The Renaissance of West Hartford Center has been fueled in large part due to the vibrant - not to mention cutthroat - restaurant business.
Two more restaurants - Avert on LaSalle and Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Blue Back Square - are expected to open in the Center in mid-October, adding to the eclectic choices of burgers, bistros, Italian, Mexican, high-end or casual.
With so much to choose from, it’s hard to believe that as recently as the early 1990s, there were hardly any restaurants in the Center.
Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said that at one time, opening a restaurant in the Center was nearly impossible, due to the town’s zoning regulations.
Specifically, Van Winkle said in a telephone interview that the old ordinance required retail stores to have one parking spot for every 150 square feet. But restaurants were required to have one parking spot for every table in the establishment, Van Winkle said.
“If a retailer closed in the Center and a restaurant wanted to come in, there would not be enough parking credited to that store to transform it into a restaurant,” Van Winkle said. “They needed additional parking, and there was no way to do that. That ordinance kept restaurants from showing up.”
The end result was that only a handful of eateries were in the Center.
Van Winkle said that, at that point, town officials proposed changing the zoning ordinance so that restaurants could swap in for retail establishments that went out of business without adding parking.
“Pop, all of a sudden, they weren’t prohibited from [coming into the Center],” Van Winkle said.
Another zoning change allowed for outdoor dining, despite opposition from neighborhoods with single-family residences in the Center that feared that property values would plummet.
That zoning change actually had the opposite effect, with property values of single family residences going up.
“Despite all commercial growth, the residential area around the center grew more than anywhere else in the community,” Van Winkle said.
The increased restaurant business led to increased pedestrian traffic in the Center at extended hours, Van Winkle said.
At the time, at 5 pm. no one was there; retail stores weren’t open,” Van Winkle said. “We tried to persuade business owners to stay open later. But we couldn’t get business owners to want to spend the extra dollars to generate business at night. Without the restaurants, the Center was basically closed at 5 or 6 in the evening.”
Now, a Saturday night in West Hartford Center is as busy as any daytime hour.“It’s really made a huge difference to West Hartford, its center and the popularity of the community,” Van Winkle said. “West Hartford is now recognized as vibrant, alive place. It’s driven by all commercial neighborhoods, but the Center in particular. We talk about a brand, this West Hartford brand. It’s clean and safe, with quality schools and a commercial image with a successful Center that people from all over come to shop, to eat, to walk, to meet friends. That’s the brand we work to preserve.”