Growing pains with a Hartford arts and innovation district

Stella McDaniel

HARTFORD — A $50 million redevelopment of a historic, but decayed factory in the city’s Parkville neighborhood — a remnant of Hartford‘s industrial past — could further boost an unfolding, next generation arts and innovation district in the area with more housing and start-up incubator space.

Owner and developer Bob Hussain and his family see beyond the broken windows, rotted floor boards and even a few trees growing inside the former Hanson-Whitney Co. factory. A sturdy underlying structure could support 100 apartments on the upper floors of the 3-story building on the southern end of Bartholomew Avenue with business incubator space on the ground level.

The plant, at 169 Bartholomew, is a familiar sight to motorists on nearby I-84 west, some of the upper story windows are painted blue, yellow and red.

A rendering shows how a former factory on Hartford’s Bartholomew Avenue would look if converted to apartments and business incubator space. (Courtesy of GRHUSA Properties)

“We are committed to this project,” Hussain said. “We will get it done.”

The Hussain family’s factory conversion plan comes as the Parkville neighborhood is making steady gains in building on a base of arts and culture that has existed for years, anchored by Real Art Ways, the independent film theater and live performance space, on Arbor Street. But the area’s gains also come with the growing pains of parking and problems with perception.

The city’s strategic plan of development includes the Parkville Arts & Innovation District as one of the 10 projects that could transform Hartford by the time the city turns 400 in 2035.

Hanson-Whitney factory, Hartford
The decayed Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue in the Parkville neighborhood of Hartford (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

A major focus of the district is creating innovation space to form startups while providing space for them to grow and creating jobs at all skill levels. While the plan rests heavily on encouraging innovation, it also seeks to create new housing, after-hours dining and entertainment, and a thriving arts community —all aimed at revitalizing a long impoverished area of the city.

The district also seeks to tap into the roots of the Parkville neighborhood, once a hub of manufacturing turning out bicycles, typewriters and automobiles. Bartholomew Avenue is envisioned as the “spine” of the district.

The successful Parkville Market food hall is expanding and its developer, Carlos Mouta — a major landowner in the area — also is embarking on the $92 million conversion of the vacant Whitney Manufacturing Co. factory into apartments and business incubator space.

‘Security is the key’

There is now a push to form a business improvement district in Parkville, patterned after the one in downtown Hartford. Such a district would help oversee security, keep the area clean of litter, launch marketing campaigns and promote events in the neighborhood.

Parkville Market, Hartford
Patrons shop the food vendors at the Parkville Market. The market is in the midst of expanding into two neighboring buildings. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

The plans are still in the early stages. But with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Capital Region Development Authority, which has invested in projects in the area, the improvement district could be formed by the end of the year. Hands on Hartford, the 54-year-old neighborhood nonprofit, will oversee the spending of the CRDA grant as efforts go forward to form the new district.

An early supporter of the new district is the Hartford Restaurant Group, the operator of 10 Wood-N-Tap restaurants, whose headquarters has been on Bartholomew Avenue since 2012. The first Wood-N-Tap was established a decade earlier in the neighborhood, at the corner of Sisson and Capitol avenues.

Phil Barnett, co-owner of the restaurant group, said the improvement district is important for the businesses that are located in Parkville but it is also critical for attracting visitors by creating a positive perception of the neighborhood.

“Security is the key to so much stuff,” Barnett said. “If you ask anybody in the suburbs, for the most part, why do they or don’t they go to certain places? It usually comes down to parking and security. And cleanliness is another part of it.”

“So, the perception is that you want to go somewhere that’s clean, safe and you have parking,” Barnett said. “Parkville has so many great opportunities right now, but we’re lacking a little bit of the safety and security feeling, the perception for the people.”

Business Improvement District, Parkville, Hartford
This map shows properties, shaded in the purple, that could be included in a business improvement district in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood. Plans for the district are in the early stages and would require a vote of property owners. (City of Hartford, Office of the Assessor)

An improvement district can only be formed if more than 50% property owners within the district boundaries approve of the district in a referendum. Becoming part of the district means paying higher property taxes to fund the district, including the staff to run it. The city council also must pass a specific ordinance creating the district.

Mouta, a major developer in the neighborhood, said a half dozen businesses and property owners in the neighborhood have tried informally to assume the role that would be filled by the district.

“It’s been the same five or six of us representing everyone,” Mouta said. “We just don’t have the time. We’re not doing 75% of the things that we could be doing. So, we absolutely need this.”

‘Constraint to growth’

At the same time, the city is seeking to ease another issue in Parkville: parking.

Mouta is asking the city to enter into a public-private partnership to redevelop a surface parking lot that the developer owns near the corner of Bartholomew Avenue and Park Street, diagonally across from the Parkville Market.

Parking garage site, Parkville, Hartford

Kenneth R. Gosselin / Hartford Courant

A parking lot near the corner of Park Street and Bartholomew Avenue in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood, shown in this file photo, would be developed with housing wrapped around a parking garage.  (Kenneth R. Gosselin/Hartford Courant)

The development would include a $11.6 million above-ground parking garage with as many as 400 spaces on the rear of the parking lot and a new building of several stories with 57 apartments over storefront space near Bartholomew Avenue.

