Everyone, it seems, is trying to be
the next West Hartford Center. From Granby and Canton to South Windsor
and Storrs, communities with malls or town centers are trying to
replicate the mix of restaurants, stores and housing that's created
such a buzz in West Hartford over the past decade.
This is a bit fanciful; these areas
are all distinct and will rise or fall on their own. But if you
asked me for an area that could follow the same pattern as West
Hartford, how about Hartford's Parkville neighborhood?
Parkville has the potential. Through
the worst of times in the city, Parkville never went to seed. Now
it is taking off, with more than 60 new businesses in the past three
years. One of the main forces behind this surge is a youthful-looking
45-year old developer named Carlos Mouta. I'll get to him in a second.
Parkville, like West Hartford Center,
is a commercial area surrounded by residences. This pattern of settlement
is several thousand years old, but it still seems to work.
Another key parallel is that both Parkville
and the center kept most of their buildings. In downtown and some
other parts of Hartford, too many buildings were torn down for parking
lots, or to avoid taxes, or whatever. The commercial buildings in
both the center and Parkville aren't architectural gems, with one
or two exceptions, but they are there. What the downtown brain trust
missed was that most businesses operate indoors, and thus have some
difficulty moving into an empty lot.
But keep the buildings, and you never
know. There was space in a former factory building on Arbor Street
in the 1980s, so the avant garde arts group Real Art Ways moved
in. RAW, under executive director Will K. Wilkins, has not only
expanded in size and vision, it's become a cornerstone of the neighborhood.
Speaking of dame fortune, Parkville
was also the recipient of perhaps the city's only good school building
decision in the 1970s. The Parkville Community School was actually
built as a community school, with a branch of the Hartford Public
Library and a senior center in the same building. It works - it's
the center of the neighborhood.
For much of the past century, Parkville
was Hartford's Portuguese neighborhood, and that brings us back
to Mr. Mouta. He was born to Portuguese parents in Mozambique in
southeast Africa, then a Portuguese colony. The family moved to
Parkville in 1975, when Carlos was 14. He starred in soccer at Hartford
Public High School, graduated from Central Connecticut State University
and went to work for The Courant's circulation department. When
he didn't get a promotion he wanted (we've all been there, buddy),
he left and went into property management, and then to The Hartford's
commercial real estate department.
Meanwhile, he was buying small buildings
and fixing them up. In the downturn of the late 1980s and early
1990s, he kept paying his mortgages. This endeared him to bankers,
who began offering to sell him buildings they'd foreclosed on. When
the price was right, he bought. Soon he was working for himself,
out of a tiny office behind a doughnut shop he owned on Prospect
The rest is a matter of record. Mouta
and his partners own 600 apartments and condominiums and 1.1 million
square feet of commercial and industrial space, including virtually
all the major commercial buildings in Parkville.
His office is in a former Columbia
Bicycle factory on which he is completing a renovation, and which
houses a terrific restaurant he co-owns, O'Porto. The building has
gorgeous beams and wood floors, and loft offices in front. One is
occupied by a tennis buddy of mine, engineer Oscar Santo Domingo.
"There just aren't buildings like this anymore," he said.
"People love the older buildings,"
said Mouta. He owns the grand white building at 1429 Park St., once
home of the Hartford Rubber Co., which recently attracted Design
Source Ct, a stunning space. With that, R.L. Fisher next door, Lyman
Kitchens and new firms moving in, Mouta hopes to turn the area into
a design district. He's building 56 huge loft apartments in the
There is some crime, mostly nuisance
crime, in Parkville. Mouta, head of the Parkville Business Association,
is pushing for more owner-occupied housing and more police on the
street. Absentee landlords are the bane of many Hartford neighborhoods,
and Parkville is not immune.
The neighborhood has lost much of its
Portuguese resident base, though there are still many Portuguese-owned
businesses (not unlike the Italians in the South End). When a storefront
opens, it seems that an Asian business moves in. "Parkville
is more diverse than it ever was, and that's a good thing,"
The western end of Park Street, with
Lena's, O'Porto, Tinker's Seafood, Pho Legal and other restaurants,
is hopping on the weekends. Mouta is working with two great gentlemen,
Angelo Faenza and Richard Patrissi of the Park Road Business Association
over the line in West Hartford, toward the goal of a seamless and
successful Parkville-Park Road corridor.
I'm told there are people who won't
cross Prospect Avenue and enter Parkville. You people are missing
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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