How West Hartford’s ‘opportunity zone’ for new development was established along New Park Avenue

How West Hartford’s ‘opportunity zone’ for new development was established along New Park Avenue

Long recognized for its manufacturing, industrial, and home décor industries, New Park Avenue has recently become a hub for a novel kind of development.

So much so that over the past few years, two new housing developments and a diverse portfolio of new businesses have opened along the corridor that starts at New Britain Avenue and ends at Flatbush Avenue, with more to come.

“A week doesn’t go by without talking about all of the development and exciting future of New Park Avenue,” said state Rep. Kate Farrar, who serves constituents in parts of Newington and West Hartford. “Everyone I talk to really supports and wants to make sure that New Park Avenue is part of how we have a healthy community where everyone can live and work and play.”

As demonstrated by the establishment of the Design District of West Hartford almost two decades ago, the area has historically been home to manufacturing firms, some of which are over a century old, and home design companies. This renewed and revitalized focus is on this area.

“It’s a good area for our type of business,” said Brian Knies, the Design District founder who owns Tile America, which his family opened in West Hartford in 1963. “We’re destinations. We don’t need to be in West Hartford Center. They ended up there because there’s more space and rents aren’t what they are in the center. It’s a good area, it’s accessible and it’s just been improving over the years.”

Although Knies stated that over 20 home design businesses are still in operation, those aspects of New Park Avenue as it has always been remain, and in some cases are even thriving, but the developments surrounding it have stakeholders optimistic about the area’s future.

The ‘opportunity zone’ in West Hartford

Some people think that CTfastrak, the state’s bus transit system, which debuted in 2015 with two stops along the corridor, is the reason behind the recent wave of investment in New Park Avenue. Indeed, this is among the motives behind the selection of the region for two of the affordable housing projects by the nonprofit organization Trout Brook Realty Advisors and the West Hartford Housing Authority.

“It was an interesting site because of being right next door to the CTfastrak station,” said Jill Corrado, executive director of the housing authority. “The thought was this could be a game changer for the area. With the CTfastrak right next door, they could live there without needing transportation. It’s close by to a whole lot of other things, like medical facilities, a library, pharmacies, retail, restaurants. It’s sort of the best of both worlds.”

Thus, The Lofts at 616 and The Residences at 540 New Park emerged as housing on a road that had previously only been used for a range of retail and commercial purposes. As a result, New Park Avenue now had the possibility of experiencing residential foot traffic, something it had never experienced before.

Tate Norden, who founded the GastroPark food truck venue in 2020, has witnessed firsthand how the influx of people into the area has affected his business, which not only serves food and drink from their own kitchen and bar but also hosts a variety of food trucks.

“We have a handful of regulars from those units, which is great,” Norden said. “We’re excited to see more walkable accommodations pop up in the neighborhood. That’s what makes places like the GastroPark vibrant: locals and regulars who want to pop in to get a coffee and then come back later that night for food.”

For Norden, New Park Avenue offers innovative upstarts a space where they can take a chance on novel ventures and concepts.

“It’s West Hartford’s only opportunity zone,” Norden said. “The New Park corridor is a place for homegrown small business activity because it’s the only place that can foster it in town. Everywhere else is pretty developed and the rents are obviously established. If you’re starting something new … you see a lot of people go to the New Park corridor. A lot of the old factory uses and warehouse uses have gone elsewhere, so you have space and you have opportunity. It’s kind of the only place in town where people can do stuff like this.”

When New Park Brewing opened to great fanfare in 2017, it seized the chance to become West Hartford’s first brewery. Producing in-demand beers such as its IPAs and sours, that company continues to grow. Most recently, it took advantage of the state’s new small business loan program to open a brand-new event space. WeHa Brewing & Roasting Company, a brewery and coffee shop, also debuted in 2021 close to New Park Avenue.

Diverse businesses have taken up residence in repurposed spaces in the buildings next to Norden’s GastroPark. These are the little shops nestled into the corners of New Park Avenue, a short distance from the main thoroughfare. Among them are a barbershop, several gyms, an indoor dog park, and a pet resort. The area has also been seized by artisans, who employ vacant areas for their ideas.

“It’s fun to have an area where people can play with more creative ideas that have been inspired through their own travels or a challenge or a problem someone might see in the area,” Norden said. “There needs to be a place in town where entrepreneurs and small business owners can pursue an opportunity to chase their dream and grow their business.”

Perkatory Coffee Roasters, which opened its fourth location in the state earlier this year on New Park Avenue, is one example of that. Joe and Johanna Perazella, the business’s husband and wife owners, decided to stay close to their little GastroPark stall when it came time to grow.

“We felt that maybe it would be a good way to get our toes wet,” Joe Perazella said about their GastroPark location. “We did a short lease, year to year, his model worked for us. It helped a business open up and become familiar with the area by building a customer base. When we felt ready to move on, we would.”

“It was such a welcoming community,” Johanna Perazella said. “Different business reached out to introduce themselves. We felt so welcomed. We knew drink orders. We didn’t want to lose that customer base.”

According to Norden, that kind of cooperation could serve as a springboard for the next big venture.

