West Hartford Center has some additional – and brand new – residential development. It’s actually a mixed-use development, where Robert Udolf has transformed two floors of former medical offices at 8 Ellsworth Rd. into 8 Pegasus Place. Udolf also owns the building at 1150 New Britain Ave. in Elmwood where build-out is underway for Frida that will open in the former Tapas space.
A whirlwind of emotional response from residents and the rise of community’ efforts to save The Crown Market has yielded a positive result. A group of community leaders including Henry M. Zachs, Ala Lazowski, Brian Newman and Leonard Udolf announced Friday, Feb. 28 that a deal has been finalized to keep the 74-year-old business that has become a West Hartford landmark in operation.
Owner and business operator Mark Bokoff made the announcement that the store would close Feb. 18. He said in a statement, “If there were any other option, we would most certainly stay to serve the community we truly love. However, there are moments, passion aside, when you simply can’t fight the progress of time. For a family-owned kosher market, with more than a half-dozen national chains in all directions, its time for us to say goodbye.” He cited an increase in competition, prices and this years’ difficult winter as reasons for the decision to close the store. Over the days that followed, the community erupted with an overwhelming response of surprise and sadness with residents taking to social media, pleading that a way be found to save the store.
Fans created a “Save the Crown” Facebook page, and others began a petition to keep the store open on change.org. On Feb. 28, Lazowski said in a press release that a new 25-year lease had been signed with Udolf Properties, the owner of the building.
“Leonard Udolf and Robert Udolf immediately came forward with an extremely generous lease agreement that will dramatically lower our operating costs, which is vital to the success of this venture,” Lazowksi said. “The Udolf’s spontaneous generosity and the investors’ support have made this project a reality.”
For his part, Leonard Udolf said in the release, “We simply could not stand by and let this store just close its doors. It has been a pillar of our community for generations. By offering well-below market rates, we’ve now ensured that The Crown Market will survive. This is not a business deal for us. It is a matter of all of us working together toward a common goal. We felt that it was critical to preserve traditions that we hold dear.” Bokoff said he will work with the new owners “to ensure a smooth transition.”
An announcement posted on the store’s Facebook page reads in part, “Today, we can say that The Crown will shine brighter than ever, for some time to come. Even better, we can say thank you to everyone who has taken the time to show their support for The Crown Market and what it means to you. You have spoken with us. You have written letters to the editor. You have signed petitions. And you have, to put it simply, saved us.”
When Zachs, Lazowski and Newman first announced their plans to seek a way to keep the store open, they said the idea would be to put the market on “strong financial footing” as well as to modernize the facility to make it “more relevant to the current shoppers needs.”
Operation of The Crown Market will continue without interruption they said last week, and the store will be stocked for Passover beginning March 9.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to relocate to this site here in West Hartford and look forward to serving this community for many years,” Reed said. “We are confident that this will be one of the finest medical offices in the area and one that will be a tremendous asset to the local community and beyond.”
West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka shared Reed’s and Udolf’s enthusiasm for the project, saying the he was glad to see a piece of property that has long been unused by the community become something that will benefit all of West Hartford.
After 70 years, a successful family business was done in by a “puff pack.”
That’s how Leonard Udolf, owner of Udolf’s Clothier’s, described the smoke from a faulty heating system that ruined most of his inventory 14 months ago at his store at 553 Farmington Ave. Renovations were begun, but after several months, Udolf decided not to reopen the store.
Its closing marked the end of a family clothing business that began when Udolf’s father, Eli, started it in 1929 in a three-family house on Albany Avenue.
Udolf, a West Hartford businessman with extensive commercial real estate holdings throughout central Connecticut, said he decided to retire from the clothing business so that he could pay more attention to his properties.
“I’m so heavily involved in my real estate I can’t devote the time to running the clothes business,” Udolf said. “It’s just that time.”
He plans to lease the Georgian-style building to West End Eye Care, which has been located across Farmington Avenue from his store for nearly 22 years.
Jerry Hardison, an optometrist, hopes to relocate to the former Udolf’s building within te next two months. Hardison will merge his business with Paul Werdell, who has operated a downtown eye-care business for more than 25 years.
