Constitution Plaza

This is part of Constitution Plaza in Hartford. (Hartford Courant / July 17, 2007)

Fifty years ago, plans for Hartford's Constitution Plaza called for soaring office towers, a television broadcast studio, a hotel, storefronts for specialty shops and one more thing: apartments.

Yes, apartments.

In the wake of a recession that hit in 1960, ownership in the plaza shifted and housing was dropped from the plans. The final designs were scaled back dramatically, including the elimination of a bridge from Main Street to the plaza, isolating the massive development from the rest of the city.

Now, a partnership of two New York developers is placing a $20 million bet that apartments not only belong on the plaza but will thrive there — in the long-vacant Clarion Hotel.

Girona Ventures and Wonder Works Construction and Development Corp. plan 180-200 apartments, mostly studios and one-bedroom units, in the decaying hotel building that they recently purchased for $500,000.

Jeffrey D. Ravetz, president of Girona Ventures, said the apartments in the old hotel would be "hip," attractive to professionals in their 20s and 30s interested in pursuing an urban lifestyle — rather than "upscale."

"Upscale sounds like it's too expensive," Ravetz said. "This is not intended to appeal to the middle-aged executive. We're talking very open, very bright, a lot of glass and metal, desirable to the young working professional."

The conversion of the 12-story hotel would build on momentum happening in a downtown where apartments — especially smaller ones — are in demand. After a decade of effort and tens of millions of dollars in state subsidies to boost the population of downtown residents, vibrancy is growing, despite an unhealthy vacancy level in the office market.

Construction could begin in the next six months to a year, and the developers may qualify for local tax breaks aimed at rehabilitating blighted buildings as well as state funds to remove asbestos contained in the 47-year old building.

Ravetz said the developers hope to tap into demand by young professionals that is going unmet in Hartford's downtown area. Recent posts on Facebook have bemoaned the lack of studio and one-bedroom apartments in the city's central business district.

"When you start to talk to people in Hartford, there's a waiting list for this type of project," Ravetz said. "The demand for residences in downtown Hartford doesn't yet appear to be attractive to professionals with families."

The opening last week of the full-service grocery, Market at Hartford 21, is raising hopes that other amenities essential to downtown living will follow, including a bookstore, dry cleaner, mid-priced clothing stores and coffee shops with longer hours on weekends. Those amenities would not only provide conveniences within walking distance for those who now live in the city center but would support future downtown housing projects, experts say.

Competitive Rents

When Constitution Plaza was planned in the 1950s, housing was envisioned for the upper floors of the office towers. In addition, housing units were planned on land just to the northwest of the plaza for more than 1,500 people.

Those plans were scrapped in the downturn of the early 1960s when control of the project shifted to the Travelers Insurance Co., which had been a major investor from the start, according to Wilson H. "Bill" Faude, a city historian and former executive director of the Old State House.

"They thought, 'If we do apartments, we'd have to tend to them 24 hours a day,'" Faude said. "Businesses would only have to be tended to 8 to 5."

That removed a component considered essential today to vibrancy: a critical mass of places for people to live and foster a neighborhood that supports shops and restaurants — not just scattered apartment buildings.

The late 1990s saw a push for more housing in the city's central business district, with more than 1,000 apartments added over the next decade, most notably in the soaring Hartford 21 tower. But what some say is missing is the less glitzy, more affordable apartments sought by workers just getting started on their careers.

A recent post on Facebook showed how one downtown dweller worked to try and find a downtown apartment for a friend, a recent graduate of the University of Hartford, who has a job.