Long-awaited launch of development around Hartford’s Dunkin' Donuts Park cheered in Thursday’s groundbreaking
In the midst of pandemic and recession, the city of Hartford and its developer Thursday celebrated the start of construction of apartments, restaurant and entertainment space and parking around Dunkin' Donuts Park, a development intended to reconnect downtown with northern neighborhoods.
“We didn’t get to play any baseball in the ballpark this year, but we still get a big October win,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said, during a groundbreaking ceremony. “And like a lot of the folks here, we’ve all had a chance to throw some shovelfuls of dirt. But speaking for myself, I don’t know if I’ll ever throw a more satisfying shovel full of dirt than this one after the battle we fought to get here.”
Thursday’s ceremony for the first, mixed-use phase of Downtown North comes more than two years after the city chose Stamford-based RMS Cos. as its new developer. The groundbreaking also come in the aftermath of a bruising court battle with the previous developer to regain control of the four, city-owned parcels around the ballpark. The previous developer had been terminated on both completion of Dunkin' Donuts Park and the surrounding area.
Dunkin' Donuts Park opened for its first season in 2017, but the home team, the Yard Goats, did not play there in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The most-recent push to redevelop the expanse of parking lots left in the years after the construction of I-84 dates back more than a decade and over three mayoral administrations. North End neighborhoods have been separated from downtown since I-84 was constructed during the 1960s, slicing through the heart of the city.
“This has been 15 years in the making from analysis and market studies to get this point today, where we can celebrate the success of the catalytic project of the stadium, which has been awesome, and now getting to this stage in the middle of a pandemic and an economic downturn, mind you,” said Glendowlyn Thames, former city council president and a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Thursday’s festivities were attended by nearly a dozen past and present city officials. They included former Mayor Pedro E. Segarra and former city council President Shawn Wooden, whom Bronin credited with the original vision for the ballpark.
The pandemic has created uncertainty about just how quickly -- or even to what extent -- people will want to again live closely together in cities.
Randy Salvatore, founder and chief executive of RMS, said, in an interview Thursday, that he remains “very bullish” about Hartford’s future prospects. He also has said smaller cities such as Hartford could benefit from an exodus out of more densely-packed urban areas such as New York City and Boston.
Salvatore also believes prospective renters in Hartford will once again “want and crave” living close to other apartment dwellers.
“Obviously during times like a pandemic, you have to separate,” Salvatore said. “But once there is a vaccine, once that happens, I think there is a pent-up desire for people to be around other people and socialize to do in-person type of things.”
Salvatore said the first apartments in Downtown North also won’t be ready for at least 18 months.
Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said Thursday at the event that apartment leasing had slowed in the pandemic. But in the last month or so, it has started to pick up, with overall occupancy in new downtown rental projects now at about 90%, he said.
Actual construction of the first phase on land known as “Parcel C” just south of the ballpark started two weeks ago. On Thursday, a portion of the property was already carved for the foundation of a 330-space parking garage. The $50 million, first phase also will include 270 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, plus 11,000 square feet of restaurant and entertainment space.
Eventually, the four phases of the $200 million development could encompass nearly 1,000 rentals and a full-service grocery store. Downtown North is expected to emerge over the next five years.
In remarks at the ceremony, Salvatore noted that a $34 million in financing from People’s United Bank was a sign of confidence not only in his company but in Hartford, especially during a pandemic.
“That says a lot for Hartford,” Salvatore said. “I can assure you that is not happening in a lot of places.”
State and local taxpayers also have a stake in the deal. CRDA approved $12 million in loans. The city also has agreed to help support affordable units in the first phase through federal funding, contributing up to $900,000 over 20 years.
In a development where the majority of apartments will be market-rate, the addition of affordable units became crucial to winning neighborhood backing. An agreement calls for a minimum of 10% affordable rentals, including 5% for families earning up to 80% of the area’s median income.
After a dozen or so officials tossed dirt, there was a bit of a stir when the city’s interim development director I. Charles Mathews felt weak and had to sit down. He was slowly helped to an SUV and an ambulance was called. He ultimately was not transported by ambulance. His condition was not known late Thursday.
Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at email@example.com.
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