Reporter Jackie Majerus wrote this:
After a year and a half of trying to develop the failed downtown mall property, the answer may be to build a school there after all, said board member Thomas Cosgrove of the Bristol Downtown Development Corp.
Cosgrove – the lone voice on the board for a change to the school concept – said the city-owned site could be vacant for eight to 10 years if the board holds out for retail.
"We're really dead in the water," said Cosgrove. "Maybe it's time to open up an alternative."
Cosgrove argued that the primary goals of the BDDC are to recoup the money the city spent to buy and clear the mall property – a figure he put at $6.5 million – and to create an attractively developed site as soon as possible.
[Note from your friendly blogger: The city has spent at least $8 million on the mall so far when you throw in legal fees and consultants.]
He researched the property using city records over the last decade and realized the average revenue from the property for the years it wasn't owned by the city averaged $89,500, Cosgrove said. At that rate, he said, it would take 18 years to get the money back.
The city, which is in the process of securing sites for two new, 800-student, K-8 schools, would get its money's worth by using the old mall site, which Cosgrove said could be an attractive property with gardens and waterfalls.
"It definitely is a solid alternative," said Cosgrove.
Cosgrove's fellow board members disagreed, some vehemently.
Ultimately, the BDDC rejected his proposal and agreed to send out a request for qualifications in the coming months in a new search for a possible developer.
"I don't think it's a good idea," said board member Jennifer Janelle.
Board member John Leone said they shouldn't give up on finding a developer. Leone said building a school there would "just about wipe out" any hope of a viable downtown.
BDDC board President Frank Johnson said the clear message from the residents of Bristol during public forums about the site was that the board shouldn't "settle," but rather hang in there for something good.
Janelle said the BDDC needs to hear from developers as to what they think would work there.
Board member Dick Kallenbach said he's hearing from people in town that they want the former mall property back on the tax rolls, not used for a school.
"They're adamant about it," said Kallenbach. "People are not very happy with that school system."
Board members said the lagging economy is working against their efforts to lure a developer.
"We didn't stumble," said Leone. "The economy stumbled. We may get a lot more action than we think down the road."
Johnson said the board now has "the luxury of time now" to find the right fit.
While Cosgrove spoke of a banking crisis that will keep investors from sinking money into the Mum City for at least five to seven years, Leone said the bankers he knows are out there lending money and doing deals.
"We've got to stay the course," said Kallenbach, calling the property a "gem."
But Gardener Wright, another board member, said they had to take a hard look at the city's demographics and see what kind of development could work there.
"Cheerleading for what we would like is not going to give us a realistic picture of what we have," said Wright, who said the development would primarily serve local people. He said the city needs a long term plan that takes the whole downtown into account, not just the old mall property.
While it might look nice, Leone said, schools shut down in the summer and are really only busy when parents drop off and pick up their children.
The city doesn't have many large parcels of land left, several board members said, which makes the 17-acre downtown piece valuable.
Cosgrove remained unconvinced.
"What I hear is a lot of soft talk," Cosgrove said, when the board really should be figuring out how to recover the city's investment and develop the site.
Here's an overview that Cosgrove wrote up explaining his stance:
The BDDC was created by the City Council as a single purpose entity (with minor exceptions), to redevelop the Bristol Center Mall site. To date it has hired counsel, hired an executive director/consultant, and hired an environmental engineering firm. The site is legally controlled by the City and studies to date suggest it is clear of environmental concerns. Public hearings have allowed the public and governmental officials to voice their valuable opinions about the site's future. The City Council and Mayor have efficiently cleared the site.
I believe the BDDC has two goals: 1) Recoup the $6.5 MM of tax money required to gain control of the site and clear it; 2) Create an attractively developed site that represents a good use for the citizens of Bristol as soon as possible.
IMMUTABLE FACTS -- ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM
1. Route 6, not Downtown, is the Commercial Center of Bristol!!
2. Recent American Urban Development Theory is based on multiple car families and FREE PARKING. Buckland Hills, West Farms, Route 6.
