Remembering the Shopping Mall

Westfarms Mall on a December Weekend Afternoon

Once upon a time, the shopping mall was at the top of the retail food chain. The mall was home to the best stores, and the most excitement.

Amy and I grew up in the mall era. Our small town (population ~25,000) had its own little mall that kids hung out in, but it was not comparable to the shopping destinations that are available in Greater Hartford. Both of our families made the hours-long drive to larger towns with bigger malls for back to school shopping.

Back in the day we went to the mall to buy clothes, electronics, and even tools at the anchor stores. There was always a toy store in the mall, but we usually weren’t allowed to go in there. And, of course, there were the delicious specialty food shops … Orange Julius anyone?

Malls haven’t dominated the retail environment for a long time, as big box stores sprouted up in mall-adjacent locations decades ago. The crowds that turn up during the Christmas shopping season are a nice reminder of olden times when it seemed like everyone was at the mall.

Spring Landscaping Boom

This boxwood used to be in the shape of a small Christmas treeThe crushing weight of this winter’s heavy snowfall is taking a heavy toll on area landscaping. After initially focusing on the potential damage to our own shrubs, I’ve begun to notice that others are experiencing similar problems. The subject even came up (unprovoked) at a recent dinner party we attended.

Here at Casa Bergqui, the primary issue is snow and ice cascading off the roof and onto the shrubbery along the front of the house. We have attempted to shovel out the plants to relieve some of the weight, but in retrospect that may have just set them up for another direct hit in the next blizzard. When the shrubs were brand new, we had deployed wooden A-frames over the top of the young plants to protect them from the dangers above. Two seasons of below average snowfall, and my concern about their lack of winter sun, gave me the confidence to skip that step last winter. It worked out well last year … not so much this year.

Shrub feeling the weight of the snowOther homes in the neighborhood have mature hedges at the front of their properties. Some species seem to be fighting off the snow quite well, while others appear to be struggling. Hopefully the damage looks worse than it really is because they will be very difficult to repair. I imagine it would take years to regrow a particular section to match the rest of the hedge.

This spring looks to be shaping up to be a very profitable time to be in the landscaping business. The damage caused by the snow and ice this winter will create lots of demand for new plants and services. And with the economy no longer completely in the toilet perhaps homeowners will be more inclined to spend on these sorts of non-essential items.

I wonder if it’s possible to corner the market on boxwood in order to profit on the coming landscaping boom?

Home Equity Lines – They're Alive!

bank-of-america-hartfordWho says there is no money out there to borrow against home equity?

After doing a little business with Bank of America in downtown Hartford the other day I was surprised to see a big sign in their lobby announcing Home Equity Lines with rates of 4.24% for $50,000 and $100,000 lines. The gentleman at the info desk assured me that not only was it still possible to get a home equity line, but that Bank of America has been offering them without interruption! I was not allowed to take a picture of the sign as proof, but I swear it exists. A quick search of the World Wide Web confirms that Bank of America is in the game, and shows that other lenders are also advertising home equity lines on their websites.

Home equity lines played a big role in our current financial crisis. Although they can serve a variety of purposes, many homeowners bet that home prices would continue to rise and used their line to extract all of the equity from their property. The cash in hand was spent on anything from home improvements to retiring more expensive debt to discretionary purchases with no enduring value. All the anecdotal evidence that I had seen suggested that banks either froze or cancelled outstanding home equity lines in an effort to manage the risk to their firm’s capital. The resulting reduction of available credit has been an inconvenience to some, and has actually hurt the credit score of others.

According to a local mortgage broker, home equity lines never completely went away. Instead the lenders simply became more conservative. They definitely froze and cancelled some lines, but at the same time they were still willing to extend new lines to very well qualified borrowers. If you had low loan-to-value ratios and good credit you have always been able to get a line. Lenders have also been changing their pricing. Where before they would offer a discount to Prime with no minimum rate, they are now charging a premium above Prime with a minimum interest rate of 4%. Finally, borrowers need to look carefully at the overall cost of a home equity line since very few people qualify for the advertised rates. Most borrowers end up paying additional points, fees, and/or expenses that increase the effective interest rate, or APR, of the line.

So it seems that the major financial institutions are still willing to add some risk to their portfolios. And we know that the government wants them to be lending despite being forced to provide considerable assistance to keep the institutions solvent. The underlying economic theory is the multiplier effect, which tries to quantify the overall impact of an additional dollar. In this case, each dollar that is loaned is spent and re-spent a number of times, spurring growth in the overall economy.

