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Hartford, Worcester on similar paths

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Hartford begins downtown makeover


Jim Bodor


One of New England's largest cities, struggling to revive its downtown, has decided to raze its mall and replace it with a mixture of retail and office space and a luxury apartment tower.

A Boston-based developer with a long track record in such efforts has been brought in by city officials amid much fanfare to oversee the project. The project is one part of a multipronged effort to rejuvenate downtown, along with a new hotel and a renewed emphasis on downtown housing.


The Hartford Civic Center Mall is undergoing a remake that will include an apartment tower, a redeveloped mall, 93,000 square feet of office space and 800 parking spaces. (T&G Staff Photos / PAUL KAPTEYN)

The city is Hartford, which is following a strategy to rebuild its downtown that may seem eerily familiar to those who live and work in Worcester, where a Boston-based developer also plans to raze an enclosed downtown mall - Worcester Common Outlets - and replace it with a pedestrian-friendly mix of retail, office and residential space.

"The trend in retail is toward a new urbanism, away from the enclosed mall and toward something like a downtown village," said Jeffrey S. Green, founder of Jeff Green Partners, a California-based retail consulting firm. Mr. Green has been a consultant to Hartford and visited Worcester last month to look at some of the projects under way.

But as both cities follow a similar path to bring residents and shoppers back to their ailing downtowns, Mr. Green and other retail and city planning experts say Worcester and Hartford will face some tough challenges.


Two people enjoy an outdoor lunch along Pratt Street, which is closed during construction of the Hartford 21 project.

The biggest, they said, will be getting the right mix of shopping and downtown residents with the disposable income to support such stores. "The problem is that these downtowns are not as vital as we would wish, and it's not easy to make these projects work," Mr. Green said. "It can work, but you've got to have the right mix of retail and residential."

The residential parts of both projects will be crucial to their success, said Philip Bess, director of graduate studies in the school of architecture at the University of Notre Dame.

Hartford's project calls for a 36-story tower with 262 luxury apartments. In Worcester, developer Berkeley Investments wants to build 250 to 300 apartments for seniors, and another 114 market-rate apartments or condominiums. "Downtowns should, in my opinion, be thought of more as high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods," said Mr. Bess, "meaning above all that they should include a significant residential component."

Visitors to Hartford can't miss the construction in every corner of the city's downtown. The ringing of jackhammers and the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up fills the air. Small handwritten signs point pedestrians to lunch spots that are open during construction. "Tavern" reads one in white and green, with an arrow pointing down a side street. "Indian Spice Cuisine" reads another.

Like Worcester Common Outlets, the Hartford Civic Center Mall, built in 1975, became an embarrassment to the city in recent years as tenant after tenant vacated.

The attached Civic Center, home to concerts and University of Connecticut basketball games, has done well and will remain. But the retail space, with its enormous cement facades that inspired the nickname "The Bunker," failed to attract visitors in suitable numbers.

Now, as part of a $160 million project funded by the state and Northland Investment Corp. of Boston, the mall "is being turned inside out," said Dean C. Pagani, spokesman for the Capital City Economic Development Authority and Hartford's unofficial tour guide for anyone with an interest in the project.

"Right now you walk in and you're inside this big uninviting shopping mall," he said. "That's going to come down, and now the retail space will face the street."

In addition to the apartment tower, the redeveloped mall, called Hartford 21, will include 53,000 square feet of retail space facing the street, 93,000 square feet of office space and 800 parking spaces. (Worcester's project calls for 350,000 square feet of retail space and 225,000 square feet of new office space.)

Two skywalks, which attached the old mall to adjacent buildings, will be torn down to encourage pedestrians to visit the street-side attractions.

The word that comes up whenever Hartford officials talk about the work there is "connections."

Just as Worcester is trying to connect its new mall project to Union Station, Shrewsbury Street and Main Street, Hartford is trying to encourage residents and visitors to walk around the disparate parts of its downtown.

A few steps from Hartford 21, for example, is Pratt Street, a brick-lined street of restaurants, men's clothing stores, a jewelry store and a visitors center.

During the summer, the city closes the street to motor vehicles, allowing restaurants to put tables in the street. The resulting outdoor plaza attracts hundreds of insurance employees and state workers during lunch each day.

"There are some neat neighborhoods around the city that can really benefit from this," Mr. Pagani said. "Now our job is to teach them how they can benefit from the new visitors this will attract."

