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July 4, 2022

Mountains of trash, cockfighting ring, illegal marijuana grow operation – Hussains aim to rejuvenate troubled Parkville building in Hartford

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER (From left) Michael, Riaz, Steven, Gladys and Andrew Hussain outside the former Hanson-Whitney factory at 169 Bartholomew Ave. in Hartford.
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Riaz and Gladys Hussain knew the Bartholomew Avenue building they purchased via Hartford city tax auction in 2017 had issues before they placed the winning $210,000 bid.

What they found inside was still a shock.

There were dead dogs – thought to be victims of dog fights – outside the former Hanson-Whitney factory at 169 Bartholomew Ave. Dog pens were inside.

They also found a cock-fighting ring, mountains of construction debris and trash, and even an illicit marijuana grow room in the basement of the heavily-blighted, 90,000-square-foot building.

The former Hanson-Whitney Factory at 169 Bartholomew Ave.

It took more than 100 dumpsters to haul away all the trash inside the property, which sits on 2.9 acres.

Despite the disconcerting introduction to the property, the Hussains still see it as a good buy, a building whose size, proximity to Interstate 84 and location in a neighborhood targeted for redevelopment will pay off down the road.

Plus, decades of experience with smaller commercial and residential properties gives the Hussains confidence they can put the blighted eyesore back into productive use.

“We have a history of 30 years renovating rundown and dilapidated buildings,” Riaz Hussain said. “We have done it at least 20 times. I think this has been our biggest challenge, but we love challenges.”

A rendering of 169 Bartholomew Ave. transformed into an advanced manufacturing research, development and training center.

A turn for the better

Aside from hauling out the garbage, the Hussains secured the property with a chain-link fence. They’ve also hired a plumber to replace leaking pipes, architects to draft redevelopment plans and environmental experts to determine hazardous materials that need to be removed from the building. Riaz said he’s already committed several hundred thousand dollars to the property beyond its purchase price.

Riaz and Gladys Hussain bid on the property with the intention to convert it into apartments, but a discussion with Mayor Luke Bronin convinced them to focus on industrial use as part of a broader Parkville neighborhood redevelopment effort.

Now they are planning a roughly $28 million project to create advanced manufacturing research, development and training space.

That plan hinges on historic tax credits and a low-interest loan from the Capital Region Development Authority. Most importantly, the Hussains hope to tap funds through the city’s $242 million plan to transform Parkville into a hub of arts, entertainment, manufacturing innovation and workforce development.

The city of Hartford earlier this year requested $48.4 million from the state’s new “Innovation Corridor” grant program. The $100 million fund was created to catalyze transformational, job-creating efforts in urban centers. The public money is anticipated to leverage further investment. Awards are expected to be announced this summer.

“A lot of [the project] rides on the Innovation Corridor grant,” said Michael Hussain, one of Riaz and Gladys’ four sons – all participants in the family’s real estate business. “We’d love to be part of a transit-oriented development and the arts and innovation project. The University of Hartford, Capital Community College and UConn have all said they are looking for space. Stanley Black & Decker is looking for some space. It really just depends on who we can serve best.”

The city’s Innovation Corridor application identifies the Hussains’ limited liability company as a key partner in its Parkville redevelopment plans.

Rise and fall of a factory

Metals-machinery maker Hanson & Whitney Co. built its factory on virgin land at 169 Bartholomew Ave. in 1919, and operated at the site until 1995, according to a preliminary environmental review produced by Fuss & O’Neil in 2007. At the time, it was reported the site had been largely vacant, except for a small cabinet maker, since 2000.

Machine oils and hazardous manufacturing substances might have seeped into the ground through cracks or discharge into pipes, the report said. There had also been illegal dumping of waste oil and paint in January 2006 and July 2007.

Riaz Hussain said he hired two architectural firms to work on designs, including Hartford-based Robert B. Hurd of The Architects, which specializes in adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

Carlos Mouta, a developer who has heavily invested in Parkville, recently met with the Hussain family to offer encouragement, advice and even a bit of caution.

Mouta also hopes to tap into the city’s potential Innovation Corridor grant funding to help his planned $72.8 million transformation of the 236,000-square-foot blighted industrial complex at 237-245 Hamilton St., into 189 apartments, along with retail and commercial space. The building sits next to the Hussain property.

Mouta said he warned the Hussains that contamination could be significant within their Bartholomew Avenue building, which he also placed a bid on in 2020, with hopes of converting it into a mixed-use apartment complex. Mouta said his brothers used to work at Hanson & Whitney Co. and he personally saw pollution on the site.

He advised the Hussain family to spend carefully until they know the extent of pollution, which will translate into cleanup costs and could affect design plans.

“I would love nothing more than for them to build it,” Mouta said. “But I told them don’t get ahead of yourselves.”

Riaz said he anticipates an updated hazardous materials report on the building in August. Remediation could start soon after.

Development experience

Riaz Hussain, 74, said he has the experience and drive for a major redevelopment. He was born in a Pakistani village without electricity in 1948, but still earned a pharmacy degree before moving to New York City in 1973.

He was working as a pharmacist at Katz Drugstore in Brooklyn in 1975 when he met Gladys, a dental hygienist who worked in the same building. They were married five years later and would go on to have four daughters and four sons. While courting, they started investing in real estate on the advice of friends. They started with two, three-family apartment buildings and a small warehouse in Brooklyn.

They expanded to a string of pharmacies in New York. In 1990, they moved to Ridgefield and began buying gas station convenience stores. They later demolished a Brookfield gas station and oversaw cleanup of subsurface pollutants to make way for a roughly 23,000-square-foot retail plaza.

Today, the Hussains’ real estate portfolio has 144 apartments, including 129 units in Hartford. They have four other commercial properties in the Capital City.

Their first Hartford bet came in 2004, when Riaz and Gladys Hussain paid $160,000 for a 16-unit apartment building on Rockville Street. The following year they paid $400,000 for a 20-unit apartment building on Sigourney Street. Both required extensive rehabilitation.

Gladys was initially hesitant to invest in Hartford, but Riaz recalled the transformation he saw in Brooklyn and believes Connecticut’s Capital City will follow the same trajectory.

“My dad has an eye,” Michael Hussain said. “He likes to say he thinks 10 years into the future.”

Hussain’s four sons — Andrew, Steven, Michael and Daniel — took a greater hand in directing the family business while their father recovered from a stroke and fall about two years ago.

Over the past year, Hussain’s sons and a friend have also begun developing a separate real estate portfolio of 35 apartments in eight buildings in Hartford and New Britain. The sons also are deeply involved in the effort to transform the Hanson-Whitney factory.

“I am so proud my kids look up to their father and want to do the same thing,” Riaz Hussain said. “They’ll take this one and turn it into something good. Nobody else is going to do it. I’m proud of my kids.”

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