My conclusion after all of this is that although home equity lines are advertised as available, they might not be available to you. And even if you do qualify, the line may be more expensive than expected. As always, be careful when borrowing…

Bring Back Cheese & Stuff

dollar-worldWord on the street is that the Dollar World on Farmington Avenue in the West End of Hartford is moving. Actually it’s the sign in the window that says they’re moving, but word has spread through the neighborhood like the flu through daycare. The locals aren’t upset with Dollar World, it just had the misfortune of leasing the storefront that previously housed the West End organic food institution of Cheese & Stuff.

About ten years ago, organic grocer Wild Oats bought Cheese & Stuff. They promised to keep the local market in business but later went back on their word. The small local market was closed to reduce competition for their newer and larger Bishop’s Corner location in West Hartford. After years of boycotting the bait-and-switcher Wild Oats, West Enders celebrated the arrival of Whole Foods a few years ago, but have never completely forgotten the Cheese & Stuff.

One of my friends suggested that Kyle and I reopen the Cheese & stuff now that the old location is going to be available again. We’re currently focusing on other goals, but the idea of opening a neighborhood market seems like it merits consideration.

The community would certainly be supportive, there is sufficient parking, and the Wild Oats (Bishop’s Corner Whole Foods) seems to be on the path to either a sale or closing due to a national anti-trust decision. The Whole Foods is still just a few miles down the road, but a local fresh food grocery could be an attractive alternative to the Blue Back Experience or the Stop & Shop/Shaws combo further down Prospect Avenue.

The main challenge to opening an upscale market is that a foodie needs to have a big role. Without selecting the right items or the ability to inspire customers, the store could have trouble building a loyal following. But if any neighborhood can do it, then it is the West End. We have the talent to identify the right mix of products, and the good sense to appreciate the effort.

So who’s going to bring back Cheese & Stuff?

Hartford's Asylum Hill – An Auto-Free Option

The Asylum Hill neighborhood doesn’t get as much attention as some other areas in Hartford. For those not familiar with the city, Asylum Hill is a Hershey Kiss shaped neighborhood bounded by the streets of Sargeant on the north, Woodland to the west and I84 to the east and south.

Asylum Hill, Hartford

Having riden the bus down either Farmington Avenue or Asylum Avenue nearly every day over the past four years, I’ve gradually realized that Asylum Hill is perhaps the only neighborhood in Greater Hartford in which a resident could legitimately survive without a car.

Aetna SignFirst and foremost Asylum Hill has plenty of easily accessible job opportunities, with major employers like The Hartford, Aetna, St. Francis Hospital, and the Connecticut Culinary Institute all within walking distance. Beyond those institutions, there are numerous small businesses lining the two major streets. Folks willing to ride the bus can get to downtown, West Hartford Center, Westfarms Mall or the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield without needing to transfer.

Green Apple

The second critical factor is that residents can shop for the supplies they need on a day-to-day basis. With the opening of the Green Apple market on Farmington, residents are now able to get fresh fruits and veggies on a consistent and reliable basis. Other small markets and convenience stores are scattered throughout the neighborhood. There are a number of other eateries and specialty shops on Farmington, and even a few fast food options. Household items may be more difficult to come by, requiring a half-hour bus ride out to the Westfarms area. Perhaps this is the time to mention that the neighborhood is very centrally located in the region, with excellent highway access. So convincing a friend with a car to take a quick trip to wherever should not be a problem.

Hartford ConservatoryThe neighborhood also has an impressive collection of cultural and community institutions. The Mark Twain House, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and Children’s Theater are all clustered on Farmington, with the Hartford Conservatory on Asylum. A number of churches, some of the most beautiful in the city, have prominent positions in the neighborhood. The recently renovated Hartford Public High School serves as a focal point in the community, and there is are a number of community gardens tucked in empty lots.

Asylum Hill HomesFinally, there are a wide variety of residential options. Many of the housing choices are either apartment or condo units in multifamily structures. Much has been made of the very visible and recently halted project that David Nyberg is doing on and around Imlay Street, and there appears to be other renovations underway elsewhere in the neighborhood. The northern part of the neighborhood has more single and multi family properties, though there are also plenty of options in larger buildings.

 

Asylum Hill is a complete urban neighborhood with jobs, retail, culture/entertainment and housing together in a walkable community. It’s time they got the recognition they deserve for being the best available option for the auto-free (or auto-light) lifestyle in Greater Hartford.