The two optometrists will have six assistants and provide a wide range of services, including examinations, treatment of eye disease, contact lenses, low vision care, laser vision consultations and an eyewear dispensary.
Hardison said the building will be renovated to be accessible to the handicapped and will retain many of the old mansion’s interior features.
Visitors will still be able to see the distinctive building’s wooden floors and mahogany doors and fireplaces. In the 1920s, the mansion was the residence of Gov. Everett J. Lake.
“We’re trying to merge the old with the new. I think it’s a very unique spot,” said Hardison, whose new space will provide double the room of his current 2,000-square-foot office. “This should be great.”
David Lillibridge, business coordinator with the Farmington Avenue Business District, said the relocation of the eye-care business is an addition to the new economic development projects in the West End and will prevent the closing of a landmark building.
“This is a great asset to the neighborhood,” Lillibridge said.
Udolf bought the distinctive building in 1967 and later had a 1,000-square-foot addition built for a big-and-tall men’s department.
The shop attracted a following, Udolf said, and customers included many professional athletes, who shopped at the store when visiting Hartford because it carried special sizes.
Udolf said he hopes to rent the second floor of the building and provide additional parking by demolishing a carriage house behind it.
He recently moved his West Hartford office from the Amory Professional Building, 836 Farmington Ave., to a building he owns at Bishops Corner at 2475 Albany Ave. According to the October 1999 grand list, Udolf is one of West Hartford’s leading taxpayers, with holdings of office, retail and apartment buildings assessed at more than $12 million.
Among his other West Hartford properties are the Stop & Shop plaza on Farmington Avenue, other commercial and office buildings on Farmington Avenue and South Main Street and apartment buildings on Loomis Drive and Sedgwick Road. He also owns apartment complexes in Avon, Simsbury, Farmington, Newington and Rocky Hill and commercial properties in Windsor, Manchester, Rocky Hill and Hartford, including the Brownstone Building at 190 Trumbull St.
For 27 years, a distinctive building at 553 Farmington Ave. has been home to a local men’s clothing store. But have you ever wondered about the history of the mansion that houses Udolf’s Clothiers? In October 1967, Leonard Udolf bought the Georgian style building where a dance school, an automobile club and the forerunner of a country club used to be. Even earlier, in the 1920s, the mansion was the residence of Gov. Everett J. Lake and Lake’s family. “We got it within a week of the wrecking ball,” Leonard Udolf’s son, Robert said. Robert Udolf said his father made a last-minute deal with the property owner who thought the land was more valuable than the deteriorating building. “I was looking for a new location and it was just by chance that I saw this building with a little sign on it for sale,” Leonard Udolf said. “I visualized immediately this could be an interesting building and unique for a men’s retail clothing store.” Leonard Udolf’s father, Eli, started the clothing store in 1929 in a three-family house on Albany Avenue.
Inside the building, wood floors and mahogany doors and fireplaces were in good condition. Leonard Udolf preserved the mansion’s interior features and added a marble foyer and carpeting.
Udolf also enclosed the wrap-around front porch, adding windows in which to display designer suits and sportswear. Shortly after Udolf’s opened at its new location, a woman who introduced herself as Gov. Lake’s daughter visited the store and told Leonard Udolf she was pleased the home she grew up in was not going to be demolished. She asked to see the attic and her childhood bedroom. Leonard Udolf brought her to the third floor where the wallpaper, although faded with age, still is decorated with children playing with balloons. The woman told him about a secret passageway, but he has not been able to find it.
Leonard Udolf added a 1,000-square-foot addition to the east side of the building and in back to make a big-and-tall men’s department. He decorated the house with antiques he has collected, such as a figurehead for the bow of a ship, carousel horses and carved furniture. Members of the store’s sale staff have been with Udolf’s for more than 20 years, and they know many of the store’s customers by name. “We have customers who have shopped here for years and years,” Leonard Udolf’s daughter-in-law, Danielle Udolf, said. “Leonard Udolf designed this store. This is his taste, his vision,” she said.
