Hartford city council rejects proposal to fine vacant storefront owners

The Hartford city council Monday night rejected a proposal that would fine the owners of long-term vacant retail properties $100 per day, a measure that raised alarms among landlords.

The proposed amendment to the city’s existing blight and property maintenance statutes was introduced Monday night by three council members and said any storefront that has been vacant for more than 120 days would be in violation and subject to fines and liens.

Hartford Business Journal first reported the proposal last week, noting that landlords, who were not consulted about the measure, said it was unfair, especially during a pandemic, and would make the city a less attractive place to do business.

Even before Monday night’s meeting, city council Democrats issued a written statement saying they didn’t support the measure. They noted it was proposed by Hartford Party Councilman John Gale with cosponsors Wildaliz Bermudez and Joshua Michtom, who belong to the Working Family Party.  

“Though we support the overall goal of activating dormant street level spaces we vehemently oppose instituting new fines, penalties, and/or taxes on our small business community during a pandemic,” the Democrats said. … “Our small business community needs our support now more than ever, but policies like those introduced by Councilman Gale will not get our city to where we need to be without leaving some behind.”

The city council then went on to reject the measure, with Gale, Bermudez and Michtom also agreeing not to move forward with it.

Gale said his goal was not to punish small businesses with his proposal but to get more landlords, particularly those holding long-vacant retail properties downtown, to be more creative with their empty holdings. 

The city council also announced it has formed a task force with the Hartford Business Improvement District, and other business leaders, to develop policies that support the city’s economic recovery “without imposing new harmful financial burdens.”

Reactivating storefronts

The proposed retail vacancy fines touched a nerve with many downtown landlords particularly on the heels of another controversial plan from Gale that sought to hike annual city fees on parking lot owners by thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

The council voted to indefinitely postpone the parking proposal, which had faced opposition from Mayor Luke Bronin, LAZ Parking and others.

Shelbourne Chief Operating Officer Michael Seidenfeld told HBJ last week that the city’s retail market had already been struggling before the pandemic, and that foot traffic has only deteriorated further as a result of COVID-19. In addition, landlords have no incentive to keep their storefronts dormant.

“Punishing property owners for vacant storefronts will not spur greater retail leasing activity,” he said. “No one is more motivated to lease vacant space and loses from  store vacancies more than the property owner.”

Seidenfeld said the city must pursue a multi-pronged strategy for strengthening its retail market and transforming Hartford “from a 9 to 5 city to a destination city” including a comprehensive marketing effort, business-friendly policies, a greater police presence downtown and less “bureaucratic red tape” for permit approvals.

“Coming on the heels of the parking tax hike proposal, this new proposed penalty reinforces the general perception that Hartford is anti-business,” Seidenfeld said. “The city needs to reassure people — through common-sense policies ‒ that Hartford is a place where businesses and entrepreneurship is welcomed and supported.”

Landlords and other city organizations also note that they have taken strides in recent years to try to reactivate vacant storefronts with various pop-up concepts and activities.

Some examples include, according to Tim Moore, an economic development specialist who has worked with Shelbourne and other landlords:

  • Pop Up Table Tennis Halls at 57 Pratt St. and 111 Allyn St., by Shelbourne and the Hartford Carriage House Apartments 
  • Art galleries and small performance venues like the Hudson at 57 Pratt St. and Indigo at 111 Allyn St., courtesy of Shelbourne and the Hartford Carriage House Apartments
  • An Irish heritage museum and family fun area at the last St. Patrick’s Day Parade at 26 Trumbull St. courtesy of Shelbourne and LAZ Investments. 
  • Pop Up Pie Shop at 50 Pratt St., a Northland property 
  • Holiday decorations on Pratt Street sponsored by Northland
  • Jazz concerts and pop-up multi-vendor retail shops at 64 Pratt St. for First Night Hartford, a Northland collaboration 
  • A stunning inside-out art storefront window art gallery, conceived of and built by Union Place Realty, curated by EBK Gallery, courtesy of Union Place Realty 
  • March Madness Activations like inside 280 Trumbull, a Shelbourne asset, or outside 64 Pratt St., a Northland asset including viewing areas, and a pop-up multi-brewery tap room that paved the way for what would become the beloved Bushnell Park Beer garden. 
  • Shelbourne provided half of the funding needed to bring free, enterprise-grade internet to Pratt Street this summer and fall. The project was supported by other property owners in the central business district through a sponsorship from the Hartford Business Improvement District. 

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