An existing property owner hopes to build a new residential development in West Hartford Center, but before that happens the Town Council will hold a public hearing and vote on an amendment of a zoning ordinance allowing for increased ‘floor area ratio’ in zone BC.
By Ronni Newton
An investor that already has a major stake in West Hartford Center is interested in adding another key element to the neighborhood – a moderately-sized residential development.
Lexham Private Investors LLC already owns a large number of commercial properties in town, including West Hartford Center’s 65 LaSalle Rd. (Webster Bank, Becker’s Jewelers); 25-55 LaSalle (Ávert, McLadden’s, future Noble & Co., Central Optica); and 1001 Farmington Ave. (Scottrade and Optimal Wellness), as well as other buildings on Farmington Avenue, North Main Street, South Main Street, and New Britain Avenue.
Lexham also owns about three acres of land, currently occupied by parking lots, behind the buildings on LaSalle and 1001 Farmington Avenue. Managing Principal Marc Lewis believes those lots would be ideal for premier residential development.
“West Hartford has become more of a work-play environment – a center for Hartford County,” said Lewis. “But it’s not easy for merchants and retailers to make a good living. There’s a need for more people to live in town,” he said.
Lewis said he particularly hopes to attract young single people and couples, as well as empty nesters, who want to rent in a safe, walkable location. He said that the most successful aspect of West Hartford’s Blue Back Square is the residential piece, with long waiting lists for apartments and fully-occupied condominium units. Smaller new residential developments at 24 North Main and 11 South Main have also been very well-received.
“With our land, residential development on a moderate level is a great fit,” Lewis said. “Right now it’s just ugly,” he said.
Residential occupancy would benefit merchants and would add value to what is essentially wasted space, Lewis said. The parking spaces, now used primarily by owners and employees of businesses in the LaSalle Road and Farmington Avenue businesses, would not disappear but would be replaced by garage parking in the larger of the two residential buildings.
The two buildings combined would accommodate about 85 apartments, mostly one-bedroom, Lewis said. Residents would be able to walk to stores, to restaurants, to work. They would have residential garage parking provided in the new development, and would not put additional stress on West Hartford Center’s existing parking capacity.
Lexham will have to submit plans for a Special Development District in order to begin the residential development, but can’t do that until the Town Council holds a public hearing and, Lewis hopes, approves a zoning ordinance amendment allowing for “floor area ratio” (FAR) to be increased to 1.5 in zone BC. FAR is the ratio of a building’s area to the size of the piece of land that it’s on.
Lexham has submitted the requested amendment directly, rather than waiting for the town to do it, something Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said is rare.
After several public hearings earlier this year, on April 25 the Town Council withdrew a proposal to increase density in zone BC, which primarily includes West Hartford Center but also several other locations throughout town. That ordinance change was much more extensive than what Lexham is proposing, and among proposed changes were increasing FAR to 1.75 and allowing for five-story buildings in the BC district.
The current zoning ordinance limits FAR to 1.25, but many West Hartford Center buildings, constructed prior to the creation of the ordinance, have a much greater FAR.
Lewis has addressed a letter to residents living near the Center, and has provided a copy of the proposed ordinance (both reproduced below) as well as a rendering of the type of residential development Lexham would like to construct. The project wouldn’t even need a change all the way to 1.5, Lewis said, but they wanted to be safe with the proposal. They are not requesting any changes to height restrictions.
The green-roofed buildings in the rendering represent what Lexham plans to propose if the zoning ordinance is approved. The buildings would be four stories – the same height as the existing Webster Bank building. The structure that would replace the current Webster Bank parking lot would have commercial and retail occupancy on the ground floor (not a restaurant, Lewis said), with three stories of one-bedroom apartments above for a total of 12-15 units. One of the occupants would be McKenna Orthodontics, because included in the plan would be demolition of McKenna’s existing building, the white house at 8 Arapahoe. That area would become a surface parking lot for Webster Bank, McKenna, and other tenant customers.
The larger of the two residential buildings would be built in a space that really isn’t visible from the street right now. It would include about 70 units, of which eight to ten would be two-bedrooms with the remainder one-bedroom apartments. Two levels of parking, one of which would be below ground, would accommodate residents as well as 100 percent of the parking spaces that currently exist on the site.
The alleyway between Becker’s Jewelers and the soon-to-open Noble & Co. would become a beautiful pedestrian walkway, Lewis said. “We need to balance the town back to LaSalle and create walkways,” he said.
The development will “create tremendous synergistic commerce,” said Lewis. There will be no strain on street-level parking, and the project will be of enormous economic development to the town. Lewis said the estimated investment in just the buildings is $40 to $50 million.
Lewis said his goal is to be transparent with neighbors and others in town, and that’s why he is releasing the project details even before the zoning ordinance has been considered. The Town Council will hold a public hearing on Sept. 27, at 6:30 p.m. “People are going to know what’s coming,” Lewis said.
Director of Community Services Mark McGovern said that while Lexham’s zoning amendment is not as broad as what was proposed several months ago, he can’t predict how the Town Council will vote. Council members are currently unable to comment outside of the public hearing.
If passed, the zoning amendment will apply to any applications for Special Development Districts in zone BC, not just to Lexham’s planned development.
“We’re always interested in seeing major investment. It’s exciting bringing new residents to the Center, and new residents would also mean new customers for our businesses. It’s a positive opportunity for us to consider,” McGovern said.
If approved, Lewis said that Lexham would like to begin construction by the middle of 2017.
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