Hartford's Hispanic Thoroughfare Has Retail Vibrancy Downtown Longs For
Kenneth R. Gosselin
May 08, 2010
It's been well known for years that Park Street has the retail vibrancy missing from downtown Hartford since the heyday of the department stores in the 1950s.
But what's surprising is how much more vibrant it is.
A recent, first-ever study of the Park Street retail corridor by the city showed a storefront vacancy rate in the single digits, compared with 43 percent for retail spaces downtown. Both have approximately the same amount of total space — about 500,000 square feet.
So why the difference?
The 2-mile-plus Park Street retail corridor — running from Main Street to Prospect Avenue — has an enviable mix of restaurants, clothing boutiques, bodegas, jewelry shops and grocery stores, partly the result of planning and support by the local merchants association.
"Mostly, it just happens," said Marisol Monserrate, small business coordinator for the Spanish American Merchants Association. "It's just the way the street is. There is a lot of energy on Park Street. People see empty properties, get interested and get right on it."
Some of the success has to do with the smaller retail spaces and far lower rents on Park Street. Most of the storefronts have apartments above them, with well-populated neighborhoods close by, providing crucial, ready-made foot traffic of the sort that downtown still lacks.
Then there are the shoppers like Edith Rivera, who live nowhere near Park Street.
Once a month, Rivera drives 45 minutes from New London to visit La Plaza del Mercado grocery store and a Spanish bakery on the section of the street that runs through Frog Hollow.
The stores, Rivera says, have a cultural flavor that chain grocery stores just can't replicate, even though the chains have increasingly offered ethnic foods. In La Plaza, salsa music pulsates as shoppers push shopping carts and check out the produce. A food court offers authentic Mexican, Dominican and Colombian fare.
"We don't have a market like this, where you can sit and get something to eat," Rivera said.
Merchants and city officials say Park Street easily draws from a radius of 35 miles or more.
Park Street "is successful because it draws from its neighborhood, but also from the region," said Mark McGovern, the city's economic development director.
Downtown Hartford, by contrast, has struggled to attract visitors to shops and restaurants when there isn't a convention or major sporting event. It is building a base of residents, but hasn't yet reached critical mass.
And many office workers in the central business district say mid-price clothing stores are needed to give them a reason not to go to the malls, which are closer to where they live.
Not All Rosy
Park Street has struggled with its share of problems, too. In the late 1980s, merchants readily admit the area was a "rough place" frequented by gangs.
The street's image took a hit two years ago when a traffic camera recorded a hit-and-run that killed Angel Arce Torres, 79. On the video, broadcast nationally and the topic of debate on talk radio, passers-by appeared indifferent.
Last year, plans were scrapped for Plaza Mayor, a proposed residential tower with shops and a main square that was to serve as a gateway to Park Street at Main Street. The developers couldn't secure financing.
And, like other shopping and dining areas, Park Street has suffered in the recession.
Despite setbacks, Park Street remains firmly established as the heart of the Latino community in Connecticut, perhaps even in New England, some merchants say.
"You feel like you're in your country when you're here," said William Vasquez, a native of Puerto Rico who was shopping with Rivera this week.
"They know what they can find here," said Luis Rodriguez, owner of El Comerio restaurant at Park and Hudson streets. "Think of a Latin American country and you can find it on Park Street."
Some merchants maintain that the intimate atmosphere of the street, fostered by the close proximity of storefronts, makes it easier for shoppers to get around. Many also are family-owned and tailor their operations to the needs of their customers.
"You have to extend your hours, open early," said Julian Pelaez, who has owned Luis of Hartford Furniture for the past five years, and has worked at the store for 25 years. "Sometimes, you have to cut your prices."
Not every opening on Park Street is a success, however. El Gitano, a grocer on the street for nearly 20 years, expanded in 2008 and opened a discount food warehouse at Park and Lafayette streets. The warehouse closed within months.
Alfonso Lopez Jr., son of the store's owner, said Friday the store closed after computer glitches with the registers caused long waits, leaving a lasting impression that it took a long time to pay for purchases.
"There were problems at the front end that left a bad taste in their mouths," Lopez said.
The downturn in the economy didn't help, and the store's lenders became reluctant to fund the project further. The Lopez family is now trying to sell the building.
While the city and the merchants association acknowledge a turnover in businesses, Monserrate said any empty spaces tend to fill up quickly. She said she often takes calls asking what vacant spaces are available on the street.
Since the early 1990s, Park Street merchant associations have worked to improve the image of the thoroughfare. In recent years, about $7 million has been invested in new lighting, benches and sidewalks.
For Latinos and Hispanics, said Ramon Flores, La Plaza's general manager, "Park Street is like Fifth Avenue in New York."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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