“There’s no question that parking is a constraint to growth there, which is why it is part of our plan,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said.

The housing, with 30% pegged as “affordable,” or restricted to certain incomes, is expected to cost $17.9 million to build, partly funded with a $5.5 million CT Communities Challenge Grant. The state grant program aims to help fund revitalization projects that will help spur job growth.

The plans for the mixed-use development include a proposed agreement to phase in taxes over 15 years on the housing; splitting the existing lot in two with the city taking control of the rear portion for the garage; and then signing a long-term lease for the parking structure. The proposal still must be approved by the city council, and it is likely Mouta and the city would share in the revenue generated by the garage. The garage also would provide parking for the new apartments.

Hands on Hartford, the planned Petrolhead Cafe, the motorsports-themed coffee shop and bar, plus the expansion of the Parkville Market are just a few businesses that will need more parking — and that doesn’t even count restaurants and other businesses that will open in the future, Mouta said.

“With the expansion of the market — I mean, without the parking — we’re dead in the water,” Mouta said.

Collecting support, approvals

Mouta’s ambitious factory conversion, at the corner of Bartholomew and Hamilton streets, is next door to the Hussain family’s project.

Factory conversion in Hartford's Parkville neigbhorhood.
Andrew Hussain, shows Lisa Lazarus, from Girls for Technology, the second floor, which will be turned into apartments at the Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue in the Parkville section of Hartford. The Hussain family has plans on converting the property to apartments and business incubator space. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

The Hussains and their development company GRHUSA Properties have gathered support from neighborhood organizations and, so far, an approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. But the financing plan for the 90,000-square-foot structure, is still in the early stages. The family hopes to secure historic tax credits and state environmental clean-up grants.

The family also is partnering with the Hartford-based nonprofit Girls for Technology, which seeks to create economic opportunities for women of color, to apply for a state Community Investment Fund grant. The grants are targeted for economic development in towns and cities with an emphasis on traditionally underserved communities of people of color.

Lisa Lazarus, the non-profit’s board chair, said the organization is interested in occupying some of incubator space that would fit in well with the nonprofit’s entrepreneurial goals.

Bob Hussain, is silhouetted as he walks along the first floor of the Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue in the Parkville neighborhoodsection of Hartford. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
Bob Hussain, is silhouetted as he walks along the first floor of the Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue in the Parkville neighborhood of Hartford. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

“So when we partner with them, we’re not just lending our name, we’re actually going to be helping them develop ideas for how to use the space to meet the needs of the community,” Lazarus said, during a recent tour of factory led by the Hussains. “And, of course, we want to have an innovative space.”

Lazarus adds: “We’re hoping that it will be a full-blown, live, work, play type of space.”

Since acquiring the property two years ago in a city tax deed sale, the cost of converting 169 Bartholomew has nearly doubled, rising from $28 million to $50 million.

Hanson-Whitney factory, Hartford
A notice about the elevator in one of the elevator shafts at the Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue in the Parkville section of Hartford. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

The family also had hoped for $4.2 million from a larger $50 million grant through the state’s innovation corridor grant program, which has not gone forward. The state Department of Economic and Community Development has said applications had not met requirements, which include matching private sector funding.

“So that kind of set us back in one sense, but there are other routes and that’s what we’re exploring now,” Steven Hussain said, on the tour. “And I think we’re making some headway there.”

His brother, Michael Hussain, said the family would considering joining with another development partner, if the fit was right.

‘This is his legacy’

Bob Hussain, a former pharmacist from Ridgefield, has been buying and rehabilitating blighted residential and mixed-use structures in Hartford for two decades, including a recent project on Garden Street. The conversion of the Hanson-Whitney factory would be the largest, and the family acknowledges seeking public funding is new to them.

The plans also have changed from creating expansion space for small- and mid-sized businesses to primarily residential. The proposal calls for 69 “efficiency” units, 16 studios, and five, one-bedrooms, all market-rate, with monthly rents ranging from an average of $1,263 to $2,175. An additional, 10 “affordable” units would have an average rent of $1,125, according to the Hussains.

Parkville, Hartford
Graffiti from over the past years covers the walls and glass on the second floor of the Hanson-Whitney Co. factory on Bartholomew Avenue. The space could become apartments in a conversion plan.(Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

The factory, long on the city’s radar as one of Hartford’s problem buildings, is also strategically located next to a former metal scrapyard now owned by the city that’s also targeted for future development.

“This is a large historic factory that’s currently severely blighted and a detriment to the neighborhood,” Bronin, Harford’s mayor, said. “We would love to see this building rehabbed and restored, and we want to make sure that it’s done right.”

Increasingly, Bob Hussain’s sons, including Andrew Hussain, are taking over the day-to-day responsibility for the conversion project — and they are pushing optimistically ahead.

“My dad wants it,” Andrew Hussain said. “This is his legacy.”

Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at [email protected].

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