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CT Construction Digest Tuesday September 15, 2020

Proposal would transform Main Street in downtown Hartford by adding a roundabout, cycling lane, medians and more

Rebecca Lurye  HARTFORD — Downtown Hartford’s broad Main Street may be transformed with a roundabout, two-way lane for bicycles and strategically placed medians and crosswalks, a preliminary design concept shows.

The ideas were shared earlier this month during a public design workshop for the city project, which seeks to make a safe, walkable corridor out of the historic center of the capital city. A final public workshop is tentatively planned for October.

A $250,000 grant will cover the cost of the preliminary design work, but the city must apply for other funds to make the project, called Re-Imagining Main Street, a reality. Project manager Sandra Fry, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, has said it would take another $1.5 million to redesign the road.

Over three days last week, project consultants talked through solutions for some of the innate challenges of Main Street. For one, there’s very little opportunity for redevelopment: Most of the major buildings are occupied by churches and public institutions, including city hall, a public library, the sewer and water authority office building, a federal courthouse and the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Without many storefronts or restaurants, the 4,000-foot stretch from South Green to State House Square has become more a place to navigate rather than enjoy.

“There’s no real great destinations that keep it active on an 18-hour basis, and that’s a struggle,” said Mike Rutkowski of Stantec, the project consultant for Re-Imagining Main Street. “You’ve got a lot of institutional, museum, civic use along the corridor and that’s fine, but you also have to connect to some of the activity nodes (people want). They want cafes; they want to meet up with their friends; they want to get a drink.”

The city is hunting around for exceptions. For one, Hartford still hopes to sell the block of Main Street it owns across from city hall, now home to Cornerstone Deli.

Fry also shared that the city is working with Peppercorn’s Grill to create a parklet, or an extension of the sidewalk, out of a parking space in front of the restaurant. The extra seating area would demonstrate the need for, and benefit of, more public gathering spaces.

“What we’re doing is sort of putting our foot in the door to open the possibility to do this kind of thing,” she said. “It seems challenging in Hartford right now, so we think the demonstration project will do a lot for us.”

The biggest dissatisfaction with Main Street is safety, Rutkowski said. The road is too wide, and the blocks are too long, making it precarious for cyclists, walkers and bus riders to get around.

There have been 62 bicycle and pedestrian crashes and 338 vehicle crashes on this 4,000 foot stretch of Main Street in the past three years, two of them fatal, the city said when the project kicked off in March.

The city hopes to add a median in some portions, which would not only help pedestrians cross the street but serve to encourage lower driving speeds.

The preliminary plan also includes features that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and more pedestrian crosswalks, trees and street lighting.

The corridor’s problems compound at the intersection of Park and Main streets, where an excessively-wide area of road diverges on either side of Barnard-South Green Park.Rutkowski’s comments on the drug- and litter-filled park were generous.

“It’s a little run-down and may need a face-lift,” he told about 25 people who joined one of the workshop’s listening sessions.

Improvements are already coming to the surrounding area. Construction began last month on a $26 million project that will bring 126 apartments over storefronts to the Park and Main corner in less than a year. That will bring more feet to the street, but could exacerbate the traffic issues at the intersection.

Engineers presented two possibilities for a traffic-calming roundabout: a familiar circle or an elongated “peanut shape” that would visually flow into Barnard-South Green Park.

It was the first time that stakeholders were treated to renderings of potential designs.

“Barnard Park could be a really great, welcoming gateway into downtown,” said Travis Ewen, also of Stantec. “One way we were thinking about this was to take that wide swathe of asphalt, which is 120 feet across, pretty wide, and make this more of a green entry point, so it feels like an extension of Barnard Park and feels like it’s a front door to some of these buildings.”

Another new feature of the corridor would be a two-way bicycle lane on one side of Main StreetAll of the potential changes should be cost effective, the consultants said, because they don’t require purchasing rights of way or altering curbs, drainage or utilities.

The project could also be carried out in pieces, with different grants paying for different features, they said. The final goal is what’s known as a “complete street,” one that serves not just drivers but all users: pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders, children, seniors and people with disabilities.

Stantec will finish its work by the end of the year, and the city will put the project out for bid and seek additional grants to fund it. Design would take another year and a half, and construction a couple of years, Fry said.

There is no city money behind the project aside from staff time.

The redevelopment of student housing in the heart of downtown Hartford could be begin in November

Kenneth Gosselin  HARTFORD — A crucial component of an ambitious, $100 million redevelopment of downtown Hartford’s Pratt Street corridor — the conversion of student housing behind the Lofts at Main and Temple into apartments — could begin in November, even as the duration of the global pandemic remains uncertain. 

“Yeah, we got punched in the nose with the pandemic just like everyone else,” Martin J. Kenny, president of Hartford-based Lexington Partners, said. “But I think we’re going to recover, and certainly we’re all seeing some bounce in terms of housing in Connecticut. I think this is going to be a great alternative.”

The $9.1 million conversion also includes improvements and upgrades to the adjoining Lofts at Main and Temple apartments, fronting on Main Street and incorporating the facade of the old Sage-Allen & Co. department store.

