Our recent work in West Hartford, CT has served as a reminder of the positive role that enlightened property owners can play in improving downtown retail environments. In our research, we came across an older article memorializing the life of Richard Mahoney, otherwise known as “Mr. West Hartford Center”. For those unfamiliar with West Hartford Center, it is the historic downtown of the community of West Hartford, surrounded by walkable, dense residential neighborhoods that continue to attract people looking for small town living. (I think of places like West Hartford when naysayers say that millennials are moving to the suburbs when in actuality they are moving to towns like this which offer the best of urban living in what are typically categorized as “suburban” environments, yet are anything but!).

Robert Mahoney’s efforts to revitalize West Hartford include lessons and best practices that still resonate with us today. He utilized quite a number of shopping industry tricks of the trade. For readers of this blog, you know that we firmly believe that downtown environments need to be managed in ways more akin to shopping centers – and we love finding examples of how this can work in downtown environments.

Back to Mahoney, here are a few examples of what he did to enliven the downtown according, taken (mostly) from an article in The Hartford Courant.  We loved that these interventions aligned so well with our SMAR2T framework, so we took the liberty of organizing the elements of Mahoney’s approach along those lines.

  • Mahoney supported growth in local Administrative Capacity
    • Early on he realized how critical a viable merchant’s association was to overall revitalization efforts and required his own tenants to join the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants Association. He also asked other landlords to match their tenant’s contributions to these organizations.
    • Another key element of Administrative Capacity is leadership – and Mahoney’s leadership and advocacy was clearly instrumental in advancing some of the initiatives outlined here. In our experience, having someone like Mahoney, who is able to build coalitions and strike compromise and who has the confidence of stakeholders from both the public and private sectors, is key to advancing many revitalization efforts. A great leader is someone who is pretty good at herding cats, and it seems that Mahoney had that quality.
  • Encouraged on-going Redevelopment in both the Public and Private Realms
    • Landlords were encouraged to maintain and refresh their stores regularly to keep them from looking dated. In the retail industry we call this redevelopment or repositioning. Malls typically do a refresh every ten to fifteen years or so to stay competitive and current.
    • Investments were made in holiday lights and decorations, as well as planters on public sidewalks (that were watered!)
    • While the article failed to mention Mahoney’s role in the shared parking lot to the rear of the stores, which required complicated easements and land swaps to allow for access and municipal maintenance, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that he had something substantial to do with it. We believe this shared parking initiative helped ensure that parking supply was sufficient to meet demand. Frankly, we were a bit surprised that parking woes did not come up first among local business concerns as parking is typically the number one issue that drives business complaints.
  • Promotion and Marketing Efforts to drive Retail Sales
    • Holiday television advertisements helped raise awareness of the district
    • Evening shopping hours
  • Improvements to Tenant Mix
    • Mahoney was selective in filling vacancies – sometimes choosing to leave a space vacant until the right business came along. (This is notable for communities looking to institute vacancy penalties. Sometimes vacancies are necessary in support of longer term goals).
    • While Mahoney came to see the value in restaurants, he initially believed that too many restaurants decreased retail traffic. He discouraging landlords from allowing more than one food establishment per property and also once turned down a Starbucks because he thought it would compete with another cafe in the downtown. He didn’t like banks or financial companies because of the “boring face” they offered to passersby.

Putting it all together, this was quite a comprehensive and well thought out effort to revitalize the downtown and by every indication it worked extremely well. Today West Hartford supports over a hundred retail and service-oriented businesses and continues to pull visitors from throughout the region. It maintains strong retail leasing fundamentals (low vacancy rates and high rental rates) and a good mix of both national chains and mom-and-pop stores. As a subconsultant to FHI, the planning firm leading an update of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, we are thrilled to play a role in developing the market research and planning tools that will help ensure that West Hartford Center sees another decade of success. As we develop strategies for the next ten years, you can rest assured that the legacy of Robert Mahoney will continue to guide our efforts.

Larisa Ortiz Associates is a full-service retail planning firm. For more information on how we can help your downtown or mixed-use development, please contact us at info@larisaortizassociates.com or call us at 718-205-5116.