Connecticut's major cities are all looking for a grocery store
January 12, 2010
New Haven is the closest to getting one. There's nothing on the horizon yet in Bridgeport. And the picture in Hartford is hopeful but tinged with failure. We're talking downtown grocery stores, essential to the health and vitality of Connecticut's three major urban areas.
Don Eversley, Bridgeport's economic development director, said he thinks grocery stores are "critical."
"To make these older downtowns work you need a grocery, a dry cleaner and a full-scale pharmacy," he said.
Eversley says there has been an "uptick in interest" in bringing a grocery store to downtown Bridgeport, but no solid plans.
National chains require plenty of space for parking, as well as proximity to residential areas, according to Eversley. "Small-city downtowns just sort of don't work," he said.
Developer Bruce Becker, based in Fairfield, is building a 32-story mixed-use tower with 500 apartments at the corner of State and Chapel streets in New Haven, and can attest to the difficulty of luring a national grocer to a small city downtown.
"Unfortunately, I think most retailers tend to favor the suburbs over urban areas," said Becker.
Yet Becker has a letter of intent from an unnamed company to lease space in his tower, called 360 State, for a "major grocery store" measuring around 30,000 square feet — nearly as big as a Stop & Shop. He can't disclose the company's identity until he has a signed lease.
Becker readily admits he took steps to "counteract" all the disadvantages of an urban site. For one, he has 500 parking spaces adjacent to the space the grocery store would occupy. He also invested $3 million in a loading dock.
"There can be up to 40 deliveries a day for a grocery store," said Becker. "That's why the suburbs are logistically so much easier."
Sharon McLaughlin Gowen is director of Connecticut Community Partnerships for Common Ground, a New York City-based nonprofit working to end homelessness nationwide. Common Ground took possession of the 12-story Hollander building at 410 Asylum St. in Hartford in 2003 and spent $22 million renovating it.
There are 70 apartments in the building, 56 of which are reserved for tenants earning less than 60 percent of the area's median household income of about $50,000 a year.
Now, says Gowen, Common Ground is preparing to sign a lease for a small grocery store to open on the ground floor of its building by this summer. She won't say who it will be, but says she has "some really good stuff cooking right now."
"We want to encourage a walkable city, it's not about filling up the car with groceries," said Kathryn Frankel, Common Ground's economic development coordinator.
Contrast that with the efforts of Hartford's biggest downtown landowner, Northland Investment Corp., of Newton, Mass., recently hit with foreclosure actions on two of its downtown properties: Metro Center One and Cityplace II.
Northland invested more than $2 million two years ago to prepare another space on Asylum Street for an upscale grocery store near its Hartford 21 residential tower. The space remains empty although Northland says they are negotiating with potential operators. The company told the Hartford Courant, however, that it needs another $1 million to open the store and that half of it will need to come from the city or business groups.
Mayor Eddie Perez said in a recent interview with the Advocate that he'd like to see both grocery stores succeed, and that the city's economic development department is prepared to kick in as much as $150,000 to help. But so far, neither Northland nor Common Ground has approached the city with a proposal. And there's a limit to how much the city can do.
"We don't have half a million dollars," said Perez. "We didn't pass a budget that says we have $500,000 for a grocery store."