Gaining Momentum for Court Square and 31 Elm Street

Posted on Tuesday, December 4 2007 by Heather Brandon

Court Square city promoAt the October 16 Springfield Finance Control Board meeting (full transcript here), topics included the assembly of a parcel of land downtown at 31 Elm Street (pictured), also known as the Court Square Building, a significant vacant, available piece of property.

31 Elm Street on Court Square. Photo by H BrandonLast year, a national Urban Land Institute panel identified the building as key in spurring downtown development, among other important efforts and strategies, and set it as a top priority for the city’s undertakings, which could otherwise conceivably be spread out among too many simultaneous projects. Zimmerman/Volk Associates later produced a study focusing on the potential for market-rate housing downtown, with an eye on 31 Elm Street. My curiosity about the L-shaped building was kindled by the ULI highlighting the building, which I knew had been considered for a possible (and possibly untenable) boutique hotel plan that had fallen through. At this time last year, on a very cold December morning, I toured portions of 31 Elm Street with city representatives. A slideshow of images is available here.

I was not allowed above the second floor because of safety concerns, nor did I tour the mysterious underground passageway. I could not get inside the former Bar Association social club beyond the doorway because of concerns of imminent collapse.

Entrance to former social clubCourt Square lobby of 31 Elm. Photo by H BrandonPlants had apparently thrived inside one glassed-in entrance to the Bar Association (pictured right), a kind of greenhouse-by-neglect.

There were signs here and there of squatters having occupied the place, such as in the Court Square lobby (pictured left), where we saw a porn magazine, discarded boots, and a shopping cart, among junk and miscellaneous personal possessions.

Growth on the walls. Photo by H BrandonAlgae of varying types proliferated on interior walls (pictured left), some of which were somewhat exposed to the outside elements.

Ceiling tiles and rubble litter the floor. Photo by H BrandonThe devastating effects of water damage were visible throughout many parts of the second floor, especially along the walls facing the interior courtyard currently functioning as a parking lot. Many ceiling tiles and much plaster had come down, littering the floors and exposing the wall and ceiling laths. Broken glass, crumbled plaster and even overturned safes barred the way in various rooms and corridors.

In short, the building captivated me. It’s a gorgeous piece of architecture right in the heart of the city’s downtown. It’s screaming out with potential, so loudly that it was hard for me to walk through the place without screaming along with it, let alone navigating the littered, sometimes warped or gaping floors.

Connecting offices. Photo by H Brandon

Humphrey Bogart as Sam SpadeWandering through it, one imagines private eye Sam Spade at work in one of the small connecting offices with a bay window, chain-smoking cigarettes in a dim room spliced into claustrophobic horizontal, regular lines by the effects of light spilling through Venetian blinds.

Or perhaps one can picture Mayor Charles Ryan walking the corridors. He worked at one time as a lawyer in an upper-story office overlooking Court Square.

Window overlooking State Street. Photo by H BrandonIt is even possible to picture people living in the offices-turned-apartments, stopping home after work to change only to step out again across State Street to the Keg Room before calling it a night.

The city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development has prepared a relatively comprehensive Web site about the building, calling it a development opportunity of historic proportions, working toward the issuance of requests for qualifications (RFQs) later this month. The process will then lead to requests for proposals (RFPs).

City pitches development opportunity

In an interview last June, the city’s chief development officer David Panagore said, “Literally every two to three weeks, someone comes through wanting to look at [the building], or wanting to talk about it. You never know how many of those bites turn into actual interest.”

The reconstruction of Main Street, including sidewalk and lighting work, was in Panagore’s view an appealing aspect of making bids more likely and promising for 31 Elm. “We want to limit the impact and maximize the positive side for the community,” he said, of the street reconstruction, hoping to have the work wrapped up in time for snowfall.

Empty space awaits in 31 Elm. Photo by H Brandon“In the RFQ,” Panagore explained, “we’re asking for your experience, your financial stability or capability to pull off a project, and your design concept.” With that information, the city will then boil down the list of potential developers to a manageable number of realistic options, somewhere in the range of three to five groups, he said.

Those developers will be provided with further detailed information about the property.

