June 12, 2017

Retail stirs anew in downtown's western edge

PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Hartford clothiers/Asylum Street landlords Ron and Jodi Morneault, with Sarah's owner Uyen Mai.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Spiritus Wines owner Gary Dunn is an early Hartford 21 tenant.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Nigel Clarke of Hartford relocated his Juiced Up Juice Bar into the Goodwin Hotel.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Tailor Caryl W. Curling, located at 241 Asylum St., is into his second run with a boutique downtown.

The revival of the Goodwin Square office-hotel complex on downtown Hartford's western edge has reawakened not only interest from office and retail tenants but stirred anew fresh hopes for the quadrant.

"We are absolutely like the 'in' building,'' said Westport landlord Brian Kohn, who with his brother in 2016 acquired the 30-story, 330,000-square-foot Goodwin Square skyscraper and companion hotel at 225 Asylum St. "People who are looking downtown, are looking at our building.''

The Kohns sold off the Goodwin Hotel, since renovated and reopened with new ownership and two bar-restaurants, to focus solely on restoring the office tower's atrium and other common areas, and tenant spaces. They also made a priority filling the building's streetfront office and retail vacancies.

United Bank announced plans to later this year relocate its corporate headquarters and about 200 staffers to several upper floors of Goodwin Square. United also chose a long-vacant corner of the nearby CityPlace II office tower — formerly occupied by McDonald's — to house its first downtown Hartford branch.

Soon, a shop vending fresh-made pasta and sauce will join the Juiced Up Juice Bar and the Bin 228 bar/restaurant among Goodwin's retail occupants, Kohn said. More recently, the Harlan Brasserie and the Harlan Side Bar debuted in the hotel's streetfront space, on the east side of Goodwin Square.

In all, five food vendors will occupy a building that until 18 months ago only had one.

Goodwin Square's renaissance is part of a broader rejuvenation of the block-long Asylum Street stretch linking Trumbull and Ann Uccello streets, in which landlords and tenants are investing in new and refurbished spaces, mostly retail and dining options for downtown employers and their workers.

Downtown landlords and merchants welcome the improvements.

"For us, it's been such a darkened corner for such a long time,'' said Jennifer Cassidy, merchant coordinator for Business For Downtown Hartford, primarily made up of small, independent shopowners. "It's very exciting to see the lights on.''

Some tenants, however, caution that the area still lacks a critical mass of foot traffic, an issue that has plagued downtown Hartford retail for decades. Vacancies remain. Area landlords and tenants also say the city and/or state should do more to promote that section of downtown.

Tenant recruitment

Jordan Polon, executive director of the Hartford Business Improvement District (BID), a nonprofit city promoter, said the Asylum Street block is an important connector to downtown.

Among other amenities in proximity: ample parking, Union Station and cultural-entertainment attractions like the Bushnell Park and theater, TheaterWorks, The Wadsworth Atheneum, XL Center, even the city's new minor-league ballpark.

And there are efforts to attract more retail tenants.

On June 14, Business For Downtown Hartford, teaming with the city, BID and MetroHartford Alliance, will host a "Ground For Hartford Event" for businesses considering opening downtown. The event will showcase available downtown streetfront rental retail properties in a quadrant from Union Place east to Main Street, and from Church Street south to Asylum Street.

It serves, Cassidy said, to unite tenant prospects with landlords, commercial brokers, bankers and city/state officials who will help companies scout center-city retail vacancies. The event begins at 3 p.m. at 64 Pratt St.

"It will be like a commercial real estate open house,'' said Jodi Morneault, who with husband Ron, owns Morneault's Stackpole Moore Tryon men's/women's clothiers on Trumbull Street.

The Morneaults, too, are landlords, owners of 257 Asylum St. that houses Sarah's Coffee House on the ground floor. Upstairs, 36 apartments comprise Maison Morneault; nearly all are full, she said.

Jodi Morneault says the state-sponsored conversion of outdated office buildings into some 1,500 downtown apartments has made it exciting again to consider living and/or working downtown.

Across Ann Uccello Street and Sarah's, landlord Yisroel Rabinowitz owns the building at 225 Asylum St., that houses the city's High School Inc. for pupils preparing for careers in insurance and finance. It also houses the student-run branch of Franklin Trust Federal Credit Union, among other tenants.

Rabinowitz is happy to see the common-area and tenant improvements being made to Goodwin Square and neighboring buildings. The Brooklyn, N.Y. investor has acquired a handful of downtown office/retail buildings in the past five years.

Still, he says he'd like the city and state to do more promotion of Hartford as a destination.

"The million-dollar question that keeps coming up is whether it's going to put feet on the ground, to make this a 24/7 city,'' Rabinowitz said.

Turning the Capital City into a more vibrant urban center has been getting more focus recently, particularly in the wake of Hartford health insurer Aetna announcing it is weighing offers from other cities — mainly New York City and Boston — to move its headquarters. A key reason for the move is so the company can be in a region more attractive to younger talent that increasingly longs for big-city environments with plenty of restaurant, retail and entertainment options.

Rabinowitz and other downtown landlords lament all the attention and focus on the city's Front Street Entertainment District, home to restaurants, a movie theater and the new 121-unit Front Street Lofts. There's also the $140 million UConn downtown campus building in the area that opens in August, and is expected to bring about 2,500 people downtown.

Tenant perspective

Lack of foot traffic has been a concern for tailor Caryl Wentworth Curling, who opened his Wentworth Clothiers shop two years ago streetside at 241 Asylum St., the Cast Iron Building.

"I kind of regret coming downtown,'' Curling said of the move of his shop from East Hartford to 1,200 square feet next door to another Cast Iron tenant, Al's Market. "We don't have the traffic we expected.''

Curling says that in the '80s he opened a tailor shop on Main Street, between the G. Fox and Sage-Allen department stores. It closed after he lost his lease when the Sage-Allen building was acquired for conversion to apartments.

His Hartford customers, male and female, include bankers, insurance, aerospace and hospital executives and others. However, water leaks and other problems with the building have forced him to consider relocating again, perhaps to the city's South End, he said.

Two doors away, Nigel Clarke, owner of Juiced Up Juice Bar, says moving his business from separate locations occupied for nearly a decade in the city's North End, where it was difficult to attract new customers, has improved his sales. Clarke opened a year ago in 750 square feet of streetfront space in the Goodwin Hotel.

Peak juice sales occur during lunch hour most days, if weather allows, Clarke said. Still, he said, more customers than he'd like say they previously had no clue he existed downtown.

For now, though, Clarke says he plans to stay downtown, perhaps eventually expand.

"It's the place to be,'' he said.

Directly opposite Juiced Up on Asylum Street, in the retail annex linked to the Hartford 21 apartment tower, sits Spiritus Wines — among the first retail tenants in that decade-old space.

Owner Gary Dunn watched Market 21, intended as downtown's first grocery, fold after barely six months. Northland Investment Corp. is landlord. Toasted, a gourmet sandwich shop, opened two years ago in the annex. TD Bank, too, is a Hartford 21 retail tenant.

"I'm very happy to see all the progress,'' said Dunn, who acquired Spiritus in 2006 and relocated it from Main Street to its current 1,900-square-foot home in 2008. "I remain hopeful it will help all the businesses in this block. I can't say I've seen it yet.''

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