Can a $100M redevelopment plan turn Pratt Street into Hartford’s crown ‘jewel’?

Gregory Seay

Published On September 02, 2019

Hartford, CT — Michael Seidenfeld, whose New York realty company Shelbourne Global LLC has invested more than $200 million buying and refurbishing downtown Hartford commercial buildings, views Pratt Street as an untapped jewel.

It’s not a wholly unique viewpoint. Many business, civic, and economic-development leaders along with residents and visitors to the city have long viewed the bricked, block-long, one-lane thoroughfare hugged on both sides by multi-story commercial buildings as an underleveraged asset that could be the cornerstone of Hartford’s downtown revival.

For years, however, Pratt Street has been held back by significant retail and commercial vacancies and lack of investment.

That could soon change and Shelbourne Global LLC, with two well-known Hartford landlords as partners, is trying to lead the revival.

Earlier this year, Shelbourne bought nearly all of the commercial buildings on Pratt St.’s south side, from 196 Trumbull St. to the building next door up to 57 Pratt St., and is part of a triumvirate of developer-landlords that recently unveiled an ambitious $100 million redevelopment vision they say would not just transform Pratt Street, but the entire corridor stretching from the XL Center and Trumbull Street, to Main Street and beyond to the Talcott Plaza parking garage.

“The fact that it’s one block,’’ Seidenfeld, Shelbourne’s chief operating officer, said of Pratt Street. “There’s so much history here. That’s a unique story we want to preserve.’’

In June, Shelbourne, Hartford landlord Martin J. Kenny, of Lexington Partners LLC, the project lead, and city parking magnate Alan Lazowski, of LAZ Parking, pitched the Capital Region Development Authority on their Pratt Street proposal. They also asked CRDA to consider co-funding the project with a $20 million subsidy.

The plan essentially has three components: redevelopment on Pratt and Trumbull streets; repairing and reopening the Talcott Plaza garage; and acquisition and redevelopment of The Lofts at Main and Temple into more apartments.

Once fully complete, the partners say their redevelopment will count 375 apartments — 257 of them new; 45,058 square feet of retail on Trumbull/Pratt/Main streets; and 1,308 parking spaces for residents and shoppers.

Currently, the developers are hammering out final details of their partnership and trying to obtain financing, while working to purchase The Lofts at Main and Temple apartment property, which has been in foreclosure, and related parcels, including 42 units of student townhomes erected to the rear. Eventually, those will be reconfigured into 84 micro apartments.

The scope of their planned redevelopment is huge. It would include six Pratt and Trumbull street buildings that Shelbourne owns, with 193 apartments totaling 143,657 square feet and 32,330 square feet of retail.

Shown above are key downtown parcels to be redeveloped in the Pratt Street project. The partnership will also repair and reopen the mothballed One Talcott Plaza parking garage creating 960 parking spaces.

Some work on the planned redevelopment is already set to begin. Conversion of upper-floor space into 131 apartments — including 32 “micro units’’ — will begin this fall at 196 Trumbull and 99 Pratt, with both ready for occupancy by late 2020, Kenny says.

The Pratt Street project likely would take shape around the same time as the proposed $200 million redevelopment of the city’s nearby Downtown North (DoNo) tracts. Both projects happening in tandem would give another major boost to downtown.

CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said the $20 million in assistance the Pratt Street partners have tentatively sought is nearly as much as the $17.5 million in CRDA aid that Fairfield architect/landlord Bruce Becker received to redevelop the 777 Main St. office tower into 290 apartments.

However, Pratt, plus two more development proposals — Downtown North and Bushnell South — threaten to strain CRDA’s limited downtown bond authority, he said.

“Each will be in phases,” Freimuth said, “but will essentially use up CRDA downtown bond authority over the next few years.”

CRDA financing is crucial for Pratt Street, Lazowski said, to help fill the funding gap created by rising building costs and stagnant rents.

“You need to have that gap-funding filled in order to make these projects work,’’ Lazowski said.

Of the trio, Kenny has the most experience with downtown redevelopment. He transformed a dilapidated block into 100 apartments, street-level retail, and a parking garage overlooking Bushnell Park at 100 Trumbull.

Kenny, a Hartford development fixture since 1983 who has developed suburban Hartford apartments, is currently working on The Borden, a two-building, 150-unit apartment community on the Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield.

For the Pratt/Talcott makeover, Kenny will provide construction and property-management expertise. Lazowski will oversee their parking operations, while Shelbourne oversees equity-investing and financing, Kenny said.

“Both Alan and I,’’ Kenny said, “love and are committed to Hartford, and making Hartford better and stronger is something we are committed to always; especially with an opportunity like this, which can be a game-changer for the city.’’

Lazowski, who started his Hartford business as a valet parker downtown, said Pratt’s diverse character is its chief asset.

“It has elements of live, work and play,’’ Lazowski said, that the redevelopment will help jump-start.

Tenants react
The future potential of Pratt Street has been seen in glimpses in recent years. More city cultural events have been staged there, bringing, at times, hundreds or more to the one-lane corridor.

For example, the Hartford Business Improvement District launched the “Pratt Street Patio” lunchtime concert series on certain summer weekdays, closing the street to traffic and offering free concerts.

