They tried Agave Grill, the stylish new Mexican restaurant at Ann and Allyn. It was closed. Pastis, across the street? Shuttered. Black-Eyed Sally's on Asylum Street? That restaurant was closed, too.
"It was very disheartening," said Greg Faulkner, a lawyer who lives in Rocky Hill. Downtown "was just desolate." He and his wife ended up eating lunch on the Berlin Turnpike.
Outside of business hours, downtown often has the vitality of a baseball diamond in January. But with construction crews starting to rip the face off the Hartford Civic Center mall to make way for "Hartford 21," a 36-floor residential high-rise, downtown will start to become a different place over the next two years, many observers say.
Nearly 700 new apartments are under construction, soon to be under construction or are newly opened along the path of an eight-minute walk along Trumbull and Pratt streets through the city's core.
Fully leased, those new apartments alone will double downtown's residential population. And the number of new units is likely to grow. New Haven developer David Nyberg, sources say, is close to buying the old Hartford Electric Light Co. building on Pearl Street to build condominiums.
Trumbull Street's new ribbon of housing represents a quantum shift from the 1980s, the last time real estate development was reshaping downtown Hartford. Then, new office towers lined Trumbull and Asylum streets. Those buildings added to Hartford's tax base, but they generally were deserted after 5 p.m. and on weekends, leaving a downtown that can feel menacingly empty outside of business hours.
Remaking downtown into a residential as well as a business community may be the most important thing the city can do, planners say.
"If Hartford has a good future," said Douglas Rae, a Yale University professor and urban expert, "I think it depends on getting market-rate housing up and running in the downtown."
The fact that a developer of Nyberg's caliber - he completed successful housing developments in New Haven and converted the old telephone company building at 55 Trumbull St. into apartments - is investing in downtown Hartford "indicates there is a pretty fair prospect of success," Rae said.
But will those new downtown residents be enough to create a downtown that feels vibrant on Saturday afternoons as well as on Monday mornings? Probably not, planners and developers say.
The main significance of Trumbull Street's housing boom, Greenberg said, is that it should stimulate other investment. Nyberg may only be the first.
"Now that the ice is broken, I think you'll see others follow. This first group will be the pioneers," Greenberg said.
The optimum population density to create a downtown neighborhood with active streets on nights and weekends is 10,000 to 15,000 people within a 15- to 20-minute walk, Greenberg said - roughly the footprint of all of downtown Hartford.
Downtown had just 1,118 residents living in 753 housing units between Union Station and the river at the time of the 2000 Census. The new apartments in downtown's core, fully occupied, would add about 1,200 residents within a few city blocks.
Add the projects still in the planning stages - 500 apartments at Adriaen's Landing and the Colt Gateway, 92 condominiums at the Capewell building and the 40 to 50 condominium units Nyberg is expected to develop in the old electric company building at 266 Pearl St. - and downtown's residential population could nearly triple in the next few years.
And if those 3,000 people are fewer than Greenberg's ideal urban density, they are enough to drive significant changes, experts said.
"What we're really talking about is not the construction of a city, but of a neighborhood, and it just happens to be the central neighborhood of Hartford," said Patrick Pinnell, an architect and town planner who is active in Hartford.
"I think it's a start, not a finish," said Martin Kenny, developer of the 100-unit Trumbull on the Park complex that is under construction on Trumbull Street. "I think it's going to dramatically change Hartford as we know it, but to say it's enough [people] is not the case. I think that we will be able to set the trend that downtown living is something that's cool to be a part of."
With apartments named for Hartford historical figures - some studios will be called "The Sinclair Lewis Residence," while the largest two-bedroom units will be christened "The Jonathan Trumbull Residence" - Trumbull on the Park is aiming for an upscale population.
When Trumbull on the Park is complete, Kenny hopes to immediately start more housing. The developer paid $800,000 in February to buy 111 Pearl St. adjacent to Trumbull on the Park, and he hopes to begin converting that building into 60 apartments next year.
More residential property is crucial to any hope of bringing significant retail property back to downtown Hartford. Experts say downtown will never again be a center of shopping the way it was before suburban malls, but that a larger residential population is crucial to attracting specialty retailers and more restaurants.
"I talk with restaurants constantly. We're going to see a lot more restaurant development in downtown Hartford because of the coming residential" growth, said Maggie Gallagher, director of marketing and leasing for 960 Main, the private section of the G. Fox building.
"I think what we have on the books to date [in residential development] will be enough of a neighborhood to support weekend urban business," Gallagher said. "But that business, again, is really food and entertainment. It's not retail shopping."
The Holy Grail for the downtown would be a grocery store. But while specialty food markets are opening on Pratt and Asylum streets this summer, Gallagher said the demographics just aren't there yet for a larger food market.
The promise of a downtown residential boom was a big reason why Agave opened in downtown earlier this year, said Al Ferranti, a managing partner for the restaurant.
So far, there's just not enough people around to make Saturday lunch a viable proposition, Ferranti said. But he expects that to change when Hartford 21 and other large housing projects open in coming years.
That may mean fewer suburbanites lunching on the Berlin Turnpike.
"Our plan, as soon as those apartments come up, is to be open for Saturday lunches," Ferranti said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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