Continental Properties has signed an agreement to purchase the Trout Brook Drive parcel, which measures 3.4 acres and is strategically located within walking distance of West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square.
By Ronni Newton
Kingswood Oxford School has announced that the school will be selling the property that has been home to the Children’s Museum for more than 60 years, and the buyer, Continental Properties, plans to develop the strategically located site on the outskirts of West Hartford Center as a “modern luxury rental community.”
The deal was announced Tuesday, a year after the property was first put on the market.
While the specific details of the forthcoming project – including when it will close and the sale price – have not yet been disclosed, Kingswood Oxford and Continental expressed excitement about what the future holds, and the Children’s Museum’s executive director said it will provide an important opportunity for its evolution.
Kingswood Oxford perspective
Kingswood Oxford purchased the 950 Trout Brook Drive property – which is adjacent to its campus – from the Children’s Museum, then known as Science Center of Connecticut, Inc., in 2003. At the time the Children’s Museum, which had moved to the site in West Hartford in 1958, was already contemplating a move.
The Children’s Museum, which also includes a preschool, leased the space back from KO, and has continued to make the property its home long after the lease has expired.
According to town history, prior to the property being owned and occupied by the Museum, it had been owned by Kingswood and used as the Junior School.
Following a strategic visioning process that launched in 2019, and after much consideration, Kingswood Oxford decided to move ahead with plans to sell the 3.4 acre property. It went on the market in January 2021.
Head of School Tom Dillow said Tuesday, after a comprehensive search conducted with the assistance of John Cafasso and Ian Hunt of Colliers International, Continental Properties has been selected as the buyer.
Dillow told We-Ha.com Tuesday that the due diligence has already taken place, but it will be several months before the sale closes because the buyer wants to first meet with West Hartford’s Design Review and Advisory Committee and refine the scope and design of the project, which will be submitted as a Special Development District and subject to Town Council approval. The 950 Trout Brook Drive property is currently zoned for multi-family residential (RM-2), and borders both commercial and residential zones.
While Dillow could not disclose the price, he said it was “fair and competitive,” and Continental was chosen from among a number of competitive bidders.
“There were more than 50 proposals in total. Some were really compelling,” he said. Not all were exclusively for residential development, and the original sales flier noted that the parcel could accommodate “74 units of market rate luxury apartments,” with the potential for “medical, office, or retail” use as well.
Dillow said what impressed Kingswood Oxford the most about the Continental proposal was its aesthetics, its commitment to the environment and the neighborhood, the economic impact it would have, and how responsive Continental has been in conversations with Kingswood and other stakeholders.
While renderings are not yet available, there was a general scope and design of the project provided by Continental, Dillow said. “We are pretty confident it will be attractive and well received in the community and West Hartford as a whole.”
Kingswood Oxford plans to use the proceeds from the sale of the property to invest in the school, to further its goals of being a “transformative day school,” Dillow said. They plan to invest in people – faculty and staff – as well as innovation to support KO’s “increased interdisciplinary opportunity for real world learning.”
Kingswood Oxford also plans to use the funds to enhance financial assistance to students in need.
The sale process has been lengthy and deliberative, Dillow said, and carefully stewarded by members of the Board of Trustees and other members of the team. “I’m confident and excited that this will be a great fit here in our community,” he said.
Town Planner Todd Dumais confirmed that the parcel is zoned for multi-family residential, and said he is not aware of any environmental hazards present. While there is proximity to Trout Brook, upland review requirement impacts only the very perimeter of the property.
While the site could technically be developed as multi-family housing “as of right,” the project would have to meet all of the requirements of the zone regarding setbacks, building height, units per acre, etc. The nature of the project will likely require a Special Development District, and be subject to Town Council approval.
“Given its location, it’s an important parcel and a gateway to the Center,” Dumais said. It’s also one of the largest potential sites for development in the area. “The size of the parcel is unique, and presents a great opportunity,” he said.
Although Mayor Shari Cantor could not comment specifically on the project because the Town Council will be reviewing it for approval, she said, “We always welcome those who wish to invest in West Hartford and look forward to reviewing their application during the permitting and public hearing process.”
What’s next for the Children’s Museum, including Conny?
After the Children’s Museum sold the 950 Trout Brook Drive property to Kingswood Oxford in 2003, and began leasing it back, both organizations knew the arrangement would end eventually; the current lease expired several years ago, and the Museum has been talking about moving for at least the past eight or nine years.
They’ve assessed multiple sites over the years, and serious discussions were underway in March 2019. When the property went on the market last January, those discussions accelerated, and the organization has since obtained a grant from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development to conduct a study related to its relocation plans.
Securing of a permanent site, in new buildings – with a focus in Hartford – is at least two or three years off, Children’s Museum Executive Director Michael Werle told We-Ha.com Tuesday. There are between two and four potential locations, and a review of zoning issues is underway.
“We’ve been working with KO for months, and months, and months,” Werle said, simultaneously looking at a permanent site as well as the more immediate need to move.
They are currently “working feverishly” to secure one of two potential sites to temporarily house both the museum and the preschool. Werle could not specify the locations, but said both are within an 8-10 minute drive of the current site, and are safe, clean, and quiet, and convenient for preschool families and museum-goers.
“Our goal is to be off the property by early summer,” he said.
Both temporary locations will be able to accommodate the museum and the preschool, although capacity to house all of the animals in the wildlife sanctuary may not be possible. Any impacted animal will be found a good home, Werle said.
As for the giant 62-foot-long whale, which has long been the iconic image of the Children’s Museum, “Conny is interesting,” Werle said. “It’s a conundrum we’re struggling with.”
Conny – short for “Connecticut” – was built onsite by volunteers in 1975-76, and had a 40th birthday party in 2016. While the sculpture is on the site, its construction was an effort of the state’s Cetacean Society – now Cetacean Society International – which along with other groups has been consulting with the Children’s Museum regarding the future plans.
“We harbor Conny, but we don’t feel we own Conny,” Werle said. “There’s a significant and broader ownership than us.”
Moving the whale is possible, but would be very expensive, with cost estimates in the $200,000 range. Conny’s weight has been estimated at 45,000 pounds, he said, including 15,000 pounds of steel as well as cement.
Werle said they Children’s Museum supports the sale of the property, and looks forward to its next chapter. “We look at this as an opportunity,” he said. “We’ve been in this building for 60-plus years, and it shows.”
The move will be an opportunity to improve their lot, and Werle said he’s excited about the prospects.
Continental Properties, which is based in New York City and was founded more than 65 years ago, is privately owned and focused on development, redevelopment, and management of residential and commercial real estate, and according to a news release has “actively built over 25,000 residences throughout New Jersey, New York, Florida, Connecticut, California and other locations.”
While this is their first project in West Hartford, the company has developed, built, and operates four communities in they Greater Hartford area: One Glastonbury Place in Glastonbury, Tempo at The Promenade Shoppes at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, Montage at Rocky Hill, and Alterra at Rocky Hill.Continental has also developed, built, and currently operates apartment communities in Trumbull, Shelton, and Milford.
“West Hartford is a wonderful community with a dynamic town center and we’re looking forward to working with the town to bring a beautiful new residential community within walkable distance of Blue Back’s and The Center’s stores, services and restaurants,” stated Howard S. Rappaport, a principal of Continental Properties.
Rappaport, who is originally from the New Haven area, said he and his team looks forward to “meeting with our neighbors to present our plans, answer questions and address concerns.”
They expect to make their formal application to the town in the late spring or early summer.
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