Even though huge sections of East Hartford’s dilapidated Silver Lane Plaza are vacant, the small businesses that remain want to stop the city’s project from acquiring and demolishing the buildings.
At a Thursday night hearing on whether East Hartford should consider invoking the rarely used power of eminent domain, many landlords said they didn’t want to leave.
“It would be very administratively cumbersome to have to move,” Judy Sheehan of Splinting Solutions told the Redevelopment Agency.
Sheehan, who rents a small space in one of two office buildings that flank the main mall, said the space is adequate for the small businesses operating there.
“The office building itself is in good condition. This is sufficient for the tenants’ needs. The surrounding parking lot could definitely use some help,” Sheehan told the agency’s board.
“I know part of it is worn out, but part of it is fine,” a representative from Tooth Time Dentistry said.
The Redevelopment Agency’s board adjourned without deciding whether to recommend condemning the square, but is expected to tell City Council this fall whether East Hartford should go ahead.
Local officials assured business owners late Thursday that if the city ultimately decides to take the property by eminent domain, it will honor the leases and help tenants move out if necessary.
But City Council Speaker Rich Kehoe has made it clear that the city will not let high-profile property continue to stagnate. Silver Lane is busy with people heading to Rentschler Field, Cabela’s department store and the Pratt & Whitney complex, he said.
“What they see is this place. He becomes the face of East Hartford,” Keough said. “It doesn’t help us convince people that we’re a viable business place.”
City officials have long complained that Leon Chen’s East Hartford Venture LLC has left an already dilapidated property to decline further since it was purchased six years ago.
“As a city, we’ve been supporting Silver Lane Plaza for decades in a very candid way,” Keough said. “Prior to the current owner, who purchased the property in 2016, the previous owner had done very little for this property as well.”
In the 1980s, the square was part of a thriving shopping center. But it declined as manufacturing employment fell and nearby retail and entertainment centers lost business.
East Hartford Venture LLC bought it amid a statewide discussion about bringing a casino to the vacant Showcase Cinema complex.
Keough said that after the possibility of the casino evaporated, the owner showed little interest in maintaining the place or its surrounding 21 acres. He said Chen’s company got permits for only $100,000 of work.
This amount “over a period of more than six years for a huge commercial development shows a lack of interest, a lack of investment,” Keough said. “Every time the city tried to work with him, we heard nothing.”
But Steve Tessier, the square’s property manager, said the new heating and cooling systems alone cost $150,000. Chen’s larger-scale renovation plans were delayed due to contaminated soil on the lot from an old dry cleaner.
“There was nearly a million dollars spent by Leon Chen and partners for soil contamination and removal. It delayed everything – you can’t borrow a penny against contaminated property,” Tessier said.
The city had redevelopment assistance for the plaza, but did not help when a potential tenant considered leasing the plaza’s long-vacant flagship store,” Tessier said.
“We had a lease in hand (for a) 60,000 square foot Asian market. We needed a roof and a face on the building so they could move in…the city refused to help us in any way, basically pushing this whole project down the tubes,” did he declare.
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But Kehoe said East Hartford had tried to work with the owner for too long.
“I’ve had it so far with promises that ‘we’re going to do something,'” Kehoe said.
“Nothing has happened in six years. We have to take the property, we have to develop it in a way like we have Showcase Cinema,” Kehoe said, referring to a development partnership’s plan to build more than 400 apartments on the former cinema grounds.
“We need to bring in investors who are willing to work with us on our vision for this place. There is so much future in this area,” he said.
Kehoe and Mayor Mike Walsh told tenants at the hearing that if the city got the place through eminent domain or an outright purchase, it would take over as landlord and not evict just businesses.
“Our goal is to work with all businesses,” Walsh said.
Don Stacom can be reached at [email protected].