When growth in downtown Hartford slowed in the early 1990s, and Mayor Mike Peters was imploring anyone to show him a crane, you could count the local developers doing projects on the right hand of Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.
There was Marc Levine and Phil Schonberger, and then - hmmm - Peter Shapiro was with them on ArtSpace, and I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone else. There was no shortage of out-of-state bottom-feeders, but few serious local builders.
One of the more encouraging signs in the recent revival of downtown is that local and state developers are leading the charge. Levine and Schonberger are nearing completion of the dauntingly complex Sage-Allen project. Carlos Mouta has the old Municipal Cafeteria. David Nyberg came up from New Haven; Len and Mark Wolman from Waterford.
The advantages of having local developers in the game can be seen by visiting one of downtown's most historic streets, Lewis Street. The narrow, 19th-century byway was almost ruined by the spate of phony, tax-code-driven growth in the 1980s, when much of the block just west of the street was demolished for a never-built office tower. The street continued to decline in the early 1990s, especially after a rave club moved into the former restaurant at 36 Lewis St. (The club was fine except for the noise, trash, barf and drugs.)
Local developer Martin Kenny saved the west side of the street by incorporating it into his Trumbull-on-the-Park project. Kenny gutted and rebuilt the damaged and decaying buildings at 25-27 and 31 Lewis St., and put 12 of his 100 new apartments into them. (Kenny says more than 80 percent of the apartments are leased.) He built a parking garage on a vacant lot at the northern end of the street. The garage has a brick facade, and fits into the rest of the street about as well as a parking garage can.
Now there's activity across the street. Two Hartford developers, Adam Cloud and Claude Brouillard, have bought and begun renovating the former University Club at 30 Lewis St. into office space. They've announced that U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd will move his offices into the building, taking about 5,000 of 12,000 square feet of space, and the developers will move their own offices into the rest of the building. The move will be a familial homecoming for the state's senior senator; his father, Sen. Tom Dodd, once had offices on Lewis Street.
Cloud is in business with his brother Christopher and his dad, former legislator and corporate executive Sanford Cloud Jr. "We're all Hartford guys and we want to participate in the growth of our city," said Adam Cloud. The project got the green light from the city's planning and zoning commission late last month, and the renovation work is underway.
To complete the street, as Kenny says, someone's got to fix up 36 Lewis. It looks shabby and still has suggestive silhouettes in the windows from its days of rave. The building is owned by a syndicate headquartered in Texas. Kenny and others have had trouble getting the building's owners to keep up the property. It's taken pressure from the city to get a rudimentary cleanup. Meanwhile, the local owners on the street are talking about period lighting and other enhancements.
That's the difference between local and distant ownership.
If the owners of 36 Lewis can be prevailed upon to sell the building to someone who'll develop it properly, Lewis Street will be what preservationists call a "great save," a charming and historic passageway in an urban setting. "This little street can really make a statement about downtown Hartford," said Kenny.
Let's hope it does. The jury is still out on the demand for downtown residences. The real indicator will be how fast Hartford 21, the former civic center, fills up. But there's little doubt that historic restoration, more employees coming to St. Paul Travelers and Aetna and projects such as the upcoming redesign of Trumbull Street are going to help.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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