As blight fines mount, urgency grows to redevelop graffiti-splashed CT office tower near I-84

Hartford is now slapping daily fines of $1,500 on an out-of-state landlord who is refusing to clean up and stop break-ins at a 15-story, vacant office tower near I-84, an increasingly high-profile target of graffiti and vandalism.

Mayor Arunan Arulampalam, the former chief of the Hartford Land Bank, said there is an urgency to finding a redevelopment plan for the office building at 25 Sigourney St., marred by graffiti, tagging in recent weeks and now, broken windows on the upper floors.

Not only does it send a message of decay to those passing through Hartford, the tower’s deepening of deterioration will only make future redevelopment tougher, Arulampalam said.

“The longer it sits there, the more expensive it is going to be to deal with,” Arulampalam said. “It’s in the city’s best interest to act quickly and to try and make sure investment goes in to revitalizing this building sooner rather than later.”

Arulampalam said the image projected by the building stands in contrast to revitalization in downtown Hartford and, increasingly, in city neighborhoods. But the owner, Florida businessman Casey Askar who purchased the tower in 2020 from the state for $1 million, has rebuffed the city’s pressing for removal of the graffiti and securing the building against intruders.

“They indicated to us an unwillingness to make the investments in securing and maintaining the building in the short term,” Arulampalam said.

Askar did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The future of the office tower, built in the 1980s and later purchased by the state for office space, also comes at time when there is pending state legislation that would give municipalities the ability to fine owners of decaying commercial buildings by the square foot rather than a flat fee.

Arulampalam said the city is willing to work with Askar to redevelop the structure. The office tower, vacant for six years, is seen as critical to connecting three neighborhoods: Frog Hollow, Parkville and Asylum Hill.

The Sigourney Street corridor also is home to some of the city’s largest corporate employers, including the Aetna health insurance operations of CVS Health Corp’s Aetna insurance operations and The Hartford Financial Services Group, the mayor said.

“We want to make sure it is a corner worthy of that neighborhood,” Arulampalam said.

While the property owners may ignore the city fines, the fines will eventually become liens on the property. Those liens could give the city the leverage to foreclose on the building or seek a buyer interested in redeveloping the property.

Arulampalam Wednesday declined to comment on options being considered by the city.

The real estate investor who holds the commercial note on the property has said that Askar and an associated partnership, ASWH LLC defaulted on repaying a $1 million loan in February, 2023 that financed the purchase.

William H. Coons III, the real estate investor, has said it appears Askar has virtually cut ties with the building, which is in litigation in both Connecticut and Florida.

Coons has said he wants to resolve the court dispute and possibly reclaim “the Sigourney Street property so it can be rehabilitated into a commercial property that will provide valuable jobs and services to the city and people of Hartford.”

Some in the surrounding neighborhoods have suggested razing the structure, possibly using the property as the site for the city’s new federal courthouse.

There were high hopes for the office tower at Sigourney Street and Capitol Avenue when it opened as the Xerox Centre in the late 1980s, but the building never attracted big corporate leases to the city, as boom times soon went bust.

The office tower passed off the city tax rolls in 1994 after it was bought by the state for offices. The state spent $6 million to seal the brick building, replace the roof and remove wallboard and carpet damaged by leaking water, after the building gained notoriety as a potentially “sick building.”

In 2004, the building was declared clean and watertight. Eventually, state workers were relocated and the building sat empty for more than two years overlooking I-84.

In 2020, the state sold the structure and Askar took a controlling stake. Askar planned to launch a renovation with $5 million of his own funds to ramp up improvements to start attracting potential tenants. Askar boldly predicted the project could reach $30 million.

But within weeks of the purchase, the pandemic struck, leaving a legacy of eroding demand for office space in Hartford and across the country as more employees spent some — or even all of the work week at home.

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at kgosselin@courant.com.