“That’s our main goal and our mission statement, to let food unite and empower our community,” Norden said. “Most people have an idea, but they’re not ready to open a restaurant in West Hartford Center or break off this massive endeavor. We wanted to let all types of small businesses, not just food trucks, to get their foot in the door. We’re proud of all the small businesses we’ve been able to work with, from the food trucks to the artists that do pop-ups on the weekend. That’s the community that we want to help foster.”

The housing boom in West Hartford extends to Elmwood

Housing developers frequently focus their initial attention on the neighborhoods surrounding West Hartford Center, a popular destination noted for its vibrant dining and shopping scenes, when considering West Hartford.

Furthermore, New Park Avenue and the Elmwood neighborhood of which it is a part have not been left out in the cold when it comes to the more than 1,300 housing units that could be built in the town over the next few years, even though a variety of housing developments have been approved within walking distance of that area of West Hartford.

Two major housing projects have been proposed in the area under the town’s new transit-oriented development district, which was established in 2022 to encourage housing developments in the area by offering incentives to developers who build housing in the vicinity of the CTfastrak stations. These developments, in addition to the two West Hartford Housing Authority developments, which offer affordable units and are frequently full, are also planned.

At the old Puritan furniture site on New Britain Avenue, right at the entrance to New Park Avenue, there are 150 residential units as part of the proposed developments, along with street-level space for dining establishments and other retail uses. Another, more modest plan for New Park Avenue would include ground-level retail spaces in addition to 70 residential units.

“The Puritan furniture site — I’m super excited for that one,” Corrado said about the potential new housing developments. “That will bring a lot of people to the area and also just change that whole corner. That is going to be a game changer. That’s only going to help to build up that area and make it less industrial and more of a place where people might want to live. Before we built 616 New Park, nobody lived over there.”

According to Corrado, more residents are beneficial for the existing housing stock and may entice developers and companies to make larger investments. These individuals may take advantage of the short walk to nearby businesses. Thus, that might lead to the creation of new jobs for local residents.

“Housing brings people to the area to help with the businesses, because those tenants might frequent those areas,” Corrado said. “But then those businesses have workers who might want to live in the area where they work. It’s a back and forth. It’s a great area that’s a little hidden treasure.”

Norden concurs and is supporting initiatives like the Puritan development that would add more homes.

“That’s going to be a real milestone marker for the neighborhood,” Norden said about the Puritan furniture site proposal. “We were early adopters. Once that Puritan building goes up, even the staunchest doubters will have to say this neighborhood has turned the corner.”

Protected bike lanes, road diets, and other measures

Town officials have identified New Park Avenue as a location that requires improved street safety because they anticipate an influx of new residents in the near future. And they’re on the way: off-road bike and pedestrian paths, protected bike lanes, and a partial road diet that might persuade more people to use modes of transportation besides cars to access New Park Avenue.

Jay Stange, who lives in West Hartford and works as the Center for Latino Progress’s coordinator for the Transport Hartford Academy, is familiar with New Park Avenue. In 2022, the ground floor of The Lofts at 616 became home to the community bike shop BiCi Co., which was opened by the Center for Latino Progress.

“New Park Avenue is one of those places that I feel is like a cultural estuary in West Hartford,” said Stange, who is also a member of the town’s Vision Zero task force. “New Park Avenue is a really important commercial sector. There’s this optimism about an area that was formerly an industrial district that has now been signaled by the town that they’re going to develop walkable housing.”

According to Stange, the town leaders of West Hartford made a significant investment in a crucial area with the improvements to roadway safety. With this, he hopes, New Park Avenue becomes a place that “people travel to instead of a corridor they’re looking to travel through.”

“The investment the town’s making in the road diet and the separate cycle track is a really important signal to merchants and residents and folks that are passing through this area,” Stange said. “It’s a place to invest and a place to plan for. The town has been pretty wise by signaling with investments that this is a place that people can look to as a future thriving area. Folks are going to want to get in on the ground floor.”

New Park Avenue’s future

Every area of West Hartford experiences business closures. After a year and a half of operation, the fast-casual vegan restaurant G-Monkey on New Park Avenue recently announced that it would be closing in December. Stakeholders anticipate that the area will eventually serve as a possible starting point for another innovative neighborhood company that will sustain New Park Avenue’s prosperity.

“People want to support local,” Norden said. “There’s a lot of people who are staunch lovers of Connecticut. On New Park Avenue from New Britain Avenue to Talcott Road … I really hope that area can stay local. New Park Avenue in five years is going to be just as attractive of a destination to come and hang out in as it will be to go to West Hartford Center.”

Farrar anticipates that the Hartford Line will pass through the area and have a train station in the future. This would give the neighborhood and the town of West Hartford another means of transportation.

“It would really connect us to the region, to Springfield, to New Haven, and to New York City,” Farrar said. “It’s something I’m remaining a steadfast advocate of. It would generate much more use of this incredible Hartford Line.”

Even with all that forward-thinking, it is imperative to keep in mind the historical significance that the Design District and manufacturers still hold in the region. Those companies continue to have a significant influence on what makes New Park Avenue unique.

“That’s been our goal all along, to bring more people to the area,” Knies said. “There’s all these little gems of places and that’s what we want to do. We want to get people to know all these great places. They’re the specialists and they’re so good at what they do. These family businesses have been around for 50 years or more. Everyone is excited about the area and the different businesses that have been open and the old buildings that have been renovated. It’s all good stuff.”