Earlier this spring, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at the XL Center, a pop-up brew pub took over Pratt Street creating a pedestrian-friendly festival that highlighted Hartford’s eclectic breweries and small businesses. It drew thousands.

Pratt and Trumbull streets house a number of shops, restaurants and commercial enterprises, some of whom like the redevelopment the Kenny/Lazowski/Shelbourne partnership propose.

Restaurateur Hugh Russell, whose The Russell restaurant and The Russell Grab & Go next door are Shelbourne tenants at 99 Pratt, welcomes the prospect of more eateries on or near Pratt Street.

One of the project’s goals is to bring in additional retail and restaurants to provide a vibrant, urban marketplace similar to Chelsea Market and Eataly in New York City.

“It would make this more of a destination,” Russell said as he manned the music turntables for sidewalk guests on one of many summer Friday nights, when Pratt Street is closed to vehicles.

Gerry Grate, owner of century-old The Tobacco Shop, a Shelbourne tenant who relocated to 89 Pratt from nearby Asylum Street years ago, hopes redevelopment will make Pratt Street blossom.

“I love what’s happening downtown,’’ said Grate, who sets up outdoor seating in front of his shop on days Pratt Street is blocked off as an outdoor patio.

Still, Grate said he hopes the Pratt partners will allow tenants a voice in not only the street makeover, but be sensitive to their operating needs during reconstruction.

There are other pockets of skepticism.

Downtown apparel-boutique co-owner Jody Morneault, who with husband Ron have advocated to the city and state for decades to do more to market and promote downtown venues, welcomes more landlord investment. For a time, the Morneaults ran a “pop-up’’ mens’/womens’ fashion outlet in a previously vacant Pratt Street storefront.

However, the Morneaults worry that, absent more venue promotions from the city and state, there still won’t be enough “feet on the street’’ to support local merchants.

“There’s just not enough foot traffic downtown,’’ said Jody Morneault, of Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon, a longtime retail fixture at the corner of Pratt and Trumbull.

Pratt’s other landlords
As Shelbourne & Co. look to change the look and feel of Pratt Street, one challenge they have is they don’t control all of it. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried.

West Hartford landlord The Simon Konover Co., owner/operator of The Society Room, 31 Pratt, and a surface lot next door, says it has rebuffed the partnership’s offer to buy both.

“We bought out our partner (in the downtown property) years ago, because we believed in the city long-term,” said Konover President James Wakim.

Wakim said combining the Pratt Street developers’ resources into a single vision “is accretive to the economic environment of Hartford.’’

“We wish all the partners the best in this endeavor,’’ Wakim said.

Meantime, a large chunk of the street’s north side — 42 Pratt — is owned by Northland Investment Corp., which has faced criticism for leaving its downtown retail space largely empty.

However, Northland CEO Larry Gottesdiener said his retail storefronts at XL Center, 242 Trumbull, and Pratt Street are empty, not due to high rents, but because there is a lack of demand. Indeed, retail vacancies have been a problem for downtown for decades.

Gottesdiener said Northland, which has grown to $10 billion in the past decade by shifting focus away from Hartford to major cities like Boston, Austin, and Denver, has invested millions in cash and in-kind services to attract and prop up retail tenants in the city.

Gottesdiener, who has been at odds with the city and state, said he is bullish about Pratt Street’s future but unsure about the prospects of the recent $100 million plan to revitalize it.

“Pratt Street is a jewel, which has the potential to be the cornerstone of Hartford’s downtown revival,’’ said Gottesdiener, whose realty company also built the Hartford 21 luxury apartment tower adjacent to the XL Center. “Unfortunately, the $100 million ‘Pratt Street’ proposal is muddied by a lack of focus, and is actually three proposals cobbled together, including two ill-advised bailouts of Talcott Plaza and Sage-Allen.”

He noted that Shelbourne is already on the hook to repair the Talcott Plaza parking garage, thanks to a tax-break deal it hatched with the city last year. In exchange for about $1 million in temporary property-tax savings, Shelbourne agreed to buy and pay $3.1 million in back taxes on the Talcott Plaza parking garage and invest $10 million over five years to fully renovate it.

Meantime, The Lofts at Main Temple, a 78-unit market-rate apartment community built in the former Sage-Allen department store with public subsidies as part of the “Six Pillars” project, slipped into foreclosure earlier this year.

That building has been owned by 18 Temple Street LLC, which was controlled by prominent downtown developer Marc Levine prior to his death last October.

The Pratt Street development group is negotiating to buy the property from a private investor that bought the mortgage note last year.

In response, Lazowski said Gottesdiener “should be excited” because his partnership’s vision “is going to create value on Pratt Street.’’

Lazowski said his partnership would welcome using Gottesdiener’s “talents and strengths’’ to reinvigorate the street.

Gottesdiener said if there are sufficient public subsidies, they should be used to build multifamily units on both sides of Pratt and to attract decent retailers.

“The Pratt Street component, enlivening the street with residential over retail, is a model that is likely to prove very effective and should be expanded to incorporate the north side of the street as well,” he said.