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The Rebirth Of Urban Retail

Hartford's Days As A Thriving Retail Center Are Long Gone - But With Planning And Encouragement, They Could Well Come Again For Residents And Visitors

June 25, 2006

Those of a certain age can remember when folks dressed up to visit the elegant stores in downtown Hartford. The city had a half-dozen major department stores, numerous specialty shops and other retail outlets.

Much of that retail was lost in the six decades of postwar suburbanization, a period that saw the city lose a third of its population. Only a precious few of the old-line stores survive, such as clothier Stackpole, Moore & Tryon and Harvey & Lewis Opticians.

Across Hartford's central swath, from Coltsville to South Green, into downtown and west through Asylum Hill, an urban core of more than 18,000 residents survives today without a viable retail base of dependable stores, pharmacies, service branches and grocers. There are a smattering of retail outlets in the area, but residents still have to leave their neighborhoods to buy many necessities.

This long-stagnant situation is poised to change.

In the past three years, Hartford has seen a surge of cultural, educational and residential growth that has dramatically improved the city's quality of life. Retail follows rooftops, the saying goes, and nearly 600 new units of housing are opening downtown alongside 238 units in the Colt complex and 270 units elsewhere in the center of the city. In addition, more visitors are coming downtown to enjoy Hartford's restaurants, clubs, theaters and cultural attractions.

With this swell of activity, the city is approaching the critical mass needed to support a significant retail base. To sustain the momentum, the capital city must ratchet up its effort to attract local, regional and national retailers.

The city has an economic development division and a strategy to increase retail, based around marketing, infill and corridor development, small business assistance and business recruitment, said development services director John F. Palmieri. But as he and others have said, it is the retailers, with extensive market research behind them, who decide where and when to open stores.

What the city can do, besides marketing and various kids of location and permitting assistance, is make a general plan for what types of retail niches or services to target for downtown and the city's neighborhoods.

The city still has the potential to become a genuine urban retail center. Hartford has not made the mistake of building a new "quick-fix" suburban mall in the middle of its urban core, as was done in Providence and Waterbury. Conversely, retailers who once focused on malls are now venturing into cities, as evidenced by the Target and Burlington Coat Factory stoes in downtown Stamford.

Also, Hartford is home to a number of institutions - corporations, colleges, hospitals and others - that can initiate, foster and help fund some of these retail developments. It's in their interest to do so, with more of their workers and students calling Hartford home.

Plus, the demand for basic retail amenities is becoming apparent in the city. Small markets are opening across the center city, such as Express Food Shop in Asylum Hill, Rose Gourmet downtown, and Gitano's Food Warehouse near South Green along Park Street. Mayor Eddie Perez himself is trying to lure a sizable grocer downtown.

The (shaky) Front Street development has a retail component, but that by itself will not transform downtown into a diverse urban retail destination. There needs to be a broader plan aimed at residents, workers and tourists. Fortunately, there are models of successful retail developments in nearby cities.

A number of once-struggling small cities across the Northeast are becoming self-sufficient, attractive urban communities with diverse, market-driven retail bases. Good examples of this new urban retail development can be found in Yonkers, N.Y., Lowell, Mass., and in New Haven.

In Yonkers (pop. 196,000), the city has a new urban waterfront community anchored by Hudson Park, a large 266-unit residential complex that includes a small food market. A new set of restaurants, bars and specialty shops have popped up across the city's once-vacant urban core to accommodate this waterfront community. In addition, Hudson Park is adjacent to the city's commuter rail line.

In Lowell (pop. 105,000), city leaders have been adamant about transforming its downtown into a strong urban village, and have been resolute about marketing its retail potential. The city has a downtown Barnes & Noble, which was created in partnership with the University of Massachusetts/Lowell, which is on the outskirts of the city. And finally, in New Haven (pop. 124,000), a strong collection of food markets, service branches, restaurants, offices and housing has sprouted around Orange and Chapel streets. In addition, Yale's University Properties division has revamped the Whitney and Broadway retail districts around campus, to good effect.

Obviously these communities aren't exactly like Hartford, but their examples suggest that there are ways for Hartford to transform its downtown into a diverse urban retail destination. Ideally, neighborhood retail zones would be enhanced and a retail corridor would run east and west from Union Station, forming a strong spine interconnected with the city's transit hub. Such a retail spine could carry the retail size and scope of a major mall, but in an appealing urban environment that a mall or lifestyle center cannot emulate.

In the end, any steps to improve Hartford's retail climate will help the city maintain its wave of growth and prosperity. If the challenge is met, retail could again become one of the city's greatest strengths.

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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