Dec 25, 2006

A Guru And A Vacant Hotel With 1 Building Empty, Concern Over Another 

Hartford Courant
December 25, 2006
Kenneth R. Gosselin

At its opening, the hotel on Constitution Plaza in downtown Hartford was described as almost too luxurious for the city.

Today, its owner is marketing the vacant, decaying structure as worth $10 million - but there are no takers. Hartford's mayor says the building should be torn down.

The 12-story hotel, empty for a dozen years, has been a troubling obstacle for those who see the building as part of a crucial gateway to the city. The sale price set by the Maharishi School of Vedic Sciences Inc., its owner since 1995, has been too high to make any redevelopment, hotel or otherwise, financially possible, observers say.

And now, as WFSB, Channel 3, next door on the plaza prepares to sell its studios - known as Broadcast House - and move to the suburbs, there is the concern that yet another building in the same high-visibility location could go dark.

The two buildings - or at least the land they occupy - are seen as vital to enhancing riverfront development around Columbus Boulevard. With both buildings vacant, visitors entering the city would be greeted with an even more desolate streetscape at the end of the Founders Bridge.

Mayor Eddie A. Perez said he probably will propose a redevelopment zone encompassing the two buildings. Rezoning the property would allow the city to work with whoever buys the WFSB building - and it would give the city the option of acquiring the hotel by eminent domain, a highly controversial practice.

In the hotel's place, Perez envisions a 15-story residential tower, either apartments or condominiums. He's not bothered by slow condo sales and apartment rentals at new downtown residential developments. He said that momentum will build, and that any construction on Constitution Plaza would be a few years away anyway.

Demolition of the 42-year-old hotel figures prominently in those plans and development could include the Broadcast House property - just yards away.

Although Perez would prefer that private developers take the lead, he said the city may have no choice but to take over the hotel site. The city would then seek development proposals.

"There is the real unpredictability of the owner's desire to sell," Perez said. "You're not dealing with a traditional real estate investor."

`Impossible To Deal With'

The hotel - most recently a Clarion - was bought for $1.5 million by the school for transcendental meditation, founded by the guru to the Beatles. Now on the market for $10 million, according to a listing on the Internet, the price breaks down to about $50 a square foot for the 200,000-square-foot structure.

Similar vacant buildings in the central business district might sell for about $20 a square foot, according to local architects and commercial real estate brokers.

Based on that average, the old hotel should be priced closer to $4 million.

Doors along the plaza level of the building are chained shut. Some graffiti - "SANTA IS REAL," for instance - was evident last week, but the structure appears to be intact. The ravages of time can be seen through the windows: Wallboard is crumbling and radiator covers are falling off.

And now, when the plaza is host to the Festival of Lights, the hotel is a dark, hulking presence.

Developers have made several attempts to acquire the hotel, which opened in 1964 as the Hotel America, and was later a Sonesta, then a Summit. Deals collapsed over the asking price for the property, which has bounced between $5 and $17 million, according to city officials.

"The Maharishi is impossible to deal with," said David Ong, president of Acquest Realty Advisors Inc., of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which wanted to resurrect the building as a hotel in 2000. "We were never able to make a deal that made economic sense."

"At the end of the day," Ong said, "they are land speculators."

A representative of the Maharishi did not return several calls seeking comment.

The Maharishi may be holding out for rising commercial real estate values in downtown Hartford, but the building is increasingly standing out as a gaping hole in an area that has been abuzz with redevelopment.

The air is filled with the sound of construction nearby. Cranes strain under the weight of steel structural beams at the science center site across Columbus Boulevard. And, to the west, workers swing hammers as student housing and apartments rise at the old Sage-Allen department store site.

Ong, who studied the hotel extensively, said the structure would require a gutting if it were to remain a hotel, particularly because the rooms are much smaller than those today.

The renovation of older buildings, particularly vacant ones, are more expensive than simply erecting a new structure. That's why getting the lowest sales price is key to making the projects work financially.

Architect Anthony Amenta, of Amenta/Emma in Hartford, said sellers "practically [would] have to give the building away" for a project to be viable.

The city saw that earlier this year, when two real estate partners paid $7 million for the historic Connecticut Mutual headquarters in Asylum Hill in Hartford, well below the original $13 million asking price. That 11.2-acre facility features 450,000 square feet of office space and a 662-space parking garage. The developers plan to spend up to $30 million on that property.

Some say the hotel site on Constitution Plaza has potential for use as a hotel or perhaps as a hotel combined with condominiums. The latter arrangement is gaining high-profile popularity in larger cities such as New York, where the famed Plaza Hotel is undergoing such a makeover.

Two Key Parcels

Perez said he believes a fresh start at the hotel site, however, would benefit the riverfront area, and views from residential units to the river would be "spectacular."

Demolition would cost about $2 million and would include removing asbestos believed to be in the building, Amenta said. Without the building, the land - less than an acre - could be worth between $1.5 and $2 million, according to Cushman & Wakefield of Connecticut, the commercial real estate firm.

The city also views Broadcast House as just as key as the hotel, particularly since it is at the corner of Columbus Boulevard and State Street. The city had sought to acquire the property when it was negotiating to keep the television station in downtown Hartford.

The city would have gained control of Broadcast House, essentially swapping it for a city-owned parcel near Main and Trumbull, where WFSB had considered building a new facility.

WFSB, a CBS affiliate, decided to build a new facility in Rocky Hill, which is expected to be ready in late spring or early fall.

The station now has a contract with a prospective buyer, and expects to know in early January if the sale will go through. If that doesn't happen, the station's general manager said WFSB would consider restarting talks with the city.

"We would absolutely consider it, with them or anyone else," station general manager Klarn DePalma said.

The city would be very receptive to those discussions, said John Palmieri, the city's director of development services.

The success of redevelopment efforts involving Broadcast House and the hotel are critical not only to the riverfront but to Constitution Plaza itself, which is starting to put behind it a legacy of failed 1960s urban renewal, observers say.

The two prominent office towers on the plaza have been renovated by owner Capital Properties of New York. One tower - One Constitution Plaza - is now 90 percent leased, and the other - 100 Constitution Plaza - is 65 percent leased, with a major tenant, the insurer XL America, according to Cushman & Wakefield broker Jonathan K. Putnam, the leasing agent.

A restaurant - Spris - has been open for six years.

If hurdles over the sale of the hotel could be cleared, Ong said, he would still be interested in the site.

"I'd be back in a heartbeat," he said. "It's a marvelous location."

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