WEST HARTFORD’S evolution from farming to affluent suburb began in 1854 when it broke away from Hartford and incorporated. Its current population of 61,000 has been well-served by several shopping centers; a few reliable industries, including Pratt-Whitney, Coleco and Colt Firearms, help keep the tax rate from becoming burdensome.
But in 1974, when the 1.4 million-square-foot West Farms Mall opened in Farmington, many of West Hartford’s merchants moved to the mall, plunging the town’s most fashionable shopping enclave, along Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road, into decline.
“It got really shabby, taken over by Army-Navy stores and 99-cent movies,” said Staci Thompson, market research coordinator for Cushman & Wakefield Realtors in Hartford.
The setback lasted a decade. The novelty of West Farms Mall wore off and traditional shopping in downtown Hartford became a nightmare of traffic jams, parking shortages and a shrinking number of retail establishments displaced by office buildings.
“We started becoming fashionable again about four years ago,” said Erica Healey, owner-manager of a Benetton store in The Central, a shopping arcade in West Hartford named for the theater building in which it is located. The block-long building is one of several properties gutted and renovated by Leonard Udolf, a local real estate operator.
“At least 20 new shops have moved into this area, catering 50 percent to local customers, the other 50 percent from Hartford and the surrounding towns,” said Ms. Healey.
Mr. Udolfs grandiose, eclectic style of renovation does not appeal to everyone.
“Some people think it’s excessively ornate, but others think it’s beautiful and are grateful for it,” said Carol Way, executive director of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce. “This community is very cautious about expansion. That’s why Mr. Udolfs preservation of old buildings is so acceptable. It keeps a village look.”
Mr. Udolf describes it as “a European look,” saying he wants "the feeling of Harrod’s in London
and the shopping arcades of Italy." He incorporates architectural antiques and artifacts into his renovations, buying objects on his travels, or selecting them from photographs sent by such
dealers as Urban Archeology, Irreplaceable Artifacts and Great American Salvage in Manhattan.
The Town Assessor’s office estimates that Mr. Udolf owns more than $12 million worth of West Hartford’s commercial and residential real estate, including a dilapidated, turn-of-the-century armory that he transformed into an imposing colonial-style office building and a block of nondescript stores on LaSalle Road that he redesigned in limestone and antique wrought iron.
“In the aggregate he is probably our largest individual taxpayer,” said Donald Foster, the town planner, “but he is not a developer. He purchases, renovates, rents and manages buildings ¬about 30 of them.”
“I wanted to be an artist,” said Mr. Udolf, “but I went into my father’s tailoring business in Hartford.” Shunning architects and interior decorators, he designs his own projects because “I like my own ideas.”
His first restoration was of a 1920’s mansion on Farmington Avenue. He bought it in 1968, after his father died, and installed Udolfs men’s clothing store in the elegantly refinished rooms. “I’ll never give up the store, but real estate is my principal business,” he said. “I have a vested interest in keeping my town beautiful.” There are those who believe his efforts were the catalyst that revived the retail trade; others think it would have happened anyway. “The mall didn’t have what people in these affluent towns wanted,” said Ms. Healey of Benetton’s. “When The Central opened in 1984, they were ready to come back.” Anne Marie Powers, marketing director of the West Farms Mall, said that “the average income of West Hartford, Farmington, Avon and other towns within a 12-mile radius is around $65,000.”
“In 1984, when a number of our leases expired,” she said, “we brought in Lord & Taylor, Williams-Sonoma, Brooks Brothers - the kind of stores that were wanted - and we worked with the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce to see that we complemented rather than competed with each other.”
“On a nice day,” Mr. Udolf said, “I see people strolling along Farmington Avenue, as they did 20 years ago, going in and out of the shops. They are older now, well-off, still living in their large houses. They don’t like to shop out of town.”
Fifty percent of West Hartford’s residents are in the 40 to over-70 range, but that is changing.
Some portable classrooms were installed recently in the schools, and there is talk of reopening two elementary schools that closed when enrollments declined in the early 80’s.
“We have very little room for growth,” said Mr. Foster. “There are no large tracts of land, and every new proposal is hotly contested.” Raising the four-story height limit to eight stories is a concession under consideration by the planning and zoning commission.
