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Retain Flavor Of Park Street…Freeing Key Park Street Lot


Retain Flavor Of Park Street

February 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

The offices of the Spanish American Merchants Association on Park Street used to be a dance club. Silhouettes of dancers that decorated the walls have been painted over for a more conservative look, and the former dance floor serves as a meeting space. But the vibrant spirit of Park Street as an entertainment district can be felt there and is waiting to be revived.

At the deteriorated Lyric Theater, now home to derelicts and debris, lies more evidence of an era when night life flourished. At the far end of a rubble-strewn room is a stage where performers held sway nightly. Vestiges of copper-glazed tile still gleam, ghosts of a happier time.

Park Street's revitalization will depend on the ability of merchants to bring back that sizzle, expanding their customer base without eroding the authentic spirit and flavor of the street. They must develop strategies for attracting higher-income residents to shop, eat and be entertained there, and to lure more lunchtime customers from downtown offices and the hospitals nearby. They must tap into a tourism base that either does not know about the cultural riches offered on Park Street or has a negative perception of the street.

If the way to a tourist's heart is through his stomach, then a big part of Park Street's economic future rests with its food, the universal language.

Restaurants abound along the vibrant thoroughfare, offering authentic cuisine from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Abundant bodegas provide the raw ingredients for a do-it-yourself feast, hard-to-get products described by neighborhood residents as "anything you can find in Latin America." Bakeries draw lines of customers waiting for fresh-from-the-oven bread. In warm weather, fruit vendors tempt passersby with their friendly repartee and colorful tropical wares, providing a touch of sunny Puerto Rico in the middle of Hartford.

Still, the street needs a few so-called "white cloth" elegant restaurants that would attract more upscale customers and promote night life. A banquet hall that could be used for weddings, dinners and other special celebrations would meet a practical need for a large gathering space, as well as add zest. So would a cultural center with an auditorium.

The city-owned northwest corner of Park and Main is an ideal spot for a banquet hall and magnet restaurant, but its development has been in legal limbo for years. Passersby won't venture past that dismal corner to savor the sights and sounds of New England's Hispanic Main Street as long as vacant lots serve as foreboding sentries.

A major draw for Spanish-speaking consumers is the cultural immersion they feel on Park Street that reminds them of home. On a recent trip to Comerio Restaurant, a third-generation business of the Luis Rodriguez family, pasteles were on the menu, bringing smiles from a colleague hankering for Puerto Rican home cooking. He explained that the ravioli-like pockets are special because they require so much care to cook. They are made of either yucca or plantain and stuffed with savory treats like chopped meat or olives, then wrapped in a thin paper and boiled slowly, producing a smooth, succulent texture. English-only customers lose out when they don't know these delicious details.

Non-Latino customers would feel more welcome and better informed if more signs and menus were in English as well as Spanish. The merchants association could publish a bilingual dining guide describing local establishments and their specialties so discerning diners would not miss the nuances.

It is vital that SAMA retain Park Street's authentic appeal by recruiting businesses that will reinforce its cultural identity. Retail development could be combined with cultural experiences - exhibits of local artists' work in restaurants or storefront galleries; encouraging musicians to perform on street corners; planning concerts, staging food festivals and other public activities that highlight aspects of Latino life.

SAMA's taxing district will help pay for streetscape improvements, security and marketing. But no amount of money can buy the foundation for success that Park Street already possesses - charm, color and ethnic cachet.


Freeing Key Park Street Lot

February 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

HARTFORD -- Hartford officials and La Casa de Puerto Rico finally have an agreement that will free the vacant northwest corner of Park and Main streets for development.

All that now stands in the way of beginning a major piece of Park Street's revitalization is a sign-off by Mayor Eddie A. Perez and the blessing of a Superior Court judge. It will be none too soon.

The deal is a key factor in the revitalization of Park Street, the main retail corridor for New England's Hispanic community.

The city, which owns the property on Park and Main, signed a contract in 1997 giving La Casa nine months to develop the plot. Despite many extensions, the group never did. In 1999, La Casa withdrew from the contract but refused to remove its claim to the development rights from city land records and provoked the city's lawsuit. Rather than letting La Casa's spurious claim drag on in court the city has agreed to what amounts to a payoff.

Under the terms of the deal, La Casa gets a $130,000 tax abatement that will free up money to finish the group's new housing and retail complex at Park and Squire streets. The project ran out of money just short of completion.

La Casa also receives title to a vacant city-owned building at 17-19 Squire St., which when renovated will complement the Park-Squire project. The city also will forgive a lien it filed after paying to raze a building on a property owned by La Casa.

Settling the rights to the Park and Main parcel is a plus for the city and Park Street's revitalization. It allows the city to designate a developer for what will be a gateway structure to Park Street, which should be architecturally consistent with the character of the area. The agreement permits La Casa to open Park-Squire this spring as streetscape improvements along Park Street get underway.

Once the legal work is done, it's time to find a developer to build at Park and Main.

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