Construction on Hartford's new mall is expected to be completed by 2006. Then the really hard work will begin, Mr. Pagani said.

To succeed, the mall will need two things, he said: truly unique retail stores and a residential base of shoppers with money to spend. Only then will the center meet its goal of being a "daytime, nighttime, anytime destination," in the words of Northland Chairman Lawrence R. Gottesdiener.

"There are two huge malls just outside of Hartford," Mr. Pagani said. "If people are going to come downtown, they're not going to do it for a Gap. They need something unusual."

The other key to success will be continued marketing and small enhancements to make downtown Hartford more user friendly, said Kenneth R. Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, which runs the downtown visitors center.

After the retail center opens, his group plans to add new signs, create marketing brochures and banners and even request additional police patrols to help visitors and residents feel comfortable, he said. The city has already installed some "you are here" signs to encourage foot traffic around downtown.

"This is a sea change in the way people are going to live here and how we will be perceived by outsiders," he said. "Now it's just a matter of meeting those incremental needs - banners, flowers, tables - and the other things that finish it off."

Are officials like Mr. Kahn, however, being too optimistic about what the new retail centers in Worcester and Hartford will bring to each city? Maybe not, urban planners said.

"Malls used to provide a unique shopping environment complete with fountains and other amenities and a few major national or regional chains to draw the customers. No more. Most malls are replicated every 20 miles or so and the thrill is gone," said Glen M. Ohlund, assistant director of the New Hampshire Main Street Center, a state-funded downtown economic development initiative in New Hampshire.

After years of piling into enclosed malls and strip plazas, national retailers are realizing that downtowns can offer a viable way to reach shoppers, he said. It's also less expensive to move into a rehabilitated downtown location than build new, he said.

"Savvy retailers are beginning to recognize that individual downtown locations can be just as profitable," he said. "The buildings, infrastructure, exposure and customers are already there."

Mr. Green said he could envision a mix of locally owned stores such as jewelers, small groceries and clothing stores alongside national retail chains in both cities.

Hartford and Worcester, he said, could easily attract a bookstore chain, a linens and home-goods chain and a sporting goods store, he said.

Each downtown must also make residents and visitors feel safe, he said.

"If there's a perception that it's not a safe place - even if that perception is wrong - people will shy away," he said. "So you've got to do everything you can to dispel that perception."

Mr. Green thinks the time is right for high-end national retailers to return to downtowns.

"The retailers are so saturated in the suburban markets," he said. "Urban areas are the last untapped market. It's up to the cities and the retailers to seize this opportunity."

At least one Worcester-area veteran of retailing believes Worcester's downtown project will succeed, if everyone involved understands that change is inevitable.

N. Barrie Shore has managed White City in Shrewsbury since 1962. Since then, he's seen Bradlees file for bankruptcy twice, Cherry & Webb become CWT and Coats Etc., Hit or Miss and Iandoli's Supermarket all come and go.

None of those changes had anything to do with the location or strength of the plaza itself, he said. Change is just a fact of life in retailing.

"There used to be bowling alleys all over the place," he said. "Now you don't see them any more. Now dollar stores are doing well. These centers are constantly changing. They don't have the same face all the time."

But certain constants will always make the Worcester area, including downtown, desirable to retailers, he believes.

"Worcester is not falling apart demographically," he said. "It's not one-industry-dependent. You have universities, insurance companies, manufacturing. It's a healthy kind of city. With the mixed-use approach they're taking, I think it can work."

From Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Related threads: Hartford 21 and Waking up Worcester.

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I think that Hartford will have a tougher time with this strategy than Worcester because it is in alot worse shape physically. Boston's suburbs seem to have gotten alot closer to Worcester in the last decade making it possible to work on the 495 belt and live there.

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Providence has gone the opposite direction -- they just bulit a big downtown mall next to their train station, and it seems to be doing quite well.

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I think it helps that Providence didn't tear down it's downtown to make the mall. Worcester basically decimated it's downtown in a mid-century 'redevelopment' scheme. Providence was too poor mid-century to tear much down. As a result it retains it's historic downtown. The mall is used as the draw to get people to the city, the downtown (in theory) should draw people out of the mall into the rest of the city. Downtown redevelopment in Providence is slowly plugging along, time will tell if the mall is the right tool to get people to the city and on into the downtown.

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downtown should be where the main work force is, i.e. skyscrapers, big corporations, etc. and around that should be the malls and smaller commercial buildings and residential areas, at least in my eyes.

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