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In Praise Of Parkville's Prospects

February 19, 2006
Commentary By Tom Condon

Everyone, it seems, is trying to be the next West Hartford Center. From Granby and Canton to South Windsor and Storrs, communities with malls or town centers are trying to replicate the mix of restaurants, stores and housing that's created such a buzz in West Hartford over the past decade.

This is a bit fanciful; these areas are all distinct and will rise or fall on their own. But if you asked me for an area that could follow the same pattern as West Hartford, how about Hartford's Parkville neighborhood?

Parkville has the potential. Through the worst of times in the city, Parkville never went to seed. Now it is taking off, with more than 60 new businesses in the past three years. One of the main forces behind this surge is a youthful-looking 45-year old developer named Carlos Mouta. I'll get to him in a second.

Parkville, like West Hartford Center, is a commercial area surrounded by residences. This pattern of settlement is several thousand years old, but it still seems to work.

Another key parallel is that both Parkville and the center kept most of their buildings. In downtown and some other parts of Hartford, too many buildings were torn down for parking lots, or to avoid taxes, or whatever. The commercial buildings in both the center and Parkville aren't architectural gems, with one or two exceptions, but they are there. What the downtown brain trust missed was that most businesses operate indoors, and thus have some difficulty moving into an empty lot.

But keep the buildings, and you never know. There was space in a former factory building on Arbor Street in the 1980s, so the avant garde arts group Real Art Ways moved in. RAW, under executive director Will K. Wilkins, has not only expanded in size and vision, it's become a cornerstone of the neighborhood.

Speaking of dame fortune, Parkville was also the recipient of perhaps the city's only good school building decision in the 1970s. The Parkville Community School was actually built as a community school, with a branch of the Hartford Public Library and a senior center in the same building. It works - it's the center of the neighborhood.

For much of the past century, Parkville was Hartford's Portuguese neighborhood, and that brings us back to Mr. Mouta. He was born to Portuguese parents in Mozambique in southeast Africa, then a Portuguese colony. The family moved to Parkville in 1975, when Carlos was 14. He starred in soccer at Hartford Public High School, graduated from Central Connecticut State University and went to work for The Courant's circulation department. When he didn't get a promotion he wanted (we've all been there, buddy), he left and went into property management, and then to The Hartford's commercial real estate department.

Meanwhile, he was buying small buildings and fixing them up. In the downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he kept paying his mortgages. This endeared him to bankers, who began offering to sell him buildings they'd foreclosed on. When the price was right, he bought. Soon he was working for himself, out of a tiny office behind a doughnut shop he owned on Prospect Avenue.

The rest is a matter of record. Mouta and his partners own 600 apartments and condominiums and 1.1 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, including virtually all the major commercial buildings in Parkville.

His office is in a former Columbia Bicycle factory on which he is completing a renovation, and which houses a terrific restaurant he co-owns, O'Porto. The building has gorgeous beams and wood floors, and loft offices in front. One is occupied by a tennis buddy of mine, engineer Oscar Santo Domingo. "There just aren't buildings like this anymore," he said.

"People love the older buildings," said Mouta. He owns the grand white building at 1429 Park St., once home of the Hartford Rubber Co., which recently attracted Design Source Ct, a stunning space. With that, R.L. Fisher next door, Lyman Kitchens and new firms moving in, Mouta hopes to turn the area into a design district. He's building 56 huge loft apartments in the white building.

There is some crime, mostly nuisance crime, in Parkville. Mouta, head of the Parkville Business Association, is pushing for more owner-occupied housing and more police on the street. Absentee landlords are the bane of many Hartford neighborhoods, and Parkville is not immune.

The neighborhood has lost much of its Portuguese resident base, though there are still many Portuguese-owned businesses (not unlike the Italians in the South End). When a storefront opens, it seems that an Asian business moves in. "Parkville is more diverse than it ever was, and that's a good thing," said Mouta.

The western end of Park Street, with Lena's, O'Porto, Tinker's Seafood, Pho Legal and other restaurants, is hopping on the weekends. Mouta is working with two great gentlemen, Angelo Faenza and Richard Patrissi of the Park Road Business Association over the line in West Hartford, toward the goal of a seamless and successful Parkville-Park Road corridor.

I'm told there are people who won't cross Prospect Avenue and enter Parkville. You people are missing something.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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