Hartford Courant article, “Signs of New Life on Capitol Avenue as Apartments Open”

Signs of New Life on Capitol Avenue as Apartments Open

Years later, Malave has signed a lease for an apartment in the same building and is now settling into her unit on the third floor.

After a $36 million conversion, the old office supply building — now called Capitol Lofts — is anchoring what many hope will be a revival of a block that has struggled for years but is now showing promising signs of new life.

“I didn’t believe that it was this building,” Malave said, recalling when a leasing agent told her last winter the apartments were available. “She said, ‘You know, over by the Hartford Courant and Broad Street.’ And I said, ‘No, not that building.’ I thought it was a goner like some buildings. You know, they are just not going to come back.”

The signs of neighborhood rebirth also are evident in the view across Capitol Avenue from Malave’s apartment.

Two vacant storefronts now have tenants — a coffee shop and an ice cream shop — and are expected to open this summer. The street-level spaces are part of a once-dilapidated apartment building that has been fully renovated, its units all leased.

A restaurant specializing in trendy noodle soup opened in November. The owners of the Bob Ramen restaurant — the same as the neighboring Little River Restoratives cocktail bar — are tweaking their menu for the summer, adding veggie wraps and kimchi tacos.

Meanwhile, the Red Rock Cafe, anchoring the east end of the block, has secured approvals to renovate the battered facade of the building next door, with plans to add another restaurant on the ground floor.

Deep History

Malave, now 29, is still absorbing it all. But her disbelief that the old office supply building could make a comeback isn’t surprising.

The brick-and-brownstone structure, dating from the late 1800s, had a long, proud history deeply intertwined with the city’s manufacturing history and was the first home of Pratt & Whitney. But it had stood vacant for more than a decade and had suffered from two failed redevelopment plans.

The building tumbled into foreclosure, and the most activity there was the birds nesting in the letters spelling out the company name on the front of the building.

Malave took her time checking out apartments in the building since so many of the 112 were available. She went back-and-forth: Capitol Avenue view or Capitol building view?

“I didn’t think it would fill up so quickly,” Malave said. “So I was kind of taking my time choosing a unit and that’s when [the agent] called me up, and said, “I know you’re being picky, but you can’t be picky right now.’ A couple of people were looking at units I was interested in.”

In just five months, Capitol Lofts is now 50 percent leased.

Malave, who graduated from Trinity in 2013, chose to move back to Hartford to be closer to her job as an operations support specialist at Travelers downtown. The neighborhood was familiar: she had lived in Frog Hollow until her family moved to Manchester when she was in the sixth grade.

Malave said she is excited about her new apartment with its high ceilings and exposed brick — a “homey” feel but at the same time, she said, “I can breathe and you don’t expect that around here.”

The initial reaction of some of her co-workers to the location of her new apartment wasn’t so unexpected, given, she said, that Hartford gets a “bad rap.”

“They said, ‘Oh, where did you move? Did you get the apartment?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s in Hartford.’ And I get that look. ‘Hartford?’ ‘Yeah, why don’t you come over?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’

A little coaxing, and her co-workers did visit, Malave said, “and they said they never would have thought this would have been here.”

Somewhere To Eat

Across Capitol Avenue, the for rent signs are down and brown paper is covering the windows of two storefronts in the rehabilitated apartment building.

Shane Kelly and his wife, Chantell, plan to open the Capital Ice Cream shop in one of the storefronts early this summer.

Shane Kelly said the apartments were the “cherry on top” that convinced the couple, who have three young children, to sign a lease. But it was more than Capitol Lofts: they have been watching the changes on the block ever since buying a row house on nearby Columbia Street in 2006. The couple has three young children.

They saw Don Mancini, the owner of the Red Rock Cafe, take a big risk and invest more than $200,000 in the bar and restaurant a decade ago for facade improvements and the addition of a patio.

Last year, Mancini purchased the building next door, and he has secured approvals for another facade makeover, including the use of architecturally accurate windows. It’s not clear whether he will open a pizzeria because he was recently approached about opening a Mexican restaurant.

The new restaurant would go in the space formerly occupied by Norma’s Cafe. Mancini didn’t renew the lease for the bar at Norma’s, often responsible for late-night noise and disruption as well as police visits.

