Retail and Condos Project for Bridgeport, Conn.

BRIDGEPORT -- The city's development strategy to convert downtown into an enclave of housing and shops is getting a boost from a new proposal to build 84 condominiums on a vacant lot off Fairfield Avenue.

Developer Phillip Kuchma says construction, if zoning approval is granted, could begin in September on a new, five-story building at Fairfield Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard, where a small park is located.

Kuchma, who has purchased the privately owned lot, wants to build 84 for-sale condos, and 9,000 square feet of ground-floor stores. The private investment is estimated at between $25 million and $30 million. No public funds are being sought.

Parking will be accommodated across Fairfield Avenue in an underutilized garage which serves an office building at 1 Lafayette Circle. Plans once called for building a huge trade center on the vacant lot Kuchma recently purchased, but that venture fell through years ago.

"We are the last place you can do affordable housing," Kuchma said, referring to much higher housing prices elsewhere in Fairfield County.

"People want to live where they can rent or own at a reasonable price. There clearly is a market for 20- to 30-year-olds who are looking for an urban lifestyle where they can find entertainment and restaurants without getting into a car," he said.

The exact price of the for-sale condos is not set, Kuchma explained. "We have a lot of financing work yet to do so we don't know prices yet."

Another developer, working several blocks to the south, announced construction is beginning to convert a former office building at 881 Lafayette Boulevard into 38 loft condos. The units will be sold for as much as $400,000, and as low as $90,000.

Kuchma is also renovating an old theater down the street from the proposed site of his new condos. Called Bijou Square, the redevelopment will feature several movie screens, a cafe and a Two Boots restaurant, which is part of the famous New York City chain.

Two Boots, featuring pizza, other types of food and a nightclub-like atmosphere, is scheduled to open within two or three weeks, Kuchma said.

The condos proposed by Kuchma are allowed under zoning for the site, but the retail component is not. The Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider a request for site plan approval when it meets at 6:45 p.m. today in City Hall.

Kuchma said the main obstacle is power and sewer service, neither of which is sufficient downtown to handle additional large users. He said a transformer will be installed underneath the lot to help bring more electricity to Fairfield Avenue.

Other portions of downtown also lack sufficient power to handle the variety of projects either now under way or planned. Most of downtown does not have cable television connections.

Three buildings -- the former Citytrust bank building, the former Arcade Hotel on Main Street and a former office building on Golden Hill Street -- are now being converted into hundreds of rental apartments. Ground level space is reserved for stores.

Some tenants are just beginning to move into the Citytrust building. The other two buildings will begin accepting tenants in a few months.

Long-range plans for downtown call for hundreds of additional apartments and dozens of new stores along the northern portion of Main Street. A series of city-owned buildings are scheduled to be rehabilitated, and a high-rise residential tower is to be built near the U.S. Post Office on Middle Street.

A mix of housing and stores is also planned on a vacant lot near the city's baseball stadium and sports arena that once housed the Pequonnock Apartments.

Further south, toward Seaside Park, First National Development is beginning renovations to the former Jefferson School in the South End. Several dozen apartments are planned there, and the project is similar to what First National did with the former Warnaco building located nearby on Lafayette Boulevard.

Bill Cummings, who covers regional issues, can be reached at 330-6230.