The West Hartford Chamber of Commerce hosted the town’s Economic Development Update Tuesday at a luncheon at the Pond House Café.
By Ronni Newton
It’s been nearly 18 months since the last Economic Development Update – a virtual “tour” through town on Zoom – and Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski had plenty of new and expanded businesses to highlight Tuesday during the return of what had traditionally been an annual event, and was last held as a luncheon in the spring of 2019.
It’s daunting to provide an overview of updates to West Hartford businesses on a week-to-week basis, much less looking at a year or more. The number of new businesses and expansions since the May 2021 Zoom tour was remarkable, and represents a significant investment in the town by businesses. There are numerous multifamily developments in various stages of construction as well as some about to be submitted for Town Council approval, and the sum total of that investment alone, Gorski said, exceeds $300 million.
“This is an incredibly exciting time to share all of this growth with you,” she told the sell-out crowd at Tuesday’s luncheon, held at the Pond House Café and hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce.
The past four years the format of the economic development update has been a “drive through tour” of the sections of town. “I thought we would shake it up a little bit this year,” Gorski said, organizing the presentation in terms of “frequently asked questions” she gets on a regular basis.
Has the pandemic changed brick and mortar retail?
“In West Hartford we’re doing extremely well,” Gorski said. “Through all industry sectors we are seeing all time lows in vacancies.”
Retail businesses have been opening in all corners of town, with more to come.
From Bishops Corner, where Gillette Wines and Spirits relocated to Crossroads Plaza from Bloomfield, and Flowers of Life Herbal Apothecary opened last month on Albany Avenue, to the opening of Rasham Marketplace on Farmington Avenue, the Pharmacy at Blue Back, and the future opening of Kilwin’s, retail is expanding.
The Center has new retailers as well, including The Next Chapter, West Hartford Apothecary, Pink Flamingo Party Company, and Store 52. Gorski shared a sneak peek at the renderings for MORE Italian Pasta Lab, which will be opening on LaSalle Road in the former Freshii space later this year.
Retail expansion is happening elsewhere in town as well. “I can’t tell you the number of times that residents have contacted me regarding an independently owned bookstore,” Gorski said, noting the recently-announced planned opening of River Bend Bookshop on Park Road this November.
DTLR, a footwear store, has opened in Prospect Plaza, as has Floor & Decor, and along New Park Avenue new retail includes BiCiCo and AutoZone – which is a traditional retail spaces as well as a regional distribution center, Gorski said.
Harbor Freight took over a former gym that had been vacant for six or seven years, Marc’s Appliance Warehouse moved from a less than 2,500 square foot space into about 8,000 square feet on South Street, and WeHa Brewing and Roasting just celebrated its first anniversary on Shield Street, Gorski said.
Corbin’s Corner is in the midst of façade improvements that were approved by the Town Council in 2019, Gorski said, and should be complete by early next year. “There will be a significant change in terms of walkability in this plaza … a huge transformation a significant investment” by the owner, Regency, she said.
There are also new retailers that recently opened or are in the works, such as Nothing Bundt Cakes, Choice Pet, and JCrew, as well as the unexpected recent announcement that Jared would be reopening in the space that where it had been previously located. Jared had closed in 2019, and the Town Council had approved a Special Development District change to allow two restaurants in the space, but Jared announced a decision this summer to reopen in the former location.
Other retailers highlighted by Gorski include Crumbl Cookies, which will open in the Corbin Collection, Box Lunch – which has opened in the West Hartford portion of Westfarms – and furniture store Arhaus which is renovating the former Ruby Tuesday and several other spaces, and improving the façade with plans to open at Westfarms in 2023.
It seems like there’s multifamily development all over the place.
Multifamily developments have also been proliferating, with two – 540 New Park and the Residences at Berkshire Road – on the cusp of welcoming residents.
“We can’t wait for this new development to get open,” Gorski said of 540 New Park, this second signature development for the Trout Brook Realty and the West Hartford Housing Authority on New Park Avenue, which will have 52 units, 80% of them affordable housing.
“They are currently pre-leasing and they are hoping to open to residents by the end of the year,” Gorski said of the Residences at Berkshire Road, located at the corner of Berkshire and New Britain Avenue.
The slide for One Park Road has been in the economic update presentation for years, but the project is now well underway, Gorski said. There will be 295 units, of which 30 will be affordable and leased in partnership with the West Hartford Housing Authority. The development is a $66 million investment, with the retrofit of the former convent ready for leasing early in 2023 and the entire project planned for completion by the end of 2023.