The four-story Town Centre, West Hartford’s largest commercial building, is under construction at 29 South Main Street by the Sard Corporation, a 20-year-old local development firm. It will contain 144,000 square feet of offices, 40,000 square feet of retail space and an 800-car parking garage.
Commercial rents, at around $25 a square foot, are $5 a foot less than in downtown Hartford, and vacancies are rare. “We’re in the Hartford market, but without the traffic and parking problems,” said Mr. Foster.
Were it not for his passion to beautify, Mr. Udolf said, “I could lease without doing anything to the buildings, there is such a demand for space.”
In addition to his West Hartford holdings, he has acquired properties in East Hartford, Avon, Wethersfield, Windsor, Rocky Hill, Newington, Hartford, Simsbury and Farmington, but not in other sections of the state. “I only tread where I know,” he said. His latest inspiration is a set of five wrought-iron, antique balconies from Belgium. “They cost $4,000 each, or $2,800 more than it would cost for my local iron man to make up something simple, that couldn’t compare,” he said. The balconies will adorn a 10,000-square-foot building he just bought for $1.8 million on Farmington Avenue.
“French doors will open onto the balconies,” he said. “It will be beautiful, like the Place de l’ Opera in Paris.” Named for a theater building Mr. Udolf renovated using some of the artifacts he bought (NYT/Steve Miller)
Partridge Square, a 33,000-square-foot combination retail and office building is located on the Silas Deane Highway where the Porter Chester School at 2139 Silas Deane Highway and the Creative School of Hairdressing at 2119 Silas Deane Highway used to stand. “Partridge Square was designed to be very plush,” owner Robert Udolf said. “It’s not going to be your traditional glass building.”
He added that it will be decorated with a salmon-colored Italian marble inside and antique light fixtures on the exterior. Keystone head figures will be hung over the arches of each retail store on the first floor and antique brick will decorate the outside of the building. The owner also said a restored light fixture from a Chicago Mansion will hang in the atrium. He added there could be as many as 10 retail stores and that he is currently negotiating with businesses who can lease as much of the space as they want.
“We have been overwhelmed with tenant inquiries,” Mr. Udolf added. Already leasing some of the space on the second floor is a large law firm and a large architectural firm. There also may be a bank on the most southern corner of the building as there is drive-through feasibility.
The owner said parking will surround the building and larger lots will be on the back on the side. “We are sparing no expense on the building,” Mr. Udolf explained. “If I didn’t have the confident in Rocky Hill I wouldn’t be spending the money. The town deserves it.” The owner said Partridge Square which should be finished by January of 1989 will be similar to the Central Mall in West Hartford, another Udolf Properties building. Mr. Udolf also owns Sprucewood Apartments in Rocky Hill, the West Hartford Armory and the Brownstone Building in Hartford.
It all started about 20 years ago with one young man’s innate love of art and antiques, the need for more space for a men’s shop, and a grand old house that was about to be demolished. The house had been built around the turn of the century, but had deteriorated, almost completely, to where little of its original grace and elegance remained. It had once served as residence for Connecticut’s Governor Lake in the early 1920s, but as the neighborhood changed and “went commercial,” the structure had not been kept up. For a while, it served as home to the Soby Dance Company, then to AAA, then was vacant for a long period of time. Finally, it was slated to be torn down within a week. Enter a young man, Leonard Udolf, who recognized the hidden beauty in the structure, and bought it to house his expanding clothing store for men. That was the beginning – Leonard Udolf’s first reconstruction project.
Udolf’s loyalty and commitment to West Hartford, coupled with his in-depth understanding of the retail trade, make him uniquely qualified to pursue some of the most extensive renewal projects that this town has seen. As one of the largest property owners in town, he is sensitive to the impact his projects have on the neighborhoods and on the character of West Hartford. Two of Udolf’s most visible West Hartford projects are the Central Mall and the Armory Medical Building, both on Farmington Avenue. “I live in West Hartford, and my children went to school here,” Udolf said. “I believe that West Hartford is one of the most beautiful towns in New England. It deserves elegance, and to be able to live up to its potential. I think my projects have enhanced this community, and served as catalysts, encouraging other investors to restore and upgrade their properties.” He adds, “A number of merchants have opened up shops here, who, without these reconstruction projects, might have gone into other communities instead.”
