Major milestone marked in development of Hartford’s ‘Bushnell South’ that has been decades in the making

A major milestone in the decadeslong push to redevelop an expanse of parking lots near The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts is now being marked as the state seeks developers for the largest of those asphalt lots.

The prospect of new housing, paired with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues on 3 acres just east of the historic and recently-renovated State Office Building on Capitol Avenue can’t come soon enough for some area residents.

“That parking lot has been an asphalt desert in the center of our neighborhood for decades,” Robin Zaleski, chairwoman of the South Downtown, or SoDo, Neighborhood Revitalization Zone and a resident for 17 years. “To drive up Capitol Avenue or Hudson Street and see a sea of cars or a sea of asphalt — depending on what time of day it was — did not make our neighborhood feel like a neighborhood.

“There was no there, there.”

Now, the Capital Region Development Authority is seeking developers for the state-owned parking lot, the first of a half-dozen between Washington and Main streets, on both sides of Capitol Avenue.

Those lots — some owned by the state, others privately controlled — plus other existing structures could be redeveloped as part of “Bushnell South,” a $500 million project envisioned to transform the 20-acre area over the next decade.

The vision is to foster a stronger, walkable connection between Bushnell Park, the nearby hospital district and Park Street, extending beyond to Colt Park. The redevelopment would foster more vibrancy and boost economic vitality of the area.

CRDA said it is looking for developers with experience building from the ground up in cities. Once one or more is chosen in late spring or early summer, plans will be drawn up, based on a consultant’s vision outlined last year.

Financing will need to be cobbled together, likely a combination of private and public funding. Construction could begin next year or in 2024, CRDA said.

“We know it will take a long time,” Zaleski said. “Construction does not go fast. Supply-chain issues are just making it longer, so we know it’s not going to be a magical, overnight situation. But we are excited that there is finally going to be some development there.”

21st-century catalyst

A century ago, when The Bushnell was erected, the Capitol Avenue area already was in the midst of change. The street was still lined with homes and shaded by trees, but its wealthiest residents had moved and built grand mansions in the city’s West End.

City observers in the late 1920s wondered if a new phase of development also would follow and whether the building of the Georgian Colonial-style Bushnell would be the catalyst for a new era of store, office and apartment buildings.

In the decades that followed, government edifices rose in the area, followed by steady expansion of parking lots, needed as workers increasingly commuted from the suburbs. But the shops, restaurants and apartments were never built, even through the 1970s and ’80s when there was a push for redevelopment in the area.

The state-funded renovation of the State Office Building, completed in late 2019, provided a 21st century catalyst.

The $205 million project — including a new parking garage and a park along the east side of the building — also came at a time when the state opened up public financing for housing projects in and around Hartford to boost revitalization.

The parking lots in the area were mostly used by state employees. To free up the asphalt lots for redevelopment, a second, state-financed, $16 million garage also was built on Capitol next to a church.

The second garage will be used by state employees, Bushnell patrons and future residents of the area, as part of a larger, “district” parking plan. The garage also may be opened to the public later this year.

The parking garages were part of a complex choreography unfolding over several years to set the stage for future redevelopment on the surface lots.

‘A different housing stock’

A consultant’s plan for the, Bushnell South area last spring called for as many as 1,200 residential units — both rented and owned — restaurants, shops and entertainment venues.

The first, 3 acres, would include a broad pedestrian promenade with restaurants and space for outdoor events. The promenade would be between the new park and a block of 372 apartments and townhouses.

The buildings could be 4 or 5 stories along Capitol, with residential units over storefronts, and lower along the Buckingham Street side.

The housing alone could cost about $75 million, by one estimate.

Remnants of what the area looked liked before the parking lots are still visible on Capitol Avenue and Buckingham Street near Main Street.

Jane Macy-Painter and her husband, Earl Henrichon, have lived in a brownstone condominium on Buckingham Street for 17 years and are raising their daughter, Lillian, 9, there.

While rentals are key to revitalization, redevelopment in the area also needs to include properties that can be purchased to boost homeownership in the heart of the city.

“For downsizers and families, to have a more diverse — for different age groups and demographics — it’s important to have a different housing stock,” Macy-Painter said.

‘How is the market absorbing all of this?’

How quickly redevelopment of the first parking lot will unfold will be heavily influenced by the ability to put together financing and the pace of leasing from a growing number of apartments in the downtown area.

Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA’s executive director, said the quasi-public agency hopes to build a pool of funds from private corporations — traditionally involved in city projects — to help fund the construction of new housing in Bushnell South.

Those funds would likely be invested in the project as low-cost loans. The idea is patterned after Cigna and Stanley Black & Decker, lending $1.7 million to the first phase of the mixed-use redevelopment around Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the city’s minor league ballpark.

The pace of Bushnell South’s redevelopment on the parking lot also will be determined by apartment leasing primarily in conversion projects elsewhere in the Bushnell South area.

Those projects include the conversion of the historic 55 Elm St. on Pulaski Circle and across from Bushnell Park. The $63 million project will create of 160 rentals in the 1926 structure. Work is expected to begin this spring. The project is headed by Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, a developer from South Norwalk, which is expected to be a strong force in shaping Bushnell South’s development.

In addition to 55 Elm, the former offices of the attorney general and originally built for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., Spinnaker has acquired other parking lots nearby for future development.

The state of Connecticut also is selling two historic office buildings at the corner of Elm and Trinity streets for conversion to an undetermined number of apartments.

So far, occupancy in newer apartment projects in and around downtown are in the mid-90s or better. But rents in Greater Hartford as elsewhere in the state and the country are soaring and starting to squeeze out potential tenants.

Cost of construction also has increased amid supply-chain disruptions in the pandemic.

A report from CRDA showed a robust pipeline of apartments, including nearly 500 in construction and another 750 that will likely commence later this year.

Freimuth said the timetable for the Bushnell South parking lot redevelopment will depend on rental projects that come online before it.

“A lot is going to be, ‘How is the market absorbing all of this?’” Freimuth said.

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at