HARTFORD — For years, the barren stretch of Main Street just north of downtown Hartford was notable for a now-demolished decaying building that earned the nickname "butt-ugly."
But a decades-long drought of redevelopment north of I-84 could be coming to an end with the announcement last week that the city will finance and build a $60 million minor league stadium for the New Britain Rock Cats.
"It fits into our need to, in a sense, program the city so we have things happening almost every day of the year," said Thomas E. Deller, the city's director of development services. "We have the Atheneum. We have the Hartford Stage, the Bushnell and all the other sports groups. Now, we're starting to add sports venues. We have hockey, we have basketball, now we have baseball."
He adds: "This is all part of creating a vibrant city with things for people to do."
If approved by the city council Monday, the stadium would be the latest redevelopment project to join a host of others downtown:
— Hundreds of apartments under construction, the first to be ready later this year
— $35 million in renovations now underway at the XL Center arena.
— Leasing of space at the Front Street entertainment district, with its anchor, Infinity Hall & Bistro, now expected to open in August.
— Pending construction of a $115 million UConn campus on the former Hartford Times property on Prospect Street, a deal that was sealed just one day before the stadium announcement.
— State purchase of the vacant Connecticut River Plaza to consolidate state offices downtown.
For the stadium to succeed, it will be critical for it to be viewed as integral to the rest of the city, particularly neighboring downtown, Deller said.
"There is a whole list of things we can use this stadium for," Deller said. "What's incumbent on us is to work with the team so this not just 72 nights, but 172 nights. Or 272. We don't need to plan every day, every night, but we want energy there."
The city will have to surmount the challenge of making the stadium's neighborhood — now an unattractive jumble of parking lots and vacant land — inviting to pedestrians, especially since no parking is included in the construction plans.
As it stands now, fans and other pedestrians would have to park in the downtown area and then walk across bridges over I-84 to reach the 9,000-plus seat ballpark. Current routes, including along Main Street, are not attractive or inviting to pedestrians, long an impediment to development in the area of the city where the stadium will be built.
"It's got to be walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and there has to be retail along the major streets," Deller said.
Hartford and the location north of I-84 makes sense for a ballpark, simply because it is more central and has better access from all directions, said Donald J. Poland, senior vice president of urban planning at the commercial real estate service firm Goman + York in East Hartford.
"That said, from the perspective of government and economic development, I believe there are limits to sporting and entertainment venues as economic drivers," Poland said. "They draw very little new revenue into a region, mostly redistributing spending within the region."
Other Sites Considered
The stadium would be built on 5 acres at the intersection of Main and Trumbull streets. Plans call for it to open in time for the 2016 baseball season.
The site wasn't the first seriously considered by the city. As negotiations heated up, Deller said, the city focused heavily on a stretch of land on Market Street where Cirque du Soleil has pitched its tents for performances.
But Washington, D.C.-based Brailsford & Dunlavey, a consultant hired by the city, suggested that a site closer to downtown would be more advantageous. Parking could be shared with existing downtown garages and lots, and there could be economic spillover to restaurants and bars.
A couple of locations north of I-84 were considered, but 1214 Main was selected because the city owned most of the site, and there was the opportunity to buy two adjacent acres from Rensselaer Hartford Graduate Center Inc.
The sloping downhill terrain from Main to Windsor Street also would keep construction costs in check, Deller said. The stadium could be built into the side of the hill, rather than from level ground up, as would have been the case on Market Street, Deller said.
The announcement was cheered by many, but it also ruffled some, considering negotiations were carried out in secret over 17 months. It also raised questions about just how much of an economic ripple effect could be expected and whether the cash-strapped city could actually afford to tackle financing the stadium on its own.
Coleman B. Levy, the former co-owner of the Rock Cats, said the ballpark would be an attractive amenity, but the city still needs to figure out how it is going to repay the $60 million it has proposed borrowing. Even with annual lease payments and a cut of the naming rights revenue mentioned by the city, there will still be a sizable gap to close to ensure taxpayers don't end up footing some of the bill, he said.
"How are they going to satisfy that shortfall?" Levy, a Hartford lawyer, said. "We don't have a city that's prosperous."
