Town Center Project | Connecticut Public Radio

Town Center Project

Oct 15, 2012

Urban redevelopment is often more art than science. Cities faced with brownfield sites or vacant lots face a challenge to pick projects that will fit with the needs of a community and yet also be a commercial success.

This summer, WNPR’s J Holt followed the story of one such renewal site in Hartford’s Upper Albany neighborhood.

We’re riding east on Albany Avenue in Hartford with local resident Denise Best.

Denise Best- “Of course we have… Scott’s Jamaican bakery… right here. And as soon as you cross Milford Street here you have the brand new upper Albany library on the left…” 

She sits on the board of Upper Albany Development Incorporated, which was founded to partner with the City of Hartford in creating a plan for a land parcel just one more block down, at the intersection of Albany and Woodland St, known as the Town Center Project. Best says they came up with a vision for the neighborhood.

Best- “There’s no sit down establishment where you can sit, and have a cocktail, and have conversation and listen to good music, and that’s what we want to provide here.” 

This is one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods, but its main thoroughfare, Albany Avenue hosts the University’s of Hartford’s Performing Arts Center and the Artists’ Collective. Community leaders saw a Jazz supper club and soul food restaurant as a perfect attraction for local audiences, and to give some of the 20,000 people who drive down Albany Avenue every day a reason to stop. But that wasn’t the only bid that came forward for the vacant lot. Here’s Hartford’s Director of Development services, Thom Deller:

Thom Deller- “One is a traditional commercial strip development in the urban setting. You know, with a credit tenant which would take up a large piece of space., and let me just say the first proposal is also financeable, something that, if we said yes, they could probably start building within the next 90 days. The second proposal is something as a group that took the vision statement that the neighbors put together and came back with a proposal that said, we want to build this, designate us the developer, and we’ll find the money to build it.” 

The second proposal which included the jazz supper club, not surprisingly, sounded great to the community, and they gave it their full support. But this summer, it became clear that some board members at the Hartford Redevelopment Agency were leaning the toward the first option, the strip mall whose anchor tenant would be a RiteAid, 

Thom Deller- “do we pick what the neighborhood wants and not have something happen, or do we pick something that can happen, and upset the neighborhood. That’s the dilemma that we find ourselves in.” 

As Deller saw it, neither proposal balanced economic feasibility and the needs of the community. Over the course of the summer he met again with community leaders, and the developers to discuss the city’s and neighborhood’s concerns.

Thom Deller- “We met with each developer at least twice, we went through their proformas, their plans what they intended to do. And looked at how they addressed the concerns that the neighbors rose. And in the end that’s why we ended up picking Sheldon Oak, because they were the ones that the neighbors supported and we believe they can make the deal happen.” 

Sheldon Oak Central is a Hartford based, not-for-profit developer and is the choice the community had endorsed all along. But while Sheldon Oak has lots of experience building residential developments elsewhere in Hartford, the jazz supper club for Upper Albany marks the first time they’ve taken on a commercial development. For their residential projects they’ve utilized a variety of public financing options, and generally find that when they build a unit it will be filled. For this project they’ll be seeking private financing, and

Daniel Mereida- “When you have a site like this its different, you can’t just build it and see if anybody’s gonna come, you have to find the tenant before you build it.”

That’s Daniel Mereida, Sheldon Oak’s executive director. They’ve hired a leasing agent to assist in finding someone who wants to operate the club or take on some of the other commercial space. They have already had interest, but signing a lease can’t happen soon enough. They were awarded a standard contract with 120 days to make solid progress on financing and securing tenants, with the possibility of two 30 day extensions, which Mereida expects they’ll need.

Mereida- “It’s very short. If the question is ‘Can we do this in 4 months?’ Then the answer is gonna be no. We're gonna need more time.”

Deller says he realizes it’s a tight timeframe, and if Sheldon Oak is days away from completing the deal at the end of the contract the city won’t pull the plug. But he says it’s also a serious one, and if no progress has been made after 4 months, It might not be extended.

Despite the challenges that still lay ahead, Denise Best has confidence in Sheldon Oak’s ability to bring the project to fruition. And she says she was especially thankful for the work that Deller, who just started working for the city in April, contributed to this project over the summer. 

Best- “He has a vision that’s like ours. We’re trying to do something that’s comprehensive, that’s going to elevate all of our communities, to bring economic development and job development to our neighborhoods.” 

She organized trips to visit neighborhoods Deller had helped revitalize at his previous job in Providence, and working with him this summer has reinforced her belief that similar progress is possible here.