On May 5, 1985, the Commercial Record reported: “The West Hartford Chamber of Commerce last spring issued a somber report, which concluded that the government’s consistent stand against development has cost the town a significant amount of revenue and hurt its reputation in the business community. Coming off that report, the town began drafting a study of its own, which so far has identified West Hartford Center as one of the most underutilized areas of the city.”
Based on a comparison of the value of buildings with the value of land on which The West Hartford projects he has completed, reflect this thinking. The Central Mall has 100-year-old keystone heads decorating the façade, which were once part of buildings torn down in New York and Philadelphia. Cast-iron ornamental window frames from another Philadelphia window framer from another Philadelphia building house the directories for the complex. The century-old coach lamps outside were salvaged from a Chicago hotel, and the hand carved wooden arches inside from an old mansion in New Orleans.
Westfarms Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in Connecticut, is located on the West Hartford line. It has, in the past, drawn shoppers away from the town center. But today, the center is prosperous, and its business center attractive and busy.
Leonard Udolf’s vision for West Hartford Center was a place of magnificent buildings which “evoke the elegance of the past and herald the convenience of the future.” He says of what he hoped to accomplish: “I want to contribute to the core of beauty of the place where I live, and have my projects be an asset to the community.”
The report concluded that the area has “. . . an unusually high occurrence of underutilized parcels for a central business district. Reinvestment in many town parcels would appear to make economic sense from the perspective of the private sector.”
Udolf clearly agreed with the findings of this 1985 report and proceeded accordingly. His vision of West Hartford Center has been to give it as much of a unique personality as Bond Street in London or Opera Square in Paris. “I have always felt,” says Udolf, “that the people of West Hartford are involved both socially and economically with the Center, and that it should convey quality and beauty.”
Some collectors keep their collections on the mantelpiece; others build cabinets to display them. West Hartford clothier and real estate investor Leonard Udolf constructs whole buildings around his.
Most of Udolf’s buildings are upgraded shops or small shopping centers. Some are recycled old buildings that used to have a different function. The Central Mall in West Hartford Center, for example, was a movie theater. Today it contains luxury shops and upstairs offices. I spent time eavesdropping there. One woman, showing around a visitor, passed under the old, triangular Central marquee and into the marble interior. Here, she announced, was “Trump Tower, West Hartford.” Opinions around town seem to be divided as to whether the new mall it too glitzy/gaudy, especially for some who remember the humble neighborhood business district of the past.
The West Hartford Armory started out in 1913 as a stable for the Governor’s Foot Guard. Many of us recall the years it housed antiques shows, book sales, and pancake breakfasts. Today udolf Properties has its offices there. A marble atrium and Parthenon-style portico disguise the building’s horsy history. Udolf collects such architectural artifacts as chandeliers, sconces, torchères, ornate cast-iron arches, terra-cotta tiles, and keystones – the topmost part of an arch. He buys used brick in quantities. Then he stores them all until he finds a place to use them. He is ever on the prowl for acquisitions, but Udolf doesn’t poke around local demolition sites. Most of the artistic and ornate pieces come from specialty auctions around the country and from international dealers. (A gleaming bronze wall mounted mailbox in the Central’s lobby had been in a New York office building and cost more than $4,000.) Restoration, including making missing pieces, refinishing wood, and polishing metals, is a major expense.
AVON — West Hartford developers have applied for a zone change as part of a plan to enlarge, renovate, and gentrify Tri-Town Plaza, the aging shopping center that town officials consider the ugly duckling of Route 44 developments.
Leonard and Robert Udolf want to "transform the 30-year-old, mostly vacant Tri-Town Plaza into a gleaming, modern complex holding upscale retailers. To hold parking for the enlarged plaza, the Udolfs are applying to change slightly less than half an acre of residentially zoned land to commercial zoning.
“It’s too prime an area not to have a magnificent structure, and that’s what I’m planning to do,” Leonard Udolf said Thursday.
