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A Future That Colt Should Shoot For


April 05, 2009

Walk into the brick behemoth of a former weaving mill that looms over Main Street in Pawtucket, R.I., and you get a sense of deja vu. The horseshoe-shaped, 190,000-square-foot factory complex looks enough like Hartford's Colt armory to be a cousin.

It has the same solid feel, with its high ceilings, muscular supporting columns and cavernous spaces. But there is a difference. The Rhode Island factory, in a blue-collar neighborhood just a hard line drive from where the Pawtucket Red Sox play, is full of people busy people.

In less than two years, it has been resurrected as Hope Artiste Village, a four-story retail, wholesale, residential and light manufacturing hub that is already at about 80 percent of capacity.

So how did this white elephant of a type indigenous to so many New England towns gain a new and prosperous life in a downtrodden area on the brink of a recession? The answer lies in the vision of Lance Robbins, whose company, Urban Smart Growth, has made rehabilitation and reuse of historic buildings its specialty.

The success of Hope Artiste Village should hearten Hartford as it strives to remake itself as New England's rising star. Robbins has taken over the Colt factory complex. He hopes to restart the restoration of this National Historic Landmark and do for it what he did for the hulking Pawtucket anachronism make it a cool and prosperous place to be.

He has a better chance of success than his predecessor, Homes for America Holdings Inc., a Yonkers, N.Y., development company that ran into financial roadblocks trying to turn Colt around. Besides experience dealing with similar structures, Mr. Robbins has a major investor, Chevron Corp., to help him over the hurdles.

This couldn't come at a better time for the beleaguered Colt project. The factories and other Colt-related buildings in the neighborhood once known as Coltsville are poised to be considered as a national park showcasing the industrial innovation that made the capital city an international model in the 19th century. The chances that it will happen are greatly enhanced with private ownership, development and maintenance of the factory.

So what can Hartford expect from Urban Smart Growth? I traveled to Pawtucket to see for myself. I was impressed.

The mill buildings have not been gussied up in modern dress. They look from the outside just as they always did. Inside, the main retail corridor of Hope Artiste Village resembles a cozy street with rows of windowed shops on each side. The developers didn't extensively redesign the interior, but let the businesses shape the space as they needed it. It feels comfortable and authentic.

At Hope Artiste, you can find a violin-maker, a guitar teacher, a glass-blower, a video game parlor, a Caribbean restaurant and a portrait photographer sharing space with one of the most popular venues in the building a pole dancing studio. Yup. Think Bada-Bing. The studio is so popular that the owner is looking to expand, says property manager Marianne Apice. Go figure.

The vast complex houses lots of surprises. It has about 95 tenants, from the wholesale Seven Stars bakery, a Providence favorite, to a historic window manufacturer, software designers, a coffee roaster, furniture artists, a holistic massage and wellness center, a thriving white-tablecloth restaurant and even a bowling alley. Offices, artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs abound.

The linchpin is a year-round farmers market. On Saturdays, it draws 1,000 visitors. Wares from local farms sell so well there that the farmers recently agreed to make the arrangement permanent. Although the Colt factories have residential units and might one day have a museum of Coltiana to draw visitors, surely there are enough farmers and an appetite for fresh food big enough to support a similar arrangement in Hartford.

Apice said there are plans for residential units beyond the work/live studios that already exist (all but two of the 11 are occupied). The economy has put them on hold, but that hasn't stopped the complex from establishing a sense of community. Richard DeRobbia helps his sister, Deborah Scipione, operate a cuff link manufacturing company, J.J. Weston, in one of the work/live lofts. The space might have been cloned from the old Colt building. They love it.

DeRobbia took me on a tour of the huge complex so I wouldn't get lost. He said he likes getting around to meet and greet the other tenants. Many friendly encounters along our route bore him out.

Our last stop was Roshina's restaurant, a surprisingly sophisticated addition to the industrial building. Rose Almeida, a native of the Cape Verde Islands, has transformed a gargantuan street-level space into her dream a warm and intimate restaurant specializing in ethnic food, including octopus. A savory buffet was being offered for lunch and the bar was full. So far she serves about 300 diners on a weekend night not bad for a place with little walk-by traffic.

If this is the future, Hartford, let's hope it will be us.

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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