“Then we’ll be able to go out with each of those teams and get a last and best final offer from all of them on their design concept,” Panagore said. “We’ll take those proposals and bring them to a ‘blue-ribbon committee’ sort of approach” to examine the bids.

During the summer, work was done to move forward on assembling the site and figuring out its fair market value, a process that also included going before the control board this fall to ask for mayoral authorization (at the appropriate time) to transfer three parcels from the city, in tax title, to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, to make the entire site marketable.

Aerial showing 31 Elm. Courtesy planning dept

In an aerial view of the 31 Elm Street site shown above, 1) 13-31 Elm Street/92-96 State Street; 2) 3-7 Elm Street; 3) NS State Street (#98); 4) NS State Street (#100); 5) 104-108 State Street, to be demolished.

David Panagore and a 31 Elm Street map. Photo by H Brandon“If you look next to parcel two [which is parcel three in the above aerial view map],” Panagore said, referring to an earlier map, “you see a rectangular parcel of land. There is another parcel of similar size directly abutting that. Those two parcels of land the redevelopment authority acquired directly through eminent domain this past month. [They] have already settled the value of the parcel of land immediately next to number two [three, above]]. This will, in a sense, square off the parcel [as shown].”

Later this fall, Panagore said, in cooperation with the SRA, the city would move forward with the RFQ process in the effort to locate a qualified developer for the site.

“With this vote,” he continued, “the control board would be authorizing the transfer of these three parcels upon minimum terms that the redevelopment authority—that all funds that may arise upon the sale of these parcels would fall back to the city, in payment of back taxes that were owed on these properties, minus third party costs—meaning costs incurred by the redevelopment authority to, say, hire somebody to fence the property, or to do a title search, something like that—in addition to a seven-percent overhead charge for those matters that the authority might incur above and beyond, that they could not find reimbursement for.”

Old First Church. Courtesy planning deptThe control board approved the request unanimously, the sole question on the matter coming from chair Chris Gabrieli, who wondered what the bits and pieces on the site map indicated regarding public access to the parking lot behind the building (again, full transcript here).

City Council President Kateri Walsh, after the item was passed, had a related question about neighboring Old First Church (pictured) and whether there had been any news on whether the building can be rescued from oblivion.

“We’re continuing our discussions,” Panagore replied. “The city voluntarily moved, acting through the redevelopment authority—given its adjacency to this parcel—to undertake an appraisal of that property. We undertook that. We’re having discussions with First Church right now about that. It wouldn’t be prudent right now to go into those in detail, but certainly it’s a priority.”

In somewhat related news, Congressman Richard Neal was in Springfield yesterday touting various major city projects coming together that involve federal funding, and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council‘s Michael Graney posted to his blog on MassLive.com about what goes into attracting businesses to the area.

As an editorial this week in the Hartford Business Journal notes, “Public relations folks can say all they want about the promise of the city. But when developers walk the talk, committing money and their reputations to projects in [the city], it says a lot more. It says that they are willing to invest in [the city], despite the city’s struggle to attract retailers that gladly flock to [insert suburb's name here].”

“[A] developer’s first rule is to never lose money,” the editorial continues. “Successful projects become their calling card to investors for future projects.”

“Even though the city continues to struggle with a number of challenges,” the piece goes on, “and the challenges are numerous, it has not deterred new development. The attraction of retailers to downtown has been dismal. There is still no downtown book store. Nor a grocer. And many retailers continue to struggle, especially restaurants and nightclubs, which number among those that have opened to applause, and then shut their doors quietly. Violent crime continues to make headlines and shouts ‘stay away’ to suburban residents. The turmoil and performance of city schools hurts the city’s chances of attracting middle-class families interested in living the urban life.”

Despite these obstacles, the piece notes, four “prominent city developers” have responded to an RFP to convert a 40-year-old, 99,414-square-foot Hartford office building at 95-101 Pearl Street into mixed-use retail and residences, after what may have been a false start or two.

9 Responses to “Gaining Momentum for Court Square and 31 Elm Street”

  1. David B. Panagore, esq.

    The Hartford editorial says it all…..

  2. NoPolitician

    How much public money has been invested in Hartford over the past 20 years? I think I recall reading an article that pegged it as “billions” (Adriaen’s Landing project was over $500 million alone). Hartford is lucky in that it is the capital of CT. Springfield gains far less attention from the state.