As a nod to that history, the Lofts and the former student housing will be renamed Sage-Allen Apartments and Townhomes.

The Capital Region Development Authority will vote in the next week on a $2 million, state taxpayer-backed loan for the project and approval is expected. But those funds must be released by the State Bond Commission, and it is unclear how quickly the project will come up for consideration.

The existing student housing was never considered a resounding success and is often largely forgotten about. That was particularly true this year when the pandemic forced downtown employers to cancel summer internship programs. Interns often stayed in the townhomes in recent years.

Kenny, who is partnering with parking magnate Alan Lazowski and downtown’s largest commercial landlord, Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC of Brooklyn, N.Y., on the $100 million project, envisions the housing converted into 76 garden-style apartments and 12 townhomes.

Plans call for granite countertops, brushed nickel fixtures, stainless steel appliances and new cabinetry in the apartments. Amenities will include upgraded fitness center, community room, lounge, meeting space and a business center.

Critical to the renovations include making the interior courtyard — now dominated by concrete — into a more inviting green space with benches and lighting.

The redevelopment is expected to take about year.

Estimated monthly rents range from $1,214 for a 465- square-foot studio to $1,979 for a 960-square-foot, two-bedroom unit, plus parking and amenity fees.

Monthly rent for the renovated, 4-bedroom townhomes are estimated at $2,924 for 1,651 square feet.

The project also includes renovations to the Lofts at Main and Temple, opened in 2006, and focuses on improvements to the lobby. 

The developers plan changes that could include dividing the ground floor retail space occupied by now-closed Dish Bar & Grill.

Kenny said the partners in the project decided to scale back the addition of multiple apartments to the 77-unit Lofts building when it became too difficult given the building’s layout. One additional apartment may still be added, he said.

The developers also had to purchase the mortgage for the property, which had been mired in a foreclosure. That pushed the costs up, for a total project cost of $32 million.

The developers are incorporating a 343-space parking garage under the student housing into the student housing conversion.

The redevelopment at the old student housing and the Lofts is part of the larger $100 million redevelopment of the Pratt Street corridor. Central to the city with its charm of brick-paved streets and historic buildings, the area has never achieved its full potential.

Kenny and his partners envision the addition of more than 200 apartments running east from Trumbull Street along much of the south side of Pratt Street to Main Street.

Construction is nearly complete on 36 units at 196 Trumbull, and Kenny said he hopes to begin work on the neighboring 99 Pratt about the same time as redevelopment of the student housing gets underway.

All together, the two buildings will add 129 rentals to the downtown market, with state taxpayer-backed loans of $12 million from CRDA.

Across Main are the Lofts and the student housing. And just a block to the north is the decaying Talcott Street garage, targeted for demolition — perhaps later this year — and the construction of a new parking structure.

Crucial to those plans are a mix of shops, restaurants and entertainment spaces to transform the area into a destination from both inside and outside of the city.

The proposal was made in 2019 well before the pandemic hit Connecticut and downtown Hartford. The loss of office workers now working at home has taken a heavy toll on restaurants in the city. It is unclear how long it will take for restaurants to recover once the pandemic passes or a vaccine is developed.

Connecticut jobless to receive additional $300 starting this week from new federal program

Ana Radelet   Unemployed workers in the state will begin receiving additional federal benefits this week, the Lamont administration announced Monday.

The additional money, $300 a week, will be paid retroactively for those who qualify and will be paid for six weeks, the Connecticut Labor Department said. This will provide thousands of unemployed workers in the state with an additional $1,800.

The federal aid is a slimmed-down version of a program created by legislation addressing the pandemic that had provided those who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus with $600 a week  in enhanced unemployment benefits, for up to 39 weeks.

But those enhanced benefits ended on July 26 and many jobless individuals have struggled since then.  Meanwhile Congress has been unable to reach a deal on new stimulus legislation that would reinstate the federal benefits.

Frustrated by Congress’ inaction, President Donald Trump used his authority to spend about $44 billion in Federal Emergency Management funds to reinstate the benefits himself, at half the amount and for a limited time.

“We urge claimants to self-certify for Lost Wages Assistance —it will offer much-needed additional assistance to our unemployed workforce,” said Connecticut Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby. “But this program is only a temporary one —FEMA will end it once available federal funding is exhausted.”

Retroactive to July 26, the new federal aid will also be available for claim weeks beginning August 2, 9, 16, 23, and 30 of 2020. That means that those who have lost their jobs in September are not eligible. Claimants will receive the supplemental benefit in several payments. The first payment of $300 will be issued this week and the remainder of retroactive payments following in two or three separate payments.

To qualify for the federal benefit, a claimant must have a weekly benefit of at least $100 and have become unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19.

Those who participated in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was established for self-employed individuals, independent contractors and others who do not qualify for state unemployment benefits, have already self-certified that their unemployment or underemployment is due to COVID-19 . But all other applicants for the new federal aid are required to self-certify when they apply for the new benefit on the Connecticut Department of Labor web site.

The new federal program is expected to provide $375 million in additional unemployment benefits to Connecticut claimants, the CDOL said.