Construction of the first phase of Grava Properties’ Founders Square project began this week at a decades-old strip mall in Windsor Center. Image courtesy of Grava Properties

After a stint as chief operating officer of New York developer Tishman Speyer’s operations in Brazil, Gregory Vaca returned to his native Connecticut during the pandemic to put his commercial real estate experience to work pursuing his own projects.

Founded in 2020, Vaca’s Windsor-based Grava Properties recently broke ground on its first development, the first in what Vaca envisions as a series of mixed-use infill projects revitalizing town centers near transit stations in Greater Hartford. Known as Founders Square, it replaces a two-building strip mall and parking lots near Windsor’s train station on the Hartford line with 106 apartments and 12,000 square feet of retail space.

“Given my background as someone who has always used mass transit, I understand it’s a universal fact that proximity to transit correlates to higher real estate values,” said Vaca, who grew up in Windsor and attended Columbia University before beginning his career in New York City banking and real estate. “You can only look at areas around the CTrail and CTfastrak. They certainly added value, and they are going to add more going forward.”

Scheduled for completion in spring 2025, the first phase of Founders Square replaces the retail building on the northern portion of the site at the junction of Routes 75 and 159. A second phase will break ground in mid-2026.

Vaca anticipates a mix of empty-nesters and young professionals to drive demand for the rentals, which include an 80-percent market-rate component and 20 percent of units reserved for households earning a maximum 80 percent of area median income.

The 144-152 Broad St. site checked all of the boxes in Grava Properties business plan, Vaca said. After looking at several local sites, Grava Properties settled on the parcels located a 3-minute walk from the Windsor train station. The firm signed a 90-year ground lease with the longtime property owner, Mastriani Realty, in 2021.

Lifting a Longtime Apartment Drought

The project fulfills Windsor officials’ goals of revitalizing the town center with mixed-use projects including multifamily housing, under a master plan approved in 2014. In 2016, the town approved potential tax incentives for eligible projects in the town center, and Founders Square received a $2.8 million tax increment financing agreement for its project.

The Lamont administration provided a $3.2 million grant through its CT Community Challenge program, which encourages transit-oriented developments and housing production.

Until zoning changes opened the door to recent projects such as Windsor Station and The Preserve at Great Pond, no new apartments have been constructed in Windsor in four decades, according to the town’s 2022 affordable housing production plan. Windsor’s inventory of affordable housing, as defined by state regulations, represents 7.5 percent of the nearly 12,000 housing units town-wide.

The report identified development of multifamily housing with a 20-percent income-restricted component as a key affordable housing production strategy.

Most of the town’s existing older apartment complexes contain a large percentage of two-bedroom units, a category that’s not in demand among current renters, Vaca said. Founders Square will include a mix of studio and one-bedroom units, reflecting the anticipated demographic of retirees, singles and couples, he said.

“Fifteen years ago, most new developments trended toward empty-nesters and retirees,” he said. “Today, it’s a mix including young professionals who can afford market-rate units, along with childless couples and retirees.”