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August 23, 2021

With downtown Hartford approaching ‘critical mass’ of residents, will more retail, restaurants, nightlife follow?

Photo | Samuel Rodriguez, All American Arial LLC

If talks Marty Kenny and his partners are currently engaged in go well, Hartford could see a large sports bar and smaller music venue open on Pratt Street.

Kenny’s company Lexington Partners LLC is working on two apartment projects in Hartford’s downtown — including one on Pratt Street. He declined to name the business operators, but said they signed separate letters of intent to open a sports bar in the Trumbull Street storefront previously occupied by Max Bibo’s, and a music venue at The Russell’s former Pratt Street location.

Nightlife businesses like these, along with the possibility of a sports-betting facility opening at the nearby XL Center, could go a long way toward attracting more tenants to apartments coming online in downtown Hartford, Kenny said.

“That’s the opportunity here because of the vacancy [in retail spaces], you have the ability to oversee and control the tenant mix so it’s appealing to people,” Kenny said. “All of us are working on the infrastructure for getting to that plateau with apartments, and we do see the demand.”

Hartford, particularly downtown, has long been considered a commuter city with office buildings and streets that fill up (prior to the pandemic) during the workweek, and then empty out on many nights and weekends as city workers leave to their suburban homes.

As a result, the downtown area has lacked the kinds of retail, services and consistent nightlife of a residential city neighborhood. But with hundreds of new residential units coming online in the months and years ahead, in addition to the 2,000-plus apartments that have been added in the center city over the past decade, some developers say downtown Hartford may be close to reaching a tipping point where enough people are living in the area to sustain businesses aimed at local residents.

Michael Freimuth

As a general rule of thumb, it takes about 5,000 people living in a half-mile radius urban area to generate enough foot traffic for restaurants and other businesses like dry cleaners and grocery stores, said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA).

Freimuth said he thinks it will take about 3,000 residential units occupied by tenants in Hartford’s downtown for the area to start attracting more commercial activity. The city currently isn’t there yet, Freimuth said, with just shy of 2,300 units.

But the city will likely reach that benchmark within the next three years, as long as occupancy rates continue to stay around 90% within existing apartment buildings, Freimuth said.

“We’re on the right trajectory, we’ve made considerable progress toward” hitting that critical mass, Freimuth said. “The units we’re putting up are getting occupied ... they’re attracting new people to the city.”

One issue that could continue to slow downtown Hartford’s progress is the pandemic and employers’ long-term remote-work strategies.

Many downtown companies are still operating with a mostly remote workforce and will likely adopt a hybrid model when their employees do eventually return to the office, which may not happen en masse until late this year or even 2022 as the spread of the delta variant delays many office reopening plans, particularly for large corporations.

Even as the center city adds more residents, foot traffic from city workers is crucial for restaurants and other small merchants, and it’s not clear when, or even if, Hartford will see the number of people working downtown as it did before the pandemic.

“The fact that corporate Hartford hasn’t really come back to work yet, that’s posed some challenges,” Kenny said, noting the reduction in foot traffic.

Meantime, even as downtown added a few thousand new apartments over the last decade, the city as a whole lost population, according to newly-released census data.

The city lost 3% of its population from 2010 to 2020, and has an estimated 121,054 residents.

Urban lifestyle

Developer Randy Salvatore said he also thinks Hartford’s downtown area is approaching a critical mass of residents that could attract more businesses to the area. Salvatore is the founder and CEO of Stamford-based RMS Cos., the developer of the $200 million-plus mixed-use, multi-phase North Crossing apartment project next to Dunkin’ Donuts Park that could eventually add 1,000 new residential units downtown.

However, Salvatore said traditional retail shops like clothing stores likely won’t start popping up no matter how many people move in. He said an increase in seven-days-a-week foot traffic is more likely to attract restaurants, coffee shops and entertainment businesses. And that dovetails with the people who are moving into the downtown area (especially Millennials and empty nesters), many of whom are seeking an urban lifestyle close to arts and entertainment.

“I think you’re going to look back five years from now… and downtown Hartford will be very different,” Salvatore said.

New York-based Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC has been a driving force behind efforts to revitalize Pratt Street, which Chief Operating Officer Michael Seidenfeld sees as key to transforming downtown into a true residential neighborhood.

Shelbourne, downtown Hartford’s largest commercial landlord, bought almost all of the commercial buildings on Pratt Street’s south side in 2019. The company has also dipped its toe in the residential market, bringing 32 residential units online at 196 Trumbull St.

“The whole Pratt Street project … it’s a preview of what could be for the whole downtown, and we really view it as an igniter,” Seidenfield said.

Along with partners like Kenny and Alan Lazowski, Shelbourne is trying to attract businesses that would gel with downtown residents, even possibly offering rents — at least in the short term — that are tied to a percentage of revenues, giving retail tenants more flexibility.

Ideal tenants will offer gathering spaces and help build a city living vibe desired by young professionals and empty nesters.

“There’s no question that people are looking for an experience, more than just a place to live,” Seidenfeld said. “People are looking for authenticity, they’re looking for connection, and they’re looking for someplace to belong to.”

Shelbourne has been working to showcase Pratt Street’s potential this summer with events like monthly “Know Good Market” nights, which bring food trucks and local retailers to the street, and a weekly live music series featuring DJs and musicians like Joey Batts and the Shellye Valauskas Experience.

Seidenfeld said he doesn’t think there is a magic number of residents living downtown that will start attracting more commercial activity in the neighborhood. But he believes some opinions of downtown Hartford being inhospitable to businesses could be changing.

“We are seeing increased not just interest, but very serious activity behind the scenes,” Seidenfeld said. “That is happening right now.”

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