visible vacant office buildings at 101 and 110 Pearl St. Those buildings were converted into apartments.
“We’re still really bullish on downtown,” Chris P. Reilly, president of Lexington Partners, said. “There’s still a lot of demand to be met in downtown. And with the resurgence of retail that we’re going to see over the next six months, we think its only going to get better.”
If financing were lined up and city approvals are secured, the projects would be expected to get underway next year.
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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