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$250 Million Makeover Could Make XL Center Competitive With Promoters

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Tue December 22, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Kenneth R. Gosselin - THE HARTFORD COURANT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) A $250 million plan to transform the XL Center into a modern venue envisions swapping ugly concrete for glass at the corner of Ann Uccello and Church streets, bringing some of the vibe that’s inside the arena out to the street.

“When you’re in it, you feel the city and when you’re outside on the street, you can look inside,’’ Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, said. “In other cities, these buildings deliver an energy level, and that’s what we have to achieve here.’’

The goal is daunting and the redesign of the back of the XL Center is just the latest component of a proposed, top-to-bottom makeover and expansion of the 40-year-old arena. The $250 million project would be spread across several fiscal years and paid for almost entirely by the state.

The authority, which oversees the XL Center and the renovation, will have to marshal the political support from both Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state legislature to secure funding. The project will have to compete with a myriad of other projects, including Malloy’s sweeping statewide plan to improve transportation and comes at a time when the state is mired in deepening financial woes.

The first chunk of funding — perhaps as much as $50 million — could get the project fully under way next year. If legislative approval is secured, construction could start the following year and be completed by 2019.

The plans envision a dramatic change that would essentially create a new arena: a second concourse to relieve congestion and irritating waits at concessions; more “premium’’ seating lower in the arena; and more amenities and restrooms.

“The objective is to make this building a new building,’’ Freimuth said. “It has to look, feel and smell new.’’

Physical changes could make the XL Center more competitive with promoters of concerts and other events — and increase profits both for promoters and the XL Center. Historically, the venue has been a money-loser, about $3 million annually in recent years, a loss that typically was all or at least partly covered by the state.

A spokesman of the state’s budget office said Malloy’s administration supports improvements to the venue, but gave no hint of the scope.

“The XL Center is an important economic driver for the city of Hartford and the entire region,’’ Gian-Carl Casa, a spokesman of the state Office of Policy and Management, said. “CRDA has been studying the facility and we are working closely with CRDA to evaluate its needs and decide what should be done to address them.’’

The project would be part of the state’s capital improvement budget, which is funded by the sale of bonds. Freimuth knows it could be a tough go in the legislature.

“If we don’t do something, to me, we run, what I call the New Haven risk where the facility just runs down on itself,’’ Freimuth said, referring to the decline — and eventual demolition — of the coliseum in New Haven.

The future of the XL Center arena, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, has been debated for more than a decade. A long line of studies declared that it was too small and too outdated for major league sports.

The makeover and expansion now being contemplated would come on top of $35 million already spent in the past two years. That work spruced up a drab interior, opened up a “fan club’’ facing the arena and added premium seating lower in the bowl. But those improvements were only intended to carry the XL Center through the end of the decade, or possibly a bit longer.

Nine months ago, a consultant recommended three options for the arena: work with the existing building; embark on a major renovation and expansion; or replace the structure entirely on the present site. The authority settled on the second option because, even at $250 million, it was half of the $500 million for a new structure.

The consultant, SCI Architects of New York, noted that working within the current building was not a viable alternative for creating an engine of economic growth downtown.

Freimuth said SCI and the authority expect physical improvements to drive revenue higher. More concessions and attractions — now standard in new arenas would encourage ticket holders to spend more money, especially if they don’t have to wait in long lines and miss a piece of the event they are attending, he said.

But the authority also is looking at how it can structure contracts to boost the arena’s money-making potential.

Sports remains the venue’s mainstay, with AHL hockey and UConn basketball and ice hockey teams as major tenants. The authority and UConn are negotiating a long-term contract that differs from the past and would go into effect should XL Center get the radical makeover.

The contract would make UConn more of a partner than a tenant. The deal calls for the university to play 30 games a year — men’s and women’s basketball and ice hockey — for 20 years. But instead of paying rent, as it does now, and keeping the majority of ticket revenue, UConn and the arena would share all revenue — tickets, concessions, sponsorships and premium seating — with UConn no longer paying rent.

“There would be a higher return to UConn than it is currently getting,’’ Freimuth said. “And the idea is that the revenue stream for the arena would be better than break-even.’’

A profitable venue also would be attractive to an NHL team should one seek out Hartford, Friemuth said, because a professional team doesn’t want to subsidize operations.

If the legislature financially supports pushing ahead next year, the authority would focus on drawing up detailed plans and purchasing the atrium, now owned by Northland Investment Corp., space which is needed for the second concourse. Adding the new concourse also would mean juggling space now leased by the University of St. Joseph’s pharmacy school.

Freimuth said negotiations are already under way with Northland, which redeveloped the former Hartford Civic Center and built the adjoining Hartford 21 apartment tower in the early 2000s. Before the redevelopment, there was a second level when there was a shopping mall in the building.

The elimination of skyboxes, which would be converted to restaurants and clubs, and other changes throughout the structure could make room for another 2,000 or so seats, increasing the total to about 18,000 from the current 15,800.

The makeover at the corner of Ann Uccello and Church would be an improvement architecturally, incorporating the movement of people inside the building to enliven the streetscape — especially looking east on Church.

“Let’s stipulate that this block as it exists is really bad urbanism, a confrontation of queasiness-induced parking deck angles with this marching Imperial storm trooper colonnade,’’ Patrick L. Pinnell a Hartford-area architect and planner, said.

The redesign, Pinnell said, enlivens the corner and makes it more inviting. An LED billboard will serve as a “civic beacon’’ to welcome people to the city.

Pinnell said more still needs to be done with the stairs, perhaps incorporating benches and public art to further convey it is a public space.

“It will never be the Spanish Steps in Rome,’’ Pinnell said. “That’s the ideal of moving into a civic space, but there’s more of an opportunity here.’’

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