Hartford pressures downtown landlord to renovate blighted building

Hartford pressures downtown landlord to renovate blighted building

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The city is using its blight ordinance to pressure the owner of the Hartford 21 tower to do something with another prominent but deteriorating building near Bushnell Park: the former YMCA building.

After being slapped with a violation notice under the city’s anti-blight ordinance in December, the building’s owner, Northland Investment Corp., took out permits for work inside and outside the Jewell Street building

On Wednesday, there was a construction fence wrapped around the outer perimeter of the entrance to building, which faces Bushnell Park.

The YMCA building, in a prominent location across from the park, is seen as ripe for development, ideally for housing. Northland has owned the building since 2008 and at least two visions for redevelopment have gone nowhere, the last in 2015 for apartments.

Laura Settlemyer, the city’s director of blight remediation, said the move against Northland is part of a larger push to rid the city of blighted buildings.

“We designed the city’s new anti-blight and property maintenance ordinance to encourage owners to rehabilitate their properties back to full productive use,” Settlemyer said. “We hope that’s exactly what will happen here.”

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The extent of Northland’s work at the YMCA building, vacant and decaying for nearly a decade, was not known Wednesday. Northland did not immediately have comment on the scope of the work.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin ripped into Northland for its lack of interest in Hartford where it once was the largest downtown landlord. Bronin said he was happy to see Northland making some repairs at the building but characterized that as “very small progress.”

“… what I’d really like is for Northland to stop squatting on blighted buildings and leaving good space vacant,” Bronin said. “Northland is an absentee landlord that has taken zero interest in contributing to Hartford’s revitalization, and I wish Northland would step up or get out of Hartford altogether.”

Larry Gottesdiener, Northland’s chairman and chief executive, blasted Bronin in an email to The Courant Wednesday, noting that “Northland has been involved in Hartford’s revitalization for 15 years more than the mayor.” Northland, Gottesdiener wrote, had invested more of its own money in Hartford than any other real estate investor.

“The fact is that Hartford has been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, we couldn’t ‘get out of Hartford’ even if we wanted to — which we don’t,” Gottesdiener said. “The mayor would be better served by continuing to stabilize Hartford’s finances, at least until he leaves to conduct his gubernatorial campaign, rather than picking a fight with owner of Hartford 21, the most important strategic asset in heart of downtown Hartford.”

Bronin is exploring a run for governor.

Northland purchased the YMCA building after it completed the Hartford 21 tower. Northland had ambitious vision for the YMCA: a $120 million, 40-story tower — first a mix of 200 condominiums and 100 apartments and later, exclusively 250 condos.

But financing never came together as the nationwide housing market nosedived.

Northland and Gottesdiener blew into Hartford in the late 1990s. He bought properties others wouldn’t, citing his faith in the city.

Over the next decade, Northland invested tens of millions of dollars buying marquee office towers, quickly becoming downtown’s largest landlord. He crowned those acquisitions with the construction of the 282-unit Hartford 21 apartment tower, part of a vision to radically expand housing downtown, of which the YMCA property was to have been a part. Hartford 21 was partly financed with state funds.

Northland’s profile in Hartford has diminished significantly in recent years after it lost to foreclosure three major office towers, the last being Goodwin Square on Asylum Street.

In 2015, Northland floated plans to demolish the YMCA building and replace it with a $70 million, 7-story apartment building. Northland sought at hefty, $25 million subsidy from the Capital Region Development Authority, but those plans did not move forward.

On Wednesday, Gottesdiener wrote that CRDA did not even extend the “courtesy of a response” to those plans.

Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA’s executive director, disputed the contention Wednesday. Freimuth said CRDA’s housing committee did review the proposal in June 2015 but found the cost to CRDA was too high, $125,000 a unit, or nearly twice CRDA’s average investment in a housing project. Housing committee members also thought the high-profile location deserved a higher density development.

Freimuth said those concerns — and others — were expressed in an email to Northland’s Peter M. Standish, Jr., senior vice president of development, after the meeting.

“Of course, we would love to have a proposal to review, assess that renovates the existing building,” Freimuth said. “It’s one of the last of the large empty spaces downtown. Larry is right, the project was never formally rejected as we hoped that alternatives, redesigns would be forthcoming for the site. So, we kept it ‘open.’ In fact, it is still listed on our February 2018 ‘pipeline’ listing, but nothing new has been submitted.”

According to city records, the construction permits for the YMCA building pulled by Northland are for plumbing and exterior work. The permits expire in June.

So far, no blight violation fines have been levied on Northland because the permits are active. But the city’s anti-blight ordinance has provisions for fines if the city finds that significant improvements are not being accomplished, even if the permits are active.

Even though Northland has a low profile in Hartford, it remains extremely active elsewhere in state, including in New Haven, and in the country, pursuing mixed-use developments and buying apartment properties.

Tribune Content Agency

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