Fresh off a major facelift, East Hartford’s most notable office building could soon be part of a much larger transformation.
The town’s economic-development arm is searching for a developer for an ambitious plan to convert the area surrounding the half-century-old Founders Plaza office tower on Pitkin Street into a mixed-use residential-retail center with up to 2,000 new apartment units.
East Hartford’s development-services department this year collaborated with the building’s landlord, Merchants 99-111 Founders LLC, the quasi-public Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) and Hartford’s Tecton Architects on conceptual plans geared toward making Founders Plaza a “live, work, play destination,” something the town largely lacks now.
The Founders Plaza site, adjacent to a 121-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel, has been blanketed by surface parking lots since its early 1970s debut.
“It’s taken us the last nine months or so to put this together, and it’s kind of ambitious, but it can be phased in over time,” said Eileen Buckheit, the town’s development director. “We are really hopeful this design can attract a private developer to partner with the owner.”
Buckheit said the town is looking for a developer that will partner in constructing new buildings over 12.6 acres of largely black pavement.
Plans call for an initial build-out of up to 400 residential units, with a potential for phased construction of up to 2,000 units over time.
Small-scale retailers, like a coffee shop or dry cleaner, could also occupy space.
“That’s why we were so excited about this plan, because we could do a few hundred units at a time, wait for the market to absorb those units, and move forward from there,” Buckheit said. “The town is eager to be a partner in this, but we are looking for this to be privately led.”
The redevelopment proposal was created out of the town’s 2014 Plan of Conservation and Development, which called for improving some of East Hartford’s top assets, including Founders Plaza, Rentschler Field and Goodwin College.
It also comes as demolition begins on the vacant Showcase cinemas on Silver Lane, an area that is also being eyed for residential or hotel development.
Before any plans move forward on Founders Plaza, a study will be done to decide whether or not to extend the life of the tower’s adjoining 333-space parking garage, or demolish it and rebuild. East Hartford already has $500,000 in state Bond Commission funding, secured by CRDA, for the planning and design of a new parking garage at Founders Plaza.
A potential carrot for an interested developer is that the land is in a so-called Opportunity Zone (OZ). That means investments in the area are eligible for capital gains tax incentives.
There are 72 low-income neighborhoods in 27 municipalities across Connecticut that have been tagged as OZs, including in East Hartford, Hartford and West Hartford.
East Hartford’s economic-development team attended a late-October OZ conference sponsored by the state, pitching Founders Plaza as an opportunity to create a vibrant urban destination that links the business district along the Connecticut River to the Founders Bridge leading into downtown Hartford.
“The bridge is really popular for walkers, and it would be really easy for people to work at Founders Plaza and walk over to their home in Hartford, and vise versa,” Buckheit said.
While Founders Plaza awaits new potential investments, more than $600,000 was spent in the last year to upgrade the 19-story tower.
The face-lift included a fresh coat of exterior paint, and other improvements to the lobby-entryway, first-floor cafeteria, wallcoatings and flooring. A new security/visitors’ station was also added.
Merchants 99-111 Founders LLC acquired Founders Plaza for more than $23.2 million in 2002, and years later sold off an adjacent office building at 99 Founders Plaza, land records show.
Approximately 75 percent of the tower is currently filled with tenants including Jefferson Radiology, Premier Research and Howard Lee Schiff.
The roughly 257,000-square-foot office building in recent years has lost several major tenants, including CareCentrix, Amenta Emma Architects, and administrative offices for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, all of which relocated to downtown Hartford. Mortgage lender 1st Alliance Lending has also scaled down its operations there.
At its peak, the tower consistently had an occupancy rate of about 95 percent because of its link to downtown Hartford, according to lease broker Tom York, of Goman + York Property Advisors LLC.
York said the tower has experienced a few down years of late, but he is bullish about its future given the redevelopment push and because his firm is negotiating with several new potential tenants.
“Historically, this building had strong leasing demand,” York said. “We will get back there.”