Survey Shows That Downtown Hartford Is Still Struggling To Get Tenants
ERIC GERSHON and JEFFREY COHEN
August 22, 2009
HARTFORD - A new city survey shows that 40 percent of existing retail space downtown is vacant, even as 65,000 square feet of new retail space is being developed on Front Street, part of the Adriaen's Landing redevelopment project.
Prepared by city economic development officials to help guide future development strategy, the "Downtown Hartford Retail Real Estate Survey," released Friday, says that 21 percent of the 191 retail units downtown were vacant as of July 1, amounting to 203,352 square feet, or 40 percent of all retail space downtown.
Much of the vacant space is concentrated on three streets — Main, Trumbull and Asylum. The ground floor of the Hartford 21 apartment tower, which has been set aside for retail stores, accounts for more than 50,000 square feet of it, a quarter of all vacant space. The former G. Fox building at 960 Main St. also accounts for nearly a quarter.
Hartford Economic Development Director Mark McGovern described the survey as "a factual depiction of the market" that would inform future decisions about how to lure a greater variety of retailers downtown.
"In some senses it confirmed what we already knew," he said, noting that restaurants, cafes and bars account for the majority of downtown retail establishments. The city could use a general interest bookstore, a grocery store, a shoe store and other apparel retailers, he said.
The survey was conducted by city staff in June using assessment records and information from property owners, tenants, real estate brokers and direct observation. It defined downtown as the area bounded by I-91 to the east, by I-84 to the west and north, and by Capitol Avenue in the south. The city published the survey's findings on its website Friday, and plans to revise them twice a year.
While Main, Trumbull and Asylum streets account for well over half the unoccupied space, tiny Pratt Street has the greatest number of vacant units, 10, according to the survey. They account for 20,082 square feet. Northland Investment Corp. — Hartford 21's owner — owns about half the properties along Pratt.
James Lewis, president of Business for Downtown Hartford, a merchant group, said he is looking to Northland in particular to fill its retail spaces — even if it can't find major national retailers.
"You're not going to get national retailers," said Lewis, of Harvey and Lewis Opticians at 45 Asylum. "You probably weren't going to get them three years ago, and you're definitely not going to get them now. So you have to look at the local market."
He said major landlords such as Northland, which is the city's biggest private property owner, should consider offering tenants below market rates, at least initially, to entice them here.
"It's a giant leap of faith, and the landlords have to recognize — certainly in Northland's case — that there should be a little bit of a loss leader there," Lewis said.
A Northland spokeswoman, Mary Brennan Coursey, said in a statement: "No one is more invested in or more committed to bringing retail to downtown Hartford than Northland Investment Corp. Despite the current economic climate, we continue to aggressively pursue retail that will help make downtown a great place in which to live work and play."
HB Nitkin Group, which is developing 65,000 square feet of retail at Front Street, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Tim McNamara, a commercial broker with Sullivan Hayes in Farmington who had not yet reviewed the city's survey, questioned the value of precisely quantifying downtown retail vacancies, although such figures are commonplace for office and industrial properties.
"I don't know what that figure ends up doing but rubbing more salt in the wound," he said. "... A huge vacancy rate makes the city look pretty lousy."
McNamara and others noted that some of Hartford's affluent suburbs, including West Hartford, are also struggling with retail vacancies in this economy.
"It's not like Hartford is alone in this challenge," said Mike Zaleski, head of the Downtown Business Improvement District, an organization of property owners in downtown Hartford. West Hartford center has vacancies, too, he said.
All the same, McNamara said, "If retailers show any interest in being in downtown Hartford, landlords should be as reasonable as they can be to get the tenant."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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