A Capitol Avenue Block Prepares For A Comeback

It's a block like so many others in the city, easy to drive by and barely notice.

But along the south side of Capitol Avenue — between Lawrence and Babcock streets — a block that has struggled for years is waking up. Now, it offers a small glimpse of a promising Hartford future.

An apartment building, long abandoned, has been purchased, renovated and all six units occupied, one by the owner. A craft cocktail bar, Little River Restoratives, is attracting hipsters to the neighborhood and soon plans to open a noodle bar next door. And, the owner of the Red Rock Cafe — formerly Kenney's — has purchased the building next door and has plans for expansion.

With rows of new windows on the Hartford Office Supply building across the street, Dragutin Novak, father of Maja Gill, fixes a gate on Capitol Ave. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Across the street, the biggest change in the neighborhood is taking shape. A long vacant industrial building is being converted to dozens of mixed-income apartments with the help of public dollars.

"Five years from now, I see this as a completely self-sufficient neighborhood where Aetna employees can walk to work, folks at the Legislative Office Building can walk there,'' said Aaron Gill, who bought a small apartment building on the block three years ago. "People can stop on the way home for a beer at Red Rock or a drink at Little River, pick up some groceries on the way, not have to spend an hour a day or two hours a day having to do that commute."

Now an eclectic mix of businesses, the Capitol Avenue block also includes two barber shops, a beauty salon, a nightclub that is open weekends and a bodega. Some of the facades are in need of repair, and the sections of sidewalk are uneven, cracked in some spots.

At a time when Hartford is working to revitalize itself, this gritty block that sits in the shadow of the state Capitol building represents a microcosm of transition. Here and in nearby downtown Hartford, there are tantalizing signs of a transformation in progress, but despite millions of taxpayer dollars, the final outcome is unclear.

What role the apartment building will ultimately play in the revitalization of the block and the surrounding neighborhood could emerge soon. The developers of the former Hartford Office Supply Co. building have started advertising the 112 units — 22 will be income-restricted — on craigslist as being ready as of Jan. 1.

View of buildings on Capitol Ave. from across the street. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

"With the apartments across the street — they are supposed to be done by the end of the year — that should be another boost," Don Mancini, owner of the Red Rock, said. "There will be more people around, more people walking around and creating an environment that will cause other people to come."

From Kenney's to Red Rock

Mancini has gambled on this block before.

In the early 2000s, Red Rock was struggling financially. Mancini seriously considered selling the bar, a fixture in the neighborhood since the 1930s, and operated by his family for three generations. Now, 54, Mancini had worked there since he was 16, eventually becoming part-owner and finally, sole owner in 2001.

"The 1990s were tough," Mancini said. "We did everything we could to make it. We worked a lot. We didn't hire that many people. When 2000 came, I said, 'We can't keep this up, we have to do something.' We had to give it a shot."

As late as the 1960s, the block bustled with more diverse tenants: a grocery store, a laundry, a coffee shop, a delicatessen, a shoe store, a pharmacy — all in addition to Kenney's. The businesses historically drew not only from the working class neighborhood, then predominantly French Canadian and Portuguese, but nearby factories, including those making typewriters.

Mancini chose to invest $225,000 in improvements including a $130,000 facade improvement grant from the city. The biggest change was the addition of a brick patio with wrought iron tables and chairs enclosed with a low, decorative fence.

"I thought, 'What's the worst that can happen? I lose my money?' " Mancini said. "I already lost a bunch in the stock market at that time. I might as well lose the rest in the business."

View of buildings on Capitol Ave. from across the street. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Mancini also risked changing the name of the bar and restaurant, long a local watering hole for journalists, capitol staffers and neighborhood residents. Kenney's was the name of the family that owned and ran the bar before Mancini's family took it over.

"When we remodeled, we were like, 'You know what, maybe it's time to change the name and give it a little spark,' " Mancini said. "People felt like it was a new place. We got a big bump in business."

He took his inspiration from the "Enjoy Red Rock Cola" sign painted on one side of the building. At first, Mancini wanted to put the Kenney's name there, but the city said the sign would be too large and the Red Rock sign was historic.

Mancini had more confidence in the block this time around when the bought the building next door.

"People are coming down here, and they are bringing their friends," Mancini said. "There is a range of people, young professionals, people in suits-and-ties, people in jeans. It makes you have a little more excitement about it. It's like, "OK, we've done this and now, it's created this. Now, if we can go a little further, we can create something a little larger."

A few years ago, the arrival of Dunkin' Donuts on the next block and, more recently, a vintage clothing shop has helped connect Red Rock and the rest of the block to the neighborhood to the east. The block's revival also is likely to draw on the stability of nearby residential streets — including Columbia Street and its historic, owner-occupied rowhouses.