But the neighborhood is concerned about traffic the enlarged plaza could generate, commercial encroachment and whether the Udolfs will maintain their remodeled property, said Betty Ross, a member of the neighborhood association.
The planning and zoning commission will hold a public hearing on the zone change Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in town hall and will likely review the project’s site plan at that meeting, said Town Planner Michael K. O’Leary.
O’Leary said the plaza “is in dire need of upgrading.” The Udolfs plan to add a new, sloped roof, brick facing and bay windows to the plaza, along with 7,660 square feet of space at the rear of the existing 17,000-square-foot building. Leonard Udolf, who also rebuilt the West Hartford Armory and the Central Theater in West Hartford into commercial space, said he would also add landscaping and improve parking at the Avon shopping center.
Tri-Town Plaza holds a pizza restaurant, a stereo store and a Cumberland Farms. Udolf said tenants with leases could stay in the plaza.
“I’m negotiating with many fine, upscale tenants” who want to lease space in the renovated complex, which “is going to be a very handsome structure that all the town’s people can be proud of,” Udolf said.
When the Udolfs proposed the change last September, many residents on adjoining West Ridge Drive on the Avon-Simsbury line said they were concerned about traffic and the commercial encroachment of a residential area.
Those concerns are still there, said Ross, who lives in Simsbury. “In this corner of Avon and this corner of Simsbury, people are tired of seeing commercial property infringe on residential property,” she said.
Ross said residents also are concerned whether Udolf will take care of the rejuvenated plaza. “He’s owned [Tri-Town Plaza] for over a year and it looks like a ghetto.”
Udolf had proposed rezoning a full acre lot to commercial use, but the planning and zoning commissioners said they did not favor changing the full lot to commercial land.
The planning and zoning commission will have to decide whether the proposed zone boundary which would go diagonally across the lot – is the proper boundary between the neighborhood and the commercial development, O’Leary said.
The architecture of the building will show a European influence with arched windows and doorways in a brick exterior, Robert Udolf said…. The inside will be decorated with Italian marble walls and floors, along with several antique fixtures. “I am giving the building the architectural beauty that I think Rocky Hill deserves,” he said.
Where once horses trod on a dirt floor, there now rests Brecia Pernice marble. The only horse there now is a bronze statue.
The building, still under renovation but already with several tenants in its finished units, was once a National Guard Armory. It was purchased at auction in 1984 for $626,169 from the state after the state had announced initial plans to demolish the structure, which had become run down.
Developer Leonard Udolf, who bought the building, received approval to convert it into medical office condominium units, about half of which are filled, while the others undergo construction. In addition, the building will serve as home office for his retail and residential holdings under Udolf Properties.
The armory was constructed for $100,000 by the Governor’s Horse Guard, Troop B, in 1913. It later was occupied by the National Guard. The men of the Horse Guard raised the funds themselves.
Mr. Udolf said he chose to preserve the building for its historic value and plans to install a plaque in the main lobby in honor of the Horse Guard. He also hopes to restore a large poster which was found in a rear storage area of the men of the 169th Infantry Regiment who were stationed in Fuerth, West Germany in 1953.
Although some of the original roof girders remain, the interior now bears little resemblance to the vast, open floor of the old. There are two floors of modern offices, an Italian marbled floored and walled lobby and large potted plants. A chandelier from a mansion in Chicago will hang in the lobby, and two eagles which perch atop the brick posts at the entrance to the parking lot came from a municipal building in Paris, France.
The Puritan Bakery building will be getting a facelift. The building, constructed in 1954, is now undergoing renovations, said Robert Udolf of Udolf Properties. Udolf Properties has owned the building for 12 years. Puritan Bakery, which closed last year, was the main tenant when they bought it. Mr. Udolf said he has received much interest from other bakers, and he expects two or three other tenants to occupy the building. Diamond Pizza is staying in their end of the building and will be expanding another 500-600 feet. The building is about 6,500 square feet altogether.
