BERLIN — Town and state officials, along with the local developers behind the proposed mixed-use Steele Center at Farmington Avenue project, broke ground on the more than $18 million development earlier this week.
The entire project will be completed in phases. When finished, the development, which would consist of five mixed-use buildings, aspires to make the Kensington area of Berlin a destination for day trips and an attractive living space for millennials.
As town economic development director Christopher Edge envisions, visitors would be able to park their cars at the parking lot by the train train station for an afternoon or evening. Then they could walk to various restaurants, coffee shops and other businesses during their time in the area.
New residents, in their mid-20s to mid-30s, could potentially live in the one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments on the second level of those new buildings. Such a development would increase the residential options for that age group, Edge said. The new apartments would be the first non-age restricted market rate units constructed in the area.
Berlin Mayor Mark Kaczynski said the way the Kensington area is being developed will make it the closest thing Berlin has to a walkable Main Street type of area.
“We wanted to develop more things around that area,” Kacynski said, explaining that the recent completion of the Berlin Train Station, adjacent to the project, “gave us the tools to move forward… This will make it more walkable, and help existing businesses there.”
The town is utilizing more than $2 million in state grant funds toward various expenses, including costs to acquire new properties, construct the proposed boulevard and new sidewalks and to remediate the former industrial site at 889 Farmington Ave. That remediation will include capping the site to contain contaminated soils.
Edge said state assistance was needed to get to this point.
“Everything from the ground up will be all private money,” he said.
The town’s plans for the area had evolved in recent years, with plans for a new boulevard first conceived in 2013.
Officials had previously proposed a new police station for the planned boulevard. However, town voters rejected that proposal.
In 2017, the town issued a request for proposals with five development firms responding, including the Southington-based Newport Realty Group. The town selected Newport Realty’s proposal to construct 76 market rate one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, along with 19,000 square feet worth of restaurant, retail and medical office space in the area.
The project will begin with a new stand-alone building at 903 Farmington Ave., flanking the corner of the new boulevard’s entrance, explained Mark Lovley, one of Newport Realty’s principals.
Lovley anticipated the project would be completed over the next two-and-a-half years.
“We will look at developing Berlin,” Lovley said, describing his firm’s working relationship with the town as excellent. “This isn’t just a one-off thing.”
The groundbreaking, which Gov. Ned Lamont attended, was disrupted by protesters who had voiced dismay over executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lovley and others said the protests were a disturbance but did not ruin what had otherwise been an “exciting day” for the town.