City Focus: Greater Hartford
(page 2 of 4)
That citizen involvement came during the early months of a new administration at City Hall—last summer Pedro Segarra, a lawyer and then-city council president, replaced former Mayor Eddie Perez who was convicted of committing bribery and extortion in a political corruption case. Since taking office, Segarra has pledged to create a professionally managed city government that’s able to execute on a daily basis everything from working with the business community to fixing streets to tearing down blighted buildings.
Last winter, wanting to offer positive activities for city kids after school and on weekends, Segarra proposed a new skating rink at Bushnell Park in the heart of downtown. Over six weeks, 24,000 people from the city and suburbs turned out for free skating without incident. Kids without theirt own skates were loaned free skates. Those who had never skated before were given free lessons. It was a simple idea and yet it was huge in terms of bringing life back to an underused city park.
Then in March came a signal event in the life of 21st-century Hartford—the first full-service market in at least a generation opened downtown, filling 8,500 square feet of prime space on the street level of Hartford 21, a five-year-old 36-story apartment building. The space had remained vacant since the apartments opened largely because Northland Investment Corp.’s CEO Lawrence Gottesdiener, who built and owns the building and is downtown’s largest commercial landlord, held out for a tenant committed not only to a certain level of quality but to staying open on weekends, when business can be slow downtown. Eventually he found his tenants in Kelleanne and Ryan Jones of Wethersfield, who run a critically well-reviewed restaurant, The Mill at 2T, in nearby Simsbury.
The Market at 21 employs 75, many from Hartford itself, some who “needed a second chance,” says marketing and special events director Allyson Emhoff. Besides a small but carefully selected line of top-shelf grocery items, the store caters to people on the go who want quality food. The perimeter is lined with prepared food sections, including dinner and lunch items, pizzas, a salad bar, a noodle bar, a full-service deli, butcher, seafood department, bakery, cereal bar and produce section. HD TVs and free Wi-Fi allow customers to linger in an area that holds about 40 seats. Cooking classes have been scheduled, as have a Sunday farmers’ market and jazz-infused Sunday brunches. A blog touts specialty items daily.
Though it’s geared primarily to downtown residents—who according to the 2010 census now total 5,000 in Hartford—the market also wants to draw suburbanites, including downtown office workers who live outside the city. So a new call-ahead take-out catering service was started in May, offering curb service to customers who pull up in front of the Asylum Street market at the end of the day.
For downtown to thrive and for retailers to return, officials say at least 1,000 to 2,500 more housing units are needed. Demand remains high, as occupancy rates hover at near 95 percent. With 100,000 people working downtown, the market for more apartments ought to be a no-brainer. One step toward that goal came earlier this year when Wonder Works Construction and Development, a New York developer, paid $500,000 to acquire and build 180 high-end apartments in the long-vacant Clairion Hotel on Constitution Plaza on the east side of downtown. Other older commercial buildings could also be renovated for apartments, real estate officials say, especially as companies find more of the workforce working from home or telecommuting.
Those changing workforce demographics help explain why downtown’s commercial real estate Class A market vacancy rate remains at near 25 percent. “It’s largely tied to one move,” says Chris Ostop, vice president of Jones Lang LaSalle, a major commercial real estate firm. He’s referring to the move by MetLife from City Place to a building it acquired six miles away on the Bloomfield campus of Cigna. In turn, United Healthcare, which occupied 550,000 square feet at Connecticut River Plaza on Columbus Boulevard, moved to City Place, “and no new blood is coming to the market,” according to Ostop. At the same time, Bank of America, moved from its older building on Main Street into City Place, leaving another 210,000 square feet open for renovation.
But that could all change in the next five years, economists and regional policy officials say, if much of what’s now on the drawing board comes to pass. One plan, called iQuilt, is small in scale compared to ambitious projects of the past, but ironically, could pay huge dividends. Spearheaded by The Bushnell Performing Arts Center, the Greater Hartford Downtown Council and a recent $400,000 grant from the Hartford Foundation, the plan calls for creative, cool, hip linkage between all the cultural and arts institutions in the compact downtown.