Mr. Udolf said the façade will be antique brick with elaborate work on the top. The paint on the side of the building will match the façade, in a taupe color. He said he likes the antique brick, believing it gives the building a “classier look”. “It’ll be a big difference from what it was. It was a major eyesore on the Silas Deane Highway,” said Mr. Udolf. The brick will run along the side of the building, and the sides will have windows. The brick will run 15 feet wide and then there will be an eight-foot window on the side. “We’re totally changing the look,” Mr. Udolf said. There will be copper inlay over the doors. The scaffolding should be down this week.
He feels it is crucial to have the right mixture of tenants for the building. “The interest has been overwhelming/ A lot of interest has come from other businesses in town. (But) we want to get the right mix for the community. . . something that would be good for everyone,” said Mr. Udolf.
The original façade of the building was taken off, revealing a second façade underneath. The original façade was painted for a former tenant, Tweedy’s Laundry Miss. The façade came off three weeks ago. He said they should be done putting on the new façade at the end of this week. It will then take about a month to get the tenant work done, and the building will be operational at the beginning of May. The building will be similar to the Keeney Mall in Manchester, said Mr. Udolf. He said it will also have the same look as the mall near Poquonock Avenue in Windsor, which will be completed in July.
Udolf Properties received the TPZ’s approval for this renovation about two months ago. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for the project from the TPZ, he said.
Mr. Udolf said the building always bothered him, but one of the major factors of this new plan was that the Silas Deane Highway is also going to be renovated. Mr. Udolf thinks the building is in a prime spot on the highway. He said he could have left the building as it was, but decided it was a good time to renovate. “We thought the timing was good to renovate the building now, because it’s such an eyesore,” said Mr. Udolf.
Seymour Sard and Leonard Udolf are two of West Hartford’s, and Hartford area’s most prominent developers. They are each worth millions of dollars.
With their money and track record, they could buy and develop almost anywhere they choose. So why have they chosen to establish a substantial presence in Hartford Center?
“It’s very much like the old days in the downtown area,” said Mr. Sard. “People like to shop in this type of atmosphere.”
He spoke from the offices of the Sard Development Corp., located in the Center at 61 Main St. In addition, he owns Center property at 854 and 1001 Farmington Ave, 18 and 41 N. Main St. and 65 La Salle Rd. He recently purchased the land on which the Finast supermarket sits on South Main Street, directly across the street from Town Hall.
He remembers a time when the Center seemed to be growing old, when he was “the first one to put up a suburban office building” there some 30 years ago.
“As time has gone on, we’ve acquired a lot of property in the Center area. We have a very vested interest,” he said.
For Mr. Udolf, who owns business and residential properties in several area towns, the favorite challenge is to find an old building in need of renovation and convert it into a modern masterpiece. “Beautification” is a word he often uses in describing why he has purchased land and what he plans to do with it.
OF ALL HIS properties, perhaps his crowning achievement thus far is the conversion of the former Central Theater on Farmington Avenue from a vacant movie house to a modern mini-mall, with retail stores, professional offices – even an investment firm.
“In 1982, I saw that the Center was becoming a depressed area – the theater was vacant and abandoned, the adjacent property consisted of a drugstore which was dilapidated and an eyesore, and there were many empty stores. Stores were moving to the Westfarms Mall and no developing was being done in the Center.
“I felt that the Center, with its status, should be active and vibrant and should have a quality image. Therefore, I decided that improvement was necessary. I purchased the Central Theater and the Seidman property and I gambled millions of dollars to develop the Central Mall,” he said.
The changeover was dramatic. New brickface, elegant windows and even hallway chandeliers converted the rundown building to a showcase. He believes it was the turning point in heading the Center into its current prosperity and vitality.
Mr. Udolf also purchased a significant parcel of land and shops along the west side of La Salle Road. He plans to renovate the shops with an entirely new look and eventually build two or three stories above them of either office space or, perhaps, senior citizen housing.
Mr. Sard has seen change, as well.
“IT’S MORE OF a service area now than it is a retail shopping area, as it was in the per-mall days,” although many stores still exist, he said. He believes that the Center has in some ways replaced downtown Hartford as a prime retail district.