3. Connecticut Downtowns ARE NOT commercial centers in the 21st century. When was the last time anyone packed their family in the car and drove to downtown Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury, Torrington, Middletown, New Haven, Bridgeport, Meriden,,,,,,to SHOP. While Route 72 will be a major improvement, it will NOT carry "outsiders" to Bristol to shop.
4. The Couture Administration overpaid for the site. Why is irrelevant; the result is that BDDC must deal with the fact and its consequences.
I would like to thank the Tax Office, the Assessor's Office, and the City Clerk's Office for their gracious assistance. The research information sought went back 10 years -- assessments, tax revenue, and "mall sale" transactions. City of Bristol bought the Mall on March 21, 2005 for $5.299MM. There have been no tax revenues since and today it is assessed for $6.561MM of which the LAND is $3.44MM. The seven year average tax revenue was $89,500.
The real estate transactions are far more helpful. The following is my best non-professional reading of the records. Mario Ottaviano and Mike Tehrani "bought" the Mall for $10 and a $2.2MM "non-recourse" loan backed by leases (Book984,Page235) on 2/2/90. If correct, they bought the mall for $10 and a loan. Hartford National Bank and its successors were able to write their loan down to $2.2MM performing rather than zero and got "real estate managers" to take over. On 11/9/98 (Book1269,Page87)
Galleria at Bristol Mall LLC (Gatto) bought the mall from Bristol Centre Mall, Limited Partners for $2.5MM.
Ottaviano and Tehrani realizing a diminishing cash flow, sold the mall, paid off the mortgage and walked away with $300K.
DID RUDY GATTO DO ANYTHING TO THE PROPERTY TO ENHANCE ITS VALUE IN HIS 6 YEARS OF OWNERSHIP?? While it is assessed for $6.5MM, I would ballpark its value at $2.5-3.0 MM. If true, we have a 3.0 MM loss or more to deal with on the land.
The two developers who came to our showing and did not bid were quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying "mixed use" will not work, retail is the game for that site. At this juncture I do not believe retail will work on the site. While I said at our September, 2007 meeting we had a "perfect storm" in our favor to create a commercial center, I now believe, 10 months later, we have a "perfect storm" against us.
Tier I malls such as Westfarms, Meriden, and Buckland Hills have their highest vacancies in 10 years. Retail bankruptcies are growing. The Bush Administration's 2005 Bankruptcy Bill has greatly diminished "debtor in bankruptcy" financing (WSJ), causing liquidations rather than restructurings. The internet is here -- Amazon, Ebay et.al. Home Shopping Network is here. 1950 Downtown Bristol is not coming back. Most potential tenants are on Route 6.
Bank stocks are down 60-75% from their highs. Banks will not start financing malls for 3-4 years.Bristol Downtown prospects will be 2-3 years out from that point. I believe if we try to go retail, the site will be vacant for 8-10 years -- 2016-2018. Remember Cohen- Front Street- Hartford??? Having a developer does not insure development. Cohen is gone. Nothing happened for 5 years.
The September, 2007 Bristol Press Cover Story quotes Mayor Stortz as saying the school site location consultant picked 3 West Side sites for a K-9 school, "Depot Square" was #1. It is possible that an architectural rendering exists. BDDC can turn the Downtown into a beautiful Government Center with a $50MM school. The whole $6.5MM land cost to the city could be recouped by using it as an in kind contibution (city share of school costs).
The BDDC has a diverse, well trained Board. Public hearings have broadly reached into the community and unified the City Government in support of the project. The BDDC's first effort to find a developer failed although it was well conceived developed and executed. Consequently, I believe BDDC has to consider alternative uses for the site. Using the site for the K-9 school fulfills 2 goals: it recoups taxpayer expenditures for the site and it fills the site with an enhanced use quickly.
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