Written By: Seamus Mcavoy
Original Post Seen At: https://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-news-hartford-vacant-storefronts-20211022-gu7hnkloqvbwbdfyoiek3wlu5y-story.html
HARTFORD — In a bid to lure prospective retail and restaurant businesses into the city’s downtown storefronts, many of which remain vacant, the Hartford Chamber of Commerce hosted an open house-style event to give owners a closer look.
About 30 owners convened Thursday evening at the top of Hartford’s Pratt Street — a charming, brick-paved stretch just east of the XL Center that connects Main and Trumbull Streets — for self-guided tours of 14 vacant storefronts and office spaces in the nearby area.
“It’s something the chamber should do anyway, but I think the pandemic really forced our hands because of the increase in some of the vacant properties left behind by some of the businesses that were forced to close,” said Julio Concepcion, the camber’s executive director.
About 35 properties for retail and restaurants remain unleased in Hartford’s downtown area, which includes Pratt, Main, Temple, Asylum, Trumbull, Union and Peal streets, according to data provided by the Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Concepcion added that some of those properties are somewhere along in the leasing process, and the list can fluctuate daily.
Concepcion said the chamber has seen an increase in the concentration of empty storefronts clustered next to one another, an eyesore for downtown pedestrians.
The current leasable properties are a mix of storefronts vacated within the last 18 months and those which have been empty since before the pandemic.
“That’s something we’re trying to combat and mitigate,” Concepcion said. “We’re trying to fill in these spaces that cause a huge gap when it comes to walkability in our city.”
’A lot of potential’
Along Pratt Street, a quaint, brick-lined walkway nestled between 19th century facades, about a dozen people sit on storefront steps or at small tables set up along the closed-off road. Professional Barber Shop has its door propped open, letting in the unusually warm October air.
Inside 54 Pratt St., Walden St. Juste looks around the nearly 4,300-square-foot property and imagines how it might fit as the next location of his business. St. Juste opened Bro’s Dough Pizzeria, a counter service-style pizza spot, in August 2020 on New Britain Avenue and is now looking to expand. “We’ve been getting a lot of great feedback, in and out of the city,” he said.
St. Juste, 34, is originally from Haiti and moved to Hartford in 1990. He remembers growing up around Pratt and Asylum streets, and believes in its future. “I just see a lot of potential,” St. Juste said.
Next door, Jermaine Frazer-Phillips eyes a two-floor property for his first foray into brick-and-mortar operations. He’s the owner of Big Up Brew, an online coffee bean company that locally roasts beans sourced from seven countries, and hopes to open a cafe and bar.
Frazer-Phillips said the name draws from the phrase “big up yourself,” an homage to his family’s Jamaican roots. He started the company in April, during heart of the pandemic, and has taken to calling himself a “COVID-preneur.” Inspired by his uncle, who Frazer-Phillips said joined the Rastafari movement and went on to work with bands like The Clash and UB40, he too wanted to do something bold.
“How do we honor that and go against the grain?” Frazer-Phillips said.
Christian Burnes stands on the sidewalk, wafting in the pungent smoke emitted by three men chatting and smoking cigars outside The Tobacco Shop. He said he’s encouraged by what he views as a gradual return of downtown foot traffic. In a year’s time, he said, he hopes to see 1,000 more people buzzing around filled storefronts.
“We’re still optimistic. We need to remain optimistic,” said Burnes, the director of commercial real estate at Northland Investment Corporation, one of the developers. “It’s a series of small steps.”
Three of the properties, 55 Pratt St., 73 Pratt St. and 95 Pratt St., are at least partially owned by Brooklyn-based Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC. Shelbourne is a partner in a $50 million project to redevelop the south side of Pratt Street to include 200 apartments, entertainment space and shops.
Shelbourne developers have said they aim to cultivate a “vintage hipster” vibe in the area with a focus on attracting young people to “one of the most Instagrammable spots in the state.”
One property on display Thursday won’t be vacant for long. At 44 Pratt St., there will soon open Rundown Marketplace, a sneaker store founded by Christian Scott, 26, originally from Stamford. Rundown’s first location opened in Bridgeport in September 2020.
The Hartford location will be a “second hub for all that we offer,” according to a post on Rundown’s Instagram page. The 3,200-square-foot property will be more than twice the size of the Bridgeport location.
“Given our growth and the overwhelming support we have received within the last year, it became clear to us early on that a second location in Connecticut wasn’t just a desire but a necessity,” the post said. Scott is aiming for a grand opening in late November or early December, he wrote in an email.
Contrary to the dim projections for the future of retail spurred by online shopping and the pandemic, Rundown is an example of what Concepcion notes as an increase in interest from businesses in expanding or shifting their retail presence into Hartford’s downtown.
Retailers nationally are increasingly turning away from shopping malls as a default location amid declining foot traffic. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, announced in April that it would be closing its location at the Buckland Hills shopping mall in Manchester in favor of a location in a retail plaza in town.
Concepcion thinks the draw of event spaces in downtown Hartford offer retailers an attractive alternative to shopping malls.
“Online, Amazon, can’t replicate events at the Hartford Stage, the Bushnell, the XL Center,” he said. “These retailers will get a natural bump from the foot traffic that is being caused by some of these large events that cities hold.”