East Hartford, Goodwin University pursue tandem developments anchored by CT River

Photo: Goodwin University senior officials (from left) Bryant L. Harrell, Todd Andrews and Mark McGovern stand in front of a portion of the East Hartford-based campus where the college aims to build a marina, hotel and student housing.

Originally published in the Hartford Business Journal: LINK. Photo copyright Gary Lewis, HBJ; article by Michael Puffer, HBJ.

In East Hartford, town leaders and Goodwin University are pursuing separate, large-scale economic developments along the Connecticut River.

The university is, piece by piece, building portions of a long-range master plan to transform the neighborhood around its riverside campus. The plan includes office, retail, magnet schools and multifamily housing — accentuated by new river access, including a growing trail network and marina.

Meanwhile, East Hartford Mayor Michael P. Walsh is trying to secure an investor for a plan to bring a denser mix of development to roughly 40 acres along the east bank of the Connecticut River.

Walsh’s target area includes the Founders Plaza office park and adjacent property. It is a plan the city would be able to back with millions of dollars in assistance, he said.

East Hartford had refined a redevelopment plan for Founders Plaza prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Walsh said, that plan must be amended to reduce its focus on office space — a struggling market in the pandemic’s wake.

Even so, Walsh said, hardly a week passes in which he does not speak with developers about the potential of the Founders Plaza area. Walsh said he hopes to secure a “development partner,” and there is a rolling dialogue with the Founders Plaza current ownership.

“The development of Founders Plaza in East Hartford is inevitable,” Walsh said in a recent interview. “It may happen soon, or it may be put off a few years, but there’s no larger swath of land along the river that is ripe for development than here in East Hartford.”

‘Big undertaking’

Just downstream from Founders Plaza, Goodwin University leaders hope to entice a developer to build a 32-slip marina, and possibly a hotel and multifamily housing, in an area next to its campus. The university was awarded a $2 million state grant in April to help defray the cost of building a marina.

Goodwin University master development plan

University leaders said they have also secured all the local, state and federal permitting needed for the marina, a process that took more than three years.

The hope is that the marina developer will also want to build a nearby hotel, or entice another developer to erect it. The marina will also add value to the broader redevelopment around the campus neighborhood, school officials said.

“We are hoping this marina project can springboard us into attracting some interest from real estate investors and developers to hopefully do some other things,” said Goodwin Senior Vice President Todd Andrews. “It is a premier location that is hard to find in the Hartford area, particularly with riverfront access. If we were to build out this plan, it could be a very, very vibrant area.”

Goodwin moved to its new campus in 2009, following a $34 million construction project on what had once been a jet-engine testing center. The effort was accompanied by a $10 million environmental cleanup of oil depots on adjacent riverside property.

“I think it was the vision of our president (Mark Scheinberg) to be able to see past the oil tanks, to what could happen here on the riverbanks, because the rest of us, we kind of stepped back and looked at it and said: ‘Wow, that’s a big undertaking,’ ” said Bryant L. Harrell, Goodwin’s senior vice president of facilities, security and information technology. “But we did it.”

Harrell said the appeal of a riverside campus, a place where students want to come to learn, made the effort worthwhile. Around its campus site, Goodwin has acquired dozens of properties — mostly residential — in the neighborhood between Riverside Drive and Main Street. The school is working its way through a plan to transform the area with market-rate multifamily housing, commercial development and new magnet schools.

In 2021, Goodwin completed a 25,000-square-foot office complex at the corner of Ensign and Main streets, an entrance leading into the university-owned neighborhood. On the opposite corner of the intersection, the school plans a commercial building mixing office, retail and restaurant space.

Goodwin’s master plan calls for a mix of redevelopment along Ensign Street as it pushes toward the riverfront and campus, including multifamily housing, retail, office, educational spaces and entertainment, along with museum and events space.

At present, Goodwin is preparing a site at 339 Main St., for a 13,888-square-foot office building. This will be leased to the U.S. Geological Survey, which uses Goodwin’s campus for lessons.

University leaders say economic development plans around the campus will provide an important boost to the town’s economy, and also restore long-lost access to a section of the river. Anybody can park at the campus and visit the water’s edge, they say.

“I think we are better stewards of the environment than we used to be,” said Mark McGovern, Goodwin’s director of economic development. “We have this incredible resource near us and now we need to utilize it in the best way possible. Recreation, absolutely. But also, through responsible development to create a destination on that resource is a high priority for people and it’s an opportunity for us as a university to be a convener.”