Red Rock Tavern owner Don Mancini discusses Capitol Ave’s past, present and future.

Shane Kelly knew the pace of an upturn on the block was quickening when Little River opened and then Bob Ramen. And one day while walking their dog, the couple noticed one of the for rent signs was taken down.

“This is like musical chairs, if we don’t jump on it, there will be nothing left,” Shane Kelly said. “We had some coin saved, so we said let’s go for it.”

The couple is taking a substantial risk themselves, committing $25,000 in savings to their new shop. That’s inexpensive as far as opening a business goes but the Kellys are doing much of the work themselves. Shane Kelly is an ironworker with his own company and is getting help from friends in the construction industry.

“There is a need for ice cream in Hartford,” Shane Kelly said. “We’d have to go to Baskin-Robbins on New Britain Avenue [in West Hartford]. We’d have to sneak back on the highway and hopefully get home before the ice cream melts.”

The couple plans to purchase an “ice cream bicycle” and take their ice cream in a loop throughout the city and back to the shop. One possible route follows Capitol Avenue to Bushnell Park and the carousel, then on to the Gold Building, perhaps to Constitution Plaza, and over to Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

“My mission in life is to make this place work on Saturday and Sunday, and that is going to be the measurement of whether we are successful,” Shane Kelly said.

Neighborhood Coffee

Sarah McCoy is confident about the need for another coffee shop on the block, even though there is a Dunkin’ Donuts just one block over.

“We actually got turned down for a loan because they were concerned about Dunkin’ Donuts down the street,” McCoy said. “We don’t see it as that. Our product is very, very different. We hope that people will try us once and be like, ‘Wow, look at what coffee could be.'”

McCoy said the coffees will come from specialty roasters such as Giv Coffee in Canton and Neat Coffee in Darien.

“We will be able to speak to the specific lots the coffees come from, the roasts, the profiles, but if someone wants a cup of coffee and needs to go to work, we can do that, too,” McCoy said. “We want to respect people’s time and interest in the product.”

McCoy and her husband, Michael, a Hartford teacher, loved coffee but didn’t know much about the food and beverage industry. They partnered with Michael Acosta, a genetic lab researcher at Hartford Hospital who had run a coffee shop on the Trinity College campus.

Sarah McCoy, a freelance photographer, first met Acosta at the farmers market in the city’s West End where he has a coffee cart. They connected again over Facebook and met at Little River to talk. The three of them hit it off. And despite knowing each other little more than a week, they put a deposit down on the other storefront in the same building as the Kellys.

The partners are sinking about $100,000 into the project, funds coming from a combination of savings, loans and investors. The McCoys, who live in Asylum Hill, and Acosta, of West Hartford, had tossed around “thousands” of names. Their choice “Story and Soil” has drawn some puzzled looks.

The name comes from the album titled “Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” by the rock band Bright Eyes.

“People all have a story that makes them who they are and what better place to share our stories and build community than in a coffee shop,” McCoy said. “And our product is from the soil.”

The McCoys and Acosta hope to be open by late June.

Apartment Revival

Capitol Lofts is among more than a dozen apartment conversions in and around the downtown area that has added more than 1,000 rental units in recent years. Financing for the projects was partly subsidized by taxpayer-backed loans and equity investments.

Malave said Capitol Lofts was more attractive because they were less expensive than conversions in the heart of downtown and offered many of the same amenities.

Malave has ventured out into the neighborhood, visiting Little River and stopping at the bodega on the block.

“I spoke to the gentleman working there,” Malave said. “He didn’t have too much but he was like, ‘I’m looking to get more things.’ He was asking me what do I need. He was getting ideas for his store. It was interesting that he would even ask.”

Malave said she didn’t bring a car to the city and has been riding the CTfastrak bus to get to the supermarket, about a six-minute ride. Malave also rides the bus to work in the morning and then to a part-time job at an after-school program in East Hartford. There’s just one transfer on the round-trip, she said.

And Malave said she is happy to be back in her old neighborhood for another reason. Her grandmother lives in the senior housing on the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street.

“I can see her when she is on her balcony,” Malave said. “I can almost wave to her from here.”

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