Demolition of two older structures on Farmington Avenue took place over the summer, and foundation work has commenced on The Byline, a residential development on Farmington Avenue that will have 10,000 square feet of office space on the ground floor.
Numerous proposed developments are in various stages of consideration by the Town Council and other town departments, including a proposal for 950 Trout Brook Drive (former Children’s Museum property) which will be the subject of a public hearing and scheduled vote by the Council on Wednesday night.
Also in the pipeline are a proposed redevelopment of the West Hartford Inn as an affordable housing property called The Camelot, a proposed infill development (Center Park Place and 75 LaSalle) on what is currently surface parking lots between LaSalle and Arapahoe roads, redevelopment of the former SK Lavery building as mixed use, and a $34 million mixed use residential and commercial development called Elmwood Lofts – the first to fall under the town’s new Transit-Oriented Development ordinance which allows for streamlined approval – at the site of the former Puritan/Ashley Home site on New Britain Avenue.
Many of the projects have been reviewed by the Design Review Advisory Committee on an informal study basis, with applications expected before the end of 2022.
How is West Hartford doing with office space?
Office space may be sitting fallow in some places, but not in West Hartford. “Recently we dropped to 5%,” Gorski said of the vacancy rate. “That’s one of the lowest I’ve seen in my time here.”
Hartford HealthCare has opened a new 17,000 square foot building at the corner of South Main Street and Park Road, and a variety of other health care and wellness businesses have moved into town or expanded, as have financial services business like GYL Financial Synergies which recently had a ribbon cutting for their new 9,000 square foot headquarters at 75 Isham Road and Crowe Accounting which relocated to Blue Back Square for access to the dining and walkability.
A signifiant reinvestment has been made in the Corporate Center West property at 433 South Main Street, where NBT Bank recently opened their regional headquarters, and where other new tenants include Goff Law, Keystone Equipment Finance Corp., and Berkley Healthcare.
Anything new in the industrial sector?
West Hartford is not traditionally known as an “industrial town,” but that sector has also been expanding, mostly in the southeast corner – with the exception being the Iron Shop which opened in the former Wrought Iron Works (which is now on the corner of Oakwood and New Park) space on Albany Avenue.
The Andover Industrial Plaza is the site of extensive industrial expansion, including the opening of a scene shop for Playhouse on Park, West Hartford Landscaping, and Lima Granite & Marble. Nearby on New Park Avenue, Gorski said it was really exciting that longtime tenant CT Shower & Bath was recently in the position to purchase their property.
Windsor Winair has just leased 35,000 square feet at 9 Andover Drive, one of the largest industrial leases in town, Gorski said. LINK Scooters has also leased space nearby, at 14 Grassmere Avenue.
ExtraSpace Storage has opened in the long-vacant parcel that had been a Bally’s gym, which was a brownfield site. “It was very limited what you could execute on this site based on the contamination,” Gorski said.
Another contaminated site has been creatively repurposed, Gorski said. “This is a really interesting project,” she said of the transformation of 179 South Street, a former Honeywell factory. The building had been demolished but the contaminated site remained vacant with limited opportunities for development until some local business owners purchased the 12-acre property in 2021 and turned it into a facility for much needed secure storage of large items ranging from tractor trailers, to boats, campers, RVs, and construction equipment.
West Hartford continues to be recognized as a culinary destination. What’s new?
“Food, food, food,” Gorski said.
Despite the well-documented struggles of that sector during and following the pandemic, and although it’s not the only sector to expand, restaurant business has continued to thrive throughout town.
Food businesses have or are preparing to take over other occupancies. Chopt will be opening a 2,500 square foot space early next year in a portion of the former Maximum Beverage space in Bishops Corner. Black Bamboo owner Sonny Chen bought the building where Anna’s Hair Perfection was formerly located, and will move the restaurant a few blocks east on Farmington Avenue to the larger space. Last week Chen celebrated the grand opening of Gong cha in another building he owns, the former Subway location on Farmington Avenue opposite Raymond Road.
Also on Raymond Road, there has been investment in some formerly vacant property. Toro Mexican Street Food opened last year in the former Petals and Paws space next to the Whole Foods driveway, and Liquid Nirvana plans to take over the long-vacant parcel next door, where an office building burned down years ago. “They’re currently working on plans to redevelop this site,” Gorski said.