The games would draw heavily on families with children — a segment of the population the city certainly wants to attract — but they typically do most of their spending inside the park and leave immediately after.
Deller acknowledged the point but countered that similar ballparks also host other events, including those sponsored by corporations. Some of those people, he said, might linger in the city afterward.
"The parking is two blocks away, so people walk back to where they parked and then we start to get some foot traffic," Deller said. "Then, 'Hey, maybe I'll buy a beer, maybe I'll grab a sandwich.' You start to get some vendors on the street, so it starts to create and different feel and flow."
Oz Griebel, president of the MetroHartford Alliance, said having a minor league team based in Hartford would certainly enhance the city's brand and the city's efforts to market itself.
But the economic boost, he said, would be far less than, say, UConn's establishing a campus in the city.
"I just want to be clear," Griebel said. "That's 2,500 people coming into downtown. Some of them renting new apartment units, helping to bring additional retail. The total number of people circulating will increase."
The ballpark would be constructed in an area that the city had christened Downtown North, or "DoNo."
The area was severed from the rest of downtown in the late 1960s when I-84 cut a swath through the center of Hartford. The decay of the H.B. Davis Building, labeled "butt-ugly," was lingering evidence of how the divide contributed to the decline of the area, until the building was knocked down four years ago. In the 1970s, most of what is now DoNo was cleared for redevelopment that never took place, worsening the divide not only with downtown but the city's struggling North End.
In the past two decades, there have been flashy proposals for the area that never became reality, including a casino and an alternative location for an ill-fated stadium for the Patriots.
Hartford has been studying the Downtown North area since 2008 and bore down on those efforts last year. The resulting DoNo redevelopment plan seeks to stitch the downtown back together and reconnect with North End neighborhoods. The city hoped the construction of a $77 million public safety complex on the northwestern border of DoNo, opened last year, would begin to add stability.
The city's plans for DoNo emphasized housing, with the potential for hundreds of apartments with street-level retail. Last year, the city also proposed what is now the stadium site as a location for UConn's Hartford campus.
But the vision never included a sports venue. The city had adamantly opposed overtures by the Capital Region Development Authority to set aside land in Downtown North for a possible replacement for the XL Center in the future.
CRDA has a big stake in downtown redevelopment, having already directed $55 million in state funding for 690 apartments now under construction downtown and $35 million in renovations to the XL Center. CRDA executive director Michael W. Freimuth said the authority wasn't consulted in the ballpark negotiations.
Deller said the negotiations were confidential, and the owners of the Rock Cats didn't want to disclose them early on.
Last week, Deller said a new indoor arena would be too massive for Downtown North. And closing the existing XL Center in the future, rather than pursuing a potential expansion at its current site, would leave a gaping hole in the epicenter of downtown, Deller said.
By contrast, the ballpark has a smaller scale, Deller said.
"It's more discreet," Deller said. "We've designed this so the stadium is set back so we have commercial [space] in front on Main Street. The idea is to really think of the other type of commerce and other types of development that can happen there."
Supermarket At Risk?
Still, the ballpark would remove hundreds of apartments from the vision for Downtown North. And that worries the Hartford Community Loan Fund, which has worked for more than two years to secure support for a supermarket in DoNo. A supermarket is seen as critical for encouraging more people to live downtown and better serving the needs of the North End.
Rex Fowler, the loan fund's executive director, said the supermarket would now be situated across from the ballpark.
"This changes the whole feel of the project," Fowler said. "Now, you're taking away some of the housing that would have supported the supermarket. And is the supermarket appropriately placed across from an entertainment venue? Would traffic on game day discourage shoppers?"
Fowler said he is checking back with the supermarket operator, whom he hasn't named publicly, the developer and the sources of financing to gauge their response.
Poland, the urban planner, said the prospects for further commercial development spurred by the stadium is uncertain.
"I am not confident the ballpark will generate enough demand in the Downtown North area for additional commercial development — specifically restaurants and bars — as amenities to the ballpark and area."
That could be a benefit to existing businesses downtown which will capture "limited spillover spending," Poland said.
"But," Poland said, "it also could be bad if the ballpark sits out there on its own."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun