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A Very Elusive Embrace

Hartford 21 Is A Shot Of Hope For Downtown, But Residents Need Retailers, And Retailers Need Shoppers

By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

February 02, 2008

You can see dead people at Hartford 21, you can see living people working out at the gym, and you can buy fine bottles of wine.

But that's about all you can do there.

Because except for the YMCA branch and two highly touted downtown happenings the recent opening of "Bodies Revealed," a scientific exhibition of whole and partial body specimens, and this week's opening of Spiritus Wines the rest of the 53,000 square feet of retail space that fronts Asylum and Trumbull streets at the heart of downtown's hoped-for rebirth is empty.

And the upscale residential tower of Hartford 21, built on the site of the former Civic Center mall, has now been open for almost a year and a half.

"I think everyone is disappointed," said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance regional chamber, saying there is widespread disappointment with the pace of retail throughout downtown not just at Hartford 21. "The ongoing concern, which is obvious to everybody, is that if you're going to live downtown, there are certain retail amenities that you want."

Patience, says Lawrence R. Gottesdiener, the admittedly impatient developer. He is losing $2 million a year in rent, but he doesn't want to sign the wrong retail tenant, or the right one who won't stay open weekends.

"This is the heart of downtown; it's the triple-A corner," said Gottesdiener, who built the 36-story, 262-unit apartment tower that opened in September 2006. "Trumbull is going to become the boulevard in downtown, and we want to get it right."

"The reality is I'm frustrated but I'm comfortable," he said. "None of this is unexpected."

It's the classic chicken-and-egg scenario with residents and retail. People don't want to live downtown if there's no retail to support their lifestyle, but retailers don't want to open if there are no residents to buy their goods.

And, simply put, there still aren't enough people living in downtown Hartford to make the kind of retail for which Gottesdiener is looking work. At 60 percent full, Gottesdiener's apartment tower is renting on schedule. But he wants more retail available to the residents there. For Mark McGovern, the city's acting director of development services, "the challenge is a very small, but growing, residential base. Downtown retail needs a population that extends beyond 6 p.m. You need a daytime and an evening population base, seven days a week."

Griebel said the revived downtown retail market just hasn't caught fire.

"A vacant store is not good for anything," Griebel said. Developers and retail space owners "are going to push back and say, 'Well, what do you want? An adult bookstore?' Obviously, we don't want that."

"But it does illustrate that putting high-end retail in any urban area is a challenge, and putting it in an area that has historically, for the last decade or so, not been known for retail is challenging," Griebel said. Over half the prospective retail tenants Gottesdiener has dealt with have said they don't want to stay open at least one day of the weekend. For him, that's a non-starter.

"Why are you wasting our time? Come back to us when you're willing to come back seven days a week," Gottesdiener said. "You have to stay open on the weekends. You can't have a 24/7 city when you're only open 5. ... That's just not the vision."

Gary Dunn is blessed by the state's blue laws, so he is legally prohibited from opening his Spiritus wine shop on Sundays. His shop is one of several high-end places Gottesdiener has in mind.

"No nips, no cigarettes, no lottery tickets," said Dunn, who moved his wine store from its Main Street location and says he's "bullish" on downtown. He'll be more so when a grocery store opens next door.

That might take some time yet. Last summer, a deal with Wethersfield-based Bliss Market fell through. So Gottesdiener decided to spend $2 million to build a grocery store himself and find an operator later. The build-out is nearly complete, and he says he didn't skimp. He's in talks with three potential grocery store operators now.

"If we can achieve the market and the wine store, I'll be satisfied for this year," Gottesdiener said. "That's important for the residents."

"I'm all about the residential. I'm all about downtown. I still think it's working, but it just takes time," Gottesdiener said. "We've done what we said we were going to do. We're importing the affluent, we have the sexy people, the wealthy people. I'm excited."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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