There’s plenty of restaurant news in Blue Back Square – from Rosa Mexicano, which will be opening its first Connecticut location this month – to the newly-opened Oath Pizza (also a first Connecticut location for the business), the popular brunch spot The Place 2 Be which opened last year. Gran Gusto will opening in the former Rizzuto’s spot, and following a significant investment in a new patio by Blue Back Square owners Charter Reality, Spanish restaurant Boqueria will open its first Connecticut location in the former Balos space.
Other new food establishments in the Center include The Russell, Kung Fu Tea, Zephyr’s Street Pizza, Sparrow, El Santo, and LobsterCraft. In addition, Sally & Bob’s, a successful business for decades, has recently expanded.
New restaurants on Park Road include Smoke Public House, 0 Degree Thai Ice Cream, and 1001 Arabian Bites – and Portobello Pizza is preparing to open soon.
Prospect Pizza is being relocated due to the Planet Fitness build-out, and plans to stay in Prospect Plaza. IHOP is nearly done with the renovations to the former GoldRoc Diner and should open in the next month or so, Gorski said. And Starbucks – with a drive-through – will be taking over the D’Angelos space on Kane Street near I-84 Exit 44.
G Monkey is thriving on New Park Avenue, Cake Gypsy is fully built out and should open before the end of the year, and and Cha Papi plans to open in the Shield Street Plaza.
Over the past year the Corbin Collection has welcomed Tavern in the Square and Hot Table Panini.
Another Starbucks – with a drive-through – is proposed as part of a proposal the Town Council will consider next month that also includes and expansion of the Hartford HealthCare building at the intersection of South Main Street and New Britain Avenue.
Are we still seeing new business activity in health, wellness and personal services?
From the opening of a new gymnasium and fitness center at the University of Saint Joseph, health, wellness, and personal services have also opened or expanded throughout town.
Some highlights include Float 41, Restore Wellness and Cryotherapy, Solidcore, the brand new Awaken 180, School of Rock West Hartford, Oksana Salon, Gloss Salon, PeoplesBank, Aroma Body and Foot Massage, Kathryn Hunt Studio, Best Cleaners, Homegrown Studio, and WeHa Fit – which is coming soon to the former Degras space on Park Road.
Planet Fitness has started the transformation of the former Hibachi space on Kane Street, and along the same strip DashMart is also preparing to open.
The five buildings that comprise 635 New Park Avenue have “welcomed a number of new businesses within the last year,” Gorski said, including Tribe Fitness, Performance Lab, Rebellion Barbershop, Magic Power Tattoo, Junk Pot, The Strength Spot, Jukido Jujutsu, and Revival Spa.
Central Rock Gym will feature “the largest square footage of climbing wall in New England,” Gorski said. Fitness with Jonathan is expanding to New Park Avenue, Ivy Rehab and Physical Therapy has opened in the Corbin Collection – in the Shake Shack building which is fully tenanted – and right next to the future Crumbl Cookie, Club Pilates will soon open.
And lastly … What’s happening with the former UConn campus?
Gorski has worked for the town since 2016, and the slide she shared predates her employment.
The property was sold in December 2021, but there has been little information shared about plans by the new owner, West Hartford 1 LLC.
“There’s a lot of significant movement on this site,” Gorski said.
“The development company who owns that parcel, they have been working for several months with town staff to try and iron out concepts for that property,” she said. While they are teeing up plans to meet with DRAC for feedback, because it’s in pre-development few details can be released until the plans become public record.
“It’s not anything that is set in stone but they are making significant progress,” Gorski said. “This will be exciting,” she said, noting that some plans should be released before the end of the year.
A few questions asked by those in attendance related to the current one-way status of LaSalle Road, as well as plans to increase the walkability and bicycle friendliness of town. Gorski said the West Hartford Center Infrastructure Master Plan, a year-long project that launched in August, will be “taking a deeper dive” into many of those issues, with more clarity coming in the next six to eight months.
“I encourage any Chamber members to get involved in this process,” she added.
While the update focused on openings, Gorski told We-Ha.com following the presentation that the number of businesses that have closed in town – other than in the early days of the pandemic – is a very small number.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Conway and Board Chair Chip Janiszewski also addressed the crowd at the luncheon. Jerome Baier, Business Banking Regional Manager for M&T Bank, the presenting sponsor, introduced Gorski and also apologized for the issues customers have had since the transition of the business on Labor Day weekend.
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