  3. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    You’re quite right, and I’d like to see that change – Springfield deserves a great deal more attention and funding.

    Adriaen’s Landing has a reputation for having drawn a lot of attention and funding but not yielding much. Courant blogger/columnist and radio host Colin McEnroe visited Front Street shortly after the grand ribbon-cutting for West Hartford’s Blue Back Square and glumly compared the two. He points out in a blog post that Front Street has had more than one groundbreaking. The comments on that post are also revealing about what people in Hartford seem to think about whether such funding yields significant development, or just more press releases about what’s coming.

    Being the recipient of so much public investment can be like a curse. Commenter Paul writes on McEnroe’s blog:

    Front Street was an afterthought for a football stadium/convention center driven development theory that was over before the eighties were. Blue Back, though artificial to begin with, is about a neighborhood. Granted one that doesn’t exist quite yet but still a neighborhood. (Before we get too warm and fuzzy, let’s admit it’s a neighborhood designed for people with money in their pockets).

    Anyway, what’s going on in Hartford is about trying to correct an originally bad idea driven by a perennially vacant and corrupt (now ex-con) governor and perennially besotted (now ex) mayor. Both of whom neglected the potential of all the already existing neighborhoods to pursue their pinheaded big bang theory. The people of Hartford got stuck with the result.

    It’s such tricky business, but I think a lesson is that it’s wise to proceed with caution, gauging carefully what the market can bear regarding big downtown projects, taking public investment where possible but not allowing that to inflate ideas of what can be sustained. Success stories are desperately needed.

  4. David B. Panagore, esq.

    Hartford as the state capital has gotten a great deal of funding/attention. I understand the major economic development package is in the billion dollar range and that did not include the convention center. While Front Street has had a couple of ground breakings, I think its location is somewhat isolated and one of the more difficult development sites. other projects in Hartford have thrived with state expedited permitting oversight and public funding, including Hartford 21, the civic center, the convention center hotel, city college project and so on. In Hartford the state has even provided funding for market rate housing, something historically verbotten here in Massachusetts. As I recall there are something in the range of 60,000 to 80,000 jobs in downtown Hartford, Springfield while it has a larger aggregate population and generally acknowledged better overall neighborhoods (present company obviously excepted Heather) has only something in the range of 8,000 jobs in its downtown.

    Also I could not agree more with your last comment about proceeding with caution so that we create sustainable project based in market realities that are source of local pride. This prudence however sometimes runs counter to the drive behind your final comment about the desperate need for success stories. The more desperate we act in the short run, the greater the likelihood that we will not succeed in the longrun. On the other hand an old economist once said, “in the long run… in the long run, we’ll all be dead”, so its a tough balance isn’t it….

  5. Urban Compass | Blog Archive | Springfield Releases 31 Elm Street Developer RFQ http://urbancompass.net/?p=868

    [...] and the Springfield Finance Control Board, will release a Request for Qualifications, seeking a developer for 13-31 Elm Street and 3-7 Elm Street, known as the Court Square Redevelopment Project. The RFQ [...]

  6. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    David mentioned Front Street. Some completed designs have just been announced regarding that development project, with some commentary by local bloggers as well. The strength and drive of that project seems to be building on the much larger population of downtown workers as you mention being one of Hartford’s potential assets.

    When it comes to a mid-day blizzard, it’s not an asset, since most businesses released workers all at once on Thursday, causing gridlock on I-84 and I-91 and forcing the state to shut down those highways downtown because the state-owned plow trucks could not get through to clear the roads. Folks took hours and hours to get home by car. That’s not an asset, when so many people work downtown or near it, travel by car, and stream out to the suburbs en masse… but if there were more downtown eateries, maybe more people would have been willing to wait a while before heading out, and tuck in to a nice long meal instead.

  7. sojourner

    Your slide show of the Court Square Building is wonderful, Heather! Thank you.

  8. Heather Brandon http://urbancompass.net

    Thanks sojourner.

  9. Urban Compass | Blog Archive | A Regional Corridor is Reborn http://urbancompass.net/?p=2820

    [...] building renovation can succeed for both business and residents in a mixed-use setting. This project has struggled in the past, with the city selecting a developer, and the developer backing off. The [...]

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