Looking south, you see a pond, wooded area, sports fields, and perfect six homes bordering the park. There might be a carnival set up or a youth baseball game in action. There are pedestrians and cyclists. If you turn to face north, you see a dodgy strip mall surrounded by a weedy parking lot wedged next to the interstate. The lot looks mostly abandoned. It seems distant for pedestrians, as there is no inviting pathway from Park Street. The most lively aspect of this side of the street is the hot dog vendor in the lot.
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This used to be the Bradlees-Stop & Shop plaza. Bradlees filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2000, and that was the end of that story. Stop & Shop, which had been in the plaza since 1968, left Frog Hollow for Parkville, right on the border of Elmwood, in 1994. At the time much was made of the fact that a larger grocery store was added to the city, though it was barely within city limits. Now, there is a Save-A-Lot in the plaza, which generally does not have the same appeal as a run-of-the-mill Stop & Shop, let aloe the snob appeal of Whole Foods. Some residents are turned off by the lack of brand variety and others have questioned the cleanliness of the store. Yet, others like it because of the prices and the ability to bag one’s own groceries. The lack of frills makes it more attractive to some nearby residents. There is also El Mercado and a C-Town on Park Street, both smaller than Save-A-Lot, but offering healthier options than convenience stores.
The official Pope Commons website deceptively announces that “these consumers are some of the most educated and affluent in the nation,” in reference to consumers within an eight hour drive of Hartford. The map on this same website is skewed; instead of placing Pope Commons right in the middle, they move it to the side, choosing to emphasize that West Hartford is nearby, even though this plaza is unlikely to appeal to West Hartford residents, who already have more than their fair share of grocery and home stores. They incorrectly mark the University of Hartford as being located on Farmington Avenue, a choice that can only be explained as an attempt to show that college students can easily access the plaza. The neighborhood that Pope Commons is in is in fact one of the least educated and poorest in the city– 48.6% of residents in this neighborhood have graduated high school and the estimated median income here is $17,333. Ignoring this little detail, the Pope Commons website boldly states that the average household income — of Hartford County — is $72,220! While this may have been true when this website was last updated (2006), it is misleading as to who is most likely to be visiting the strip mall. Westside Property Management — which demonstrates a fantastic ability to predict the future — states of the project:
Pope Commons will be the region’s most visited shopping destination. It will feature open air spaces, covered outdoor dining terraces, exclusive retailers and comfortable seating areas.
Pope Commons will be more than just another mall or lifestyle center — it will be a mecca for style, culture, and intellect.
Such statements transcend optimism and find themselves brushing up against delusion. An attraction for those in the immediate area? That sounds reasonable. An extension of the Park Street mecca that some do seek out? Why not?
The HBJ reports:
When work is fully complete around November, a Family Dollar discount store, along with a laundromat, a specialty-shoe retailer, a hair-and-nail salon will occupy a portion of the Bradlees space, he said. The first tenants are due to move in around August.
The Sav-A-Lot grocery store, anchoring 13,000 square feet in part of the former Stop & Shop space, will relocate into the former Bradlees space, he said.
Meanwhile, an upscale wine shop has signed up for the space Sav-A-Lot is vacating, he said.
Rewind to 2006. At that time, developer Carlos Mouta was quoted as saying that he wanted Pope Commons to house businesses that are ““Upscale — but they would also have businesses from Europe and South America, that would attract European-South American type of people, middle income and higher. I’m not going to have dollar stores there. It’s not going to happen.”
Now open in the plaza: Family Dollar, Home Mart, Save-A-Lot, Soapy Suds Laundromat, and yet another nail-and-hair salon. There is about one salon per block along Park Street. The plaza also has a medical-shoe retailer. The Hartford Business Journal reported in July that an upscale wine shop has signed on for the spot that Save-A-Lot is leaving vacant by its move from one end of the plaza to the other. It’s almost January and locals say that they heard about a discount package store, not an upscale wine shop. If this turns out to be the case, that will be just one more part of the plans for this space that have changed.
When in doubt, blame the economy. The Hartford Business Journal article implies as much, noting that Mouta “was sidetracked by the early stages of the economic slump.” While in the midst of the economic downturn, a Tiffany’s and Louis Vuitton, uber upscale, stores opened in the West Farms Mall. Such would fall flat here, but could we not woo Target or Kohl’s? Trader Joe’s or DSW? There are many options that could have been considered before installing another dollar store.
Westside Property Management did not respond to questions asked of them in early December.