“We’ve taken a lot of businesses that were previously downtown and transplanted them here in the last 15 years. The labor market is good and the employees like it out here.”
He also noted that the Center is conveniently located near a major highway, I-84, and that there is not a fear of crime that exists in the city.
Many people are keeping a close watch on what he will propose for his Finast property. Those plans are still in the conceptual stage, although Mr. Sard has contracted with a well-respected architectural firm to devise plans, he hopes to present to the town before the year is out.
“Whatever happens there will be the keystone” to future development, he believes. “We plan to put up an office and retail center with a parking facility.” He also plans some retail stores as well.
There has been some concern, particularly on the part of senior citizens, with the announced closing of the food store. However, “I’m trying to find somebody with a market, who would become part of my Center plan,” he said. Mr. Sard recalled fondly the days of his youth when that space was occupied by Birnbaum’s, a neighborhood grocery store.
So, what do these two men feel is the charm of the Center? What keeps them actively developing here?
“I feel that the desirability and beauty of the Center is not in building towering buildings – but the Center should retain its elegant, suburban character and should not become a glass and amosite jungle like downtown Hartford has become. The height of all new buildings to be built in West Hartford Center should not exceed four stories and should retain the present character of the town,” Mr. Udolf said.
Mr. Sard remembers that when he first came to town in the 1950s, the look of the Center was more like that of a small village.
“We’ve been able to keep the village look and still progress,” he said. The mix is not only healthy, but it looks good.
West Hartford developer Leonard Udolf, who owns properties in several Hartford area towns, Tuesday purchased the Tri-Town Shopping Center on Route 44. The center houses nine retail establishments. The purchase price was $2 million. Mr. Udolf bought the center in partnership with his son, Robert. He said the property appealed to him because of its “prime location, visibility and easy accessibility from the road.” Mr. Udolf said he plans to maintain it as a retail use, but with some changes.
“What I’m going to do is modernize and beautify the property,” he said, to give it a “quality, elegant look.” In addition to this property, Mr. Udolf also owns in Avon the building which houses the El Torito Restaurant and the Avon Colonia Manor apartments. Robert Udolf owns the Sprucewood Apartment complex in Rocky Hill and is developing the Keeney Mall in Manchester. He is also constructing houses along Tunxis Road on the West Hartford-Farmington town line.
Leonard Udolf’s holdings include the Central Mall and Armory medical complex in West Hartford, as well as Udolf’s Clothiers in Hartford.
They’ll be community-type stores for the area,” Robert Udolf, 24 said Wednesday, “The building will have that old classic look to it…”
“When the highway, Interstate 384, is finished, this will be the focal point of the entire area,” Robert Udolf said. “I like Manchester, I think it’s the next area to be developed.”
The face of West Hartford is changing, as both new development and redevelopment of older buildings and properties can attest. One of the people playing a major role in this facelift is developer Leonard Udolf, owner of Udolf’s clothing store, as well as commercial and residential properties in Hartford, West Hartford, Wethersfield, East Hartford, Farmington, Newington, Simsbury, Avon, Rocky Hill and Manchester.
Mr. Udolf has developed the building which houses the Brownstone Restaurant in downtown Hartford; locally, he has developed the shopping plaza at the corner of Sedgwick Road and South Main Street, commercial property at 1234 Farmington Ave. and the 45 S. Main St. office building. He has plans to improve the property he owns on the west side of LaSalle Road, and the parcel on the southwest corner of the intersection of South Main Street and New Britain Avenue.
Pictured on this page are photographs of two of his larger local projects, the conversion of the old Central Theater into the modern Central mall, and the renovation of the former Armory at 836 Farmington Ave., into a medical office complex, the West Hartford Armory Medical Building.
Below left: workers inside the expanse of the armory; at left, the building as it looked when Mr. Udolf bought it; below, how the armory will look once completed; above left, the look of the old Central movie house; top, the Central as work progressed; above, the Central mall, three floors of retail and commercial space.
West Hartford is in a quandary. In order to keep its tax rate within bounds, it must expand its tax base. But the town is completely developed, with no open space left to accommodate new, revenue-producing developments. Municipal leaders have appointed a special development commission to study