Hartford, Ct. - 09/09/2016 - View of buildings on Capitol Ave. from across the street. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

To the south, Billings Forge operates market rate and income-restricted housing, the Firebox restaurant, community gardens and an art studio. The non-profit has worked to revitalize the Frog Hollow neighborhood, which long had a reputation for drugs and violence.

Mancini is exploring financing to expand his business further, perhaps to offer brick-oven pizza and repair its battered facade. Working with other businesses on the block, the area can become a destination for dinner, Mancini said.

"It won't be Blue Back Square or anything like West Hartford," Mancini said. "But [people] are finally realizing that 'I don't have to travel to Blue Back Square to enjoy myself and sit outside."

Hipster Cocktails and a Noodle Bar

On the opposite end of the block, at the corner of Capitol and Babcock streets, Patrick Miceli is sitting with a visitor at Little River Restoratives on a recent afternoon, a couple of hours before the craft cocktail bar will open.

Miceli is talking about his previous career in financial services and how he left to open a bistro in Plainville that he still operates. He met his partner in Little River, Christopher Parrott, at Millwright's Restaurant and Tavern in Simsbury where Parrott was bar manager.

The two hit it off. Miceli had previous experience opening a bar, and Parrott brought his background in mixology. They immediately shied away from a high-profile downtown location, opting for the space previously occupied by the La Paloma Sabanera coffeehouse.

"We like the slightly off the beaten path, slightly hidden," Miceli said. "That's part of the allure of what we do. It takes some effort to find us, but once you find us, it's a place you want to take your family and friends to."

Miceli said he and Parrott have been able to keep renovation costs low — about $250,000 for both Little River and the noodle bar — by doing some of the work themselves, with Miceli acting as the general contractor.

Little River opened in November. The name comes from the Hog River, which flows under the neighborhood, and the use of cocktails in the 1800s as "restoratives" to promote health. The architecture of interior – decorative tin ceiling and brick walls that were revealed after the space was gutted– fit the throwback atmosphere Miceli and Parrott were trying to create.

Little River hosts "pop up" dinners where another bar or restaurant takes over the kitchen and serves their food, paired with a drink menu devised by Parrott. Parrott hosts a "cocktail lab" every week.

In just six months, the partners were signing a lease for the storefront next door. Miceli said he now expects the noodle bar to open in November.

"Usually, 5 or 6 months in, you don't sign a lease for another business," Miceli said. "But the apartments across the street, it's a no-brainer for us. That's a captive audience. For people to occupy the building, retail in the immediate area, within walking distance without getting into your car is the whole point."

Discovering the City

Three weeks ago, blue ceramic pots overflowing with yellow, orange and red chrysanthemums appeared outside the 3-story apartment building in the middle of the block.

The flowers – an unaccustomed sight on the block -- put a finishing touch on a renovation that started with a 125-year-old apartment building with two storefronts that had been sitting vacant for three years.

The owners, Aaron and Maja Gill, are part of the young professional demographic the city is working to attract. Aaron Gill is a civil engineer and Maja Gill works at Yale University in human resources.

The couple, now living in one of the six units they renovated, hadn't set out to take on such a major project when they moved to Hartford in 2008.

The Gills had planned to stay two years and then look at their options, but the city – struggling to make a comeback – grew on them. They liked the people they met through community organizations, such as Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs of Hartford, or HYPE. They also found how easy it was to walk to Bushnell Park, downtown restaurants and the riverfront.

In the summer of 2013, they purchased the apartment building in the middle of the block from the city which had taken ownership after taxes went unpaid.

For the Gills, the renovation of the former Hartford Office Supply Co. building across the street wasn't a big factor. Plans to convert the building into apartments were only in the earliest of stages.

"So one of the first things we did for a couple of months, we had some very large dumpsters in the back, and we essentially took all the trash from the building and threw it in a dumpster," Aaron Gill said. "We have a couple of friends who often brag about throwing a couch off the third floor balcony into a dumpster."

The couple finished off their apartment first, doing much of the work themselves. They approached the project with the intent of keeping as much of the original architectural features, such as moldings, as possible but replacing heating and plumbing systems.

After they moved into their apartment two years ago, the Gills hired a contractor to finish the rest of the units. The couple started leasing in May and were fully occupied by August.

Their bet on a neighborhood revival is substantial: the project cost $900,000, paid for with a combination of loans, including $40,000 from the city, and the couple's savings.

Walking into the kitchen of one of the units, a visitor is surprised to find a granite counter top and sleek, black appliances.

"I take that as a compliment, and I hope in the future, it won't be so much of a surprise," Gill said.

Next, they hope to lease two storefronts on street level, having renovated the shell of each space. The work included removing the pull down, metal security doors that gave the building a bunker-like appearance.

"They are gone," Aaron Gill said, "and they are not coming back."  

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