When Liam McGee first took over the job as The Hartford's chief executive a year ago, he drove by the long-vacant Capitol West building every morning on his way to his Asylum Hill office from his downtown apartment.
The bombed-out look started to bug him.
"It soon became clear to me that the Capitol West building was both an eyesore and a barrier between the people who live and work on Asylum Hill and the vital services, entertainment and restaurants of downtown Hartford," McGee said Tuesday. "It's very visible from I-84, and is a poor statement about our city."
McGee's strong personal impressions propelled Tuesday's announcement by The Hartford Financial Services Group that it will commit $2 million to help the city buy Capitol West, tear it down and redevelop the property.
The Capitol West property — one of the most visible blighted buildings in the city — is the centerpiece of a five-year, $7 million grant by The Hartford to invest in the Asylum Hill neighborhood, where the insurer has had its headquarters for nearly 100 years.
Capitol West on Myrtle Street — vacant for more than a decade — is at the eastern edge of The Hartford's campus.
For the city, it's one of four buildings at high-profile, gateway locations that local officials have wanted to demolish and redevelop. Capitol West is considered crucial because it's in full view by motorists on I-84 westbound, including thousands traveling to work at The Hartford and Aetna, key employers in city.
"I won't be sad to see it go," Mayor Pedro E. Segarra said Tuesday. "It's a blighted property. It's a bad way to welcome people to the neighborhood."
Two of the targeted buildings — Broadcast House on Constitution Plaza and the H.B. Davis Building on Main Street, known as the "Butt-Ugly Building" — have been demolished, the latter just in the past week. One other building, the former Clarion Hotel, also on Constitution Plaza, is on the city's list for redevelopment.
While the Butt-Ugly Building was being knocked down into rubble, Segarra had already turned his attention to Capitol West.
The city has been negotiating with the owner, Joshua Guttman, since late August, but no deal has been reached. Guttman paid $1 million in cash for the building in 2004, and planned to convert it to apartments or condominiums.
And although Guttman started the work, including the removal of windows and interior demolition, construction stopped mid-stream as the housing market suffered a downturn and demand for more apartments wasn't strong enough.
The building has been a frequent target of graffiti. There have been complaints about overgrown weeds and rodents around the building as well as squatters living there.
"We're prepared to move forward and want to act as good citizens and in good faith, but we have no obligation," Coleman Levy, the owner's attorney, said Tuesday. "We have told them that we would be willing to sell."
City officials pegged the building's current value at $448,000.
Levy said the building is still structurally sound and got a new roof in the past couple of years. It still could be used for housing if the market strengthened enough, he said.
Negotiations are expected to continue over the next several weeks. If no deal is reached, the city could take the property by eminent domain, said David B. Panagore, the city's chief operating officer. Once the building is acquired, it would be razed immediately.
Segarra and other public officials, including U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, praised The Hartford's commitment to Asylum Hill. Segarra said he hoped the $2 million contribution would cover the full cost of the acquisition, demolition and redevelopment.
If the overall cost exceeds $2 million, city bond money could be used to make up the difference.
Capitol West is a 170,000-square-foot building that was a car dealership in the 1950s. The upper floors were added after it was converted to an office building.
In the early 1980s, it was owned by Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate mogul who is now chairman of Tribune Co., the parent of The Courant and Fox CT.
The city is exploring a range of development options, Panagore said, including constructing a large, concrete staircase on the hillside similar to the outdoor performance space of Riverfront Recapture along the river downtown.
Panagore noted that the city would have to take a different approach in redeveloping the space occupied by the former Clarion Hotel on Constitution Plaza.
"It's not just a vacant building that needs to be removed. With Constitution Plaza, we've got something to work off of," he said.
The Hartford's $7 million investment in Asylum Hill includes a broad range of initiatives. One of them is continued support for the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance. The alliance, known as NINA, has been purchasing and rehabbing residential buildings throughout Asylum Hill.
The Hartford's commitment also includes support for the Shelter for Women and for after-school programs at West Middle School and Junior Achievement.
"In collaboration with other Asylum Hill community leaders, we want to make a difference for the families that live here, the children who study and play here and for the people who work here," McGee said.