Patrick McMahon, CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center, spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about the advantages of adaptive reuse in some of Connecticut’s historic and older properties.
NAN PRICE: Give us some context. What is “adaptive reuse?”
PATRICK McMAHON: Throughout the state of Connecticut, and elsewhere throughout the country, hundreds of older buildings have become vacant or underutilized for whatever reason. The whole concept of adaptive reuse is looking at these building with fresh eyes and trying to come up with new and creative ways they can be brought back into productive use.
NAN: How do you determine if and how a building can be reutilized?
PATRICK: We need to map where these underutilized resources are, determine their underlying zoning, and find out whether there are impediments to their reuse. Then we can address what the market would bear in that area and whether a building can be used for housing or manufacturing.
Some of these buildings are considered historic, meaning they’re designated as a state or national registered district. Some are beautiful buildings that are old enough, but they haven’t gone through the process of being designated. Others are historic, but don’t necessarily look older. So, there is a continuum of these different type of buildings.
As residents, policymakers, and public officials, it behooves us to get as many of those buildings reutilized as possible, especially if they are truly historic. However, not every building is worthy of preservation and protection.
In some cases, we can’t find the reuse. In those circumstances, it may be best to do a demolition and then come up with a new infill use. Many others are charming, historical buildings that, if they were brought back to life, can create economic impact with a multiplier effect.
NAN: Can you give us an example?
PATRICK: Sure. The Capewell Factory in the south end of Hartford sat vacant for three decades. By using different funding sources, the Corporation for Independent Living turned it into residential housing within walking distance of downtown Hartford. The Capewell Factory had an assessed value of about $60,000. After the Capewell Lofts were completed, the property was assessed at about $2 million. So, you can really see what an impact that kind of investment can have.
Another example is 1429 Park Street in Hartford, another renovated mill building that houses reSET, Hog River Brewing Company, several design firms, and loft apartments. These types of buildings are affordable and located in places that are walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible, which people like. There are many eclectic ones in Hartford with great architecture—they just need some reinvestment.
NAN: What are the challenges involved?
PATRICK: There are several, of course, mostly monetary. Everybody wants growth. But we also have to make sure we’re investing enough money into the maintenance, restoration, or redevelopment of what’s already been built.
The thing about historic building renovations, depending on the market, there is often a financing gap. The rent some of them can secure after they’ve renovated don’t necessarily justify the full construction cost of the project.
NAN: Are there solutions in place?
PATRICK: Yes, one is the state historic tax credit program. Having a robust program like this helps with the adaptive reuse of buildings because it can be utilized in conjunction with Opportunity Zones and other low housing tax credits to do these different mill conversion projects, build business incubators, or create light or small-scale manufacturing centers.
The state historic tax credit program allocates about $32 million a year for these projects throughout the state. By about this time each year, it has already allocated the full fiscal year funding for those tax credits and it has already had to start forward allocating into the next fiscal year.
The Connecticut Preservation Action, a statewide network of historic preservation organization, is trying to increase the amount of state historic tax credits available. We have sought through legislation to bump the amount to $42 million.
The state has these resources. We have these assets. We’ve got find a way to reutilize more of them and we are going to try to keep this topic in front of people’s minds.
We need to have cross sector involvement—the public and the private sector need to partner on this. It has to be multi-disciplinary, so it has to involve architects, engineers, construction contractors, nonprofit and for-profit developers, banks, and other financiers. We all need to be talking to each other to figure out how to move the needle so more of these buildings get reutilized.