The city’s fading downtown dance and bar district on Allyn Street — just one nightclub remains open — is perched on the brink of a dramatic change that has been envisioned for decades.
“This is an area ripe for redevelopment,’’ said Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, pointing to the Hartford landmarks at either end of the two block street: the XL Center and Union Station.
The street is bookended by two recent apartment conversions: The Grand, on the corner of Ann Uccello and Allyn streets, and 179 Allyn, near Union Station. A third, at 103-121 Allyn, next to The Grand, is in the works.
The Allyn Street corridor also is gaining more attention with the arrival of the Hartford Line, commuter rail that will connect Hartford to New Haven and, by extension, to Manhattan, beginning in May. The commuter line also will connect Hartford to Springfield.
Freimuth said the commuter rail and contemplated expansion of CTfastrak bus service will make Hartford more connected and Allyn Street a more visible and important corridor. The area also lends itself to transit-oriented development that concentrates housing, shops and restaurants around rail stations, he said.
“Slowly [the development authority] has been working to stimulate reinvestment as part of a larger strategy to rebuild the XL Center area as well as improve linkage to transit systems,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, the planned reconstruction of the I-84 viaduct, still years away, will spell the end of the Union Station’s 120-year-plus history as a train station. There is agreement that a new use would need to be found for the historic structure. A new transportation center will replace Union Station as part of the I-84 project.
The transformation of Allyn Street is not coming without significant pain to nightclub and bar owners, however.
Three weeks ago, the Black Bear Saloon at 179 Allyn closed its doors after nine years, leaving Nv Nightclub, a dance club with hip-hop, reggae and Latin music, as the last nightclub on the street. Nv’s owner did not return a call seeking comment.
“It’s very upsetting, very sad,” Todd Kosakowski, Black Bear’s owner, said. “Basically, the business on that block had dwindled down to nothing.”
Allyn Street gained notoriety earlier this year when a Central Connecticut State University student fell from the rooftop of the now-closed Angry Bull Saloon.
While the street has had a few headline-grabbing shootings, police say those were not the norm. Most of the law enforcement attention was concentrated on late-night, alcohol-related troubles such as disorderly conduct and underage drinking.
Black Bear was under investigation by the state for underage drinking after a raid by city police. But Kosakowski insisted it was the neighborhood and not the investigation that led to the closing.
“No way,” Kosakowski said. “Go to any establishment, get that many people and it’s bound to happen.”
A Legacy of Nightlife
Allyn Street and Union Place, which runs in front of the train station, developed as a popular nightclub area as early as the 1960s and 1970s with the storied Mad Murphy’s. Later came a long line of clubs, including Bopper’s, Mezzanotte and the ’70s dance club Poly Esta’s.
The opening of The Brickyard Cafe on Allyn in 1995 marked a high-point for the street. The Brickyard boasted three floors with differing entertainment on each: a downstairs jazz bar, a second-floor dance club and sports bar on the top floor.
Its successors in the same space, the Palace and Pyur, never fared as well.
Hugh Russell, the longtime owner of The Russell restaurant on the corner of Trumbull and Pratt streets, was the force behind opening Pyur — its name a play on the word “pure” — in 2012.
He said he had hoped to attract a older, more mature demographic to downtown by offering a broader range of music, starting with the disco era. He even initially offered valet parking, but that was short-lived, he said.
“It was difficult to cater to that age group,” Russell said. Pyur closed in 2015.
Today, Russell said he believes tastes in downtown Hartford have moved dramatically away from nightclubs to bars with music, some with live performances.
“I see more of the sports bar without the dancing,” Russell said.
‘For Sure, No Bars’
Two buildings on Allyn Street that once housed bars and clubs such as Angry Bull and Pyur have been purchased by Paul Khakshouri, who plans 66 apartments in an $10.9 million conversion.
Financing is still being put together, but CRDA has committed $6 million in loans, money that has been approved by the State Bond Commission. Construction could begin next year.
Khakshouri, the owner of the nearby Homewood Suites on Asylum Street, has said storefront spaces in the buildings could be used for an espresso bar and an ice cream shop, but “for sure, no bars.”
The project would push the number of new apartments between the XL Center and Union Station to 155, further boosting the residential presence on the street. According to CRDA, occupancy at The Grand is 76 percent and at 179 Allyn it is 100 percent.
The redevelopment will be bolstered by the conversion of the long-vacant and nearby Capitol Center office building into 60 apartments, a $21 million project now getting underway one street over on Asylum.
For decades, Allyn Street has symbolized some of Hartford’s grander aspirations.
In the 1980s, developers sought to build what would have been the city’s — and New England’s — tallest office building. But they went bankrupt trying, leaving a parking lot as the project’s only legacy.
Then, in the 1990s, the same area was considered for a convention center because of its close proximity to the XL Center. The convention center ultimately was built at Adriaen’s Landing.
And, just a few years ago, Allyn Street was proposed as the site for the new University of Connecticut downtown campus. The campus opened in August at Front Street, instead.
The apartment conversions, however, are just one piece of the redevelopment puzzle. Allyn Street has broad expanses of parking. The development that could take years to unfold and may require public subsidy.
In addition, the view east from Union Station lands squarely on the bunker-like backside of the XL Center. A proposed, $250 million makeover of the arena is supposed to make the view more attractive, with glass that would show people circulating inside the arena. But the future of those renovations is uncertain given the state’s budget woes.
Along Union Place, storefronts that once contained a host of nightclubs and bars, like Bourbon Street North, now stand forlorn and empty.
Stephanie Cabral, an associate at Colliers International, the commercial real estate services firm, said the owners and manager of the space and the apartments above it now are looking for a new cross-section of tenants.
They are “committing to leasing only to retail tenants that benefit and complement their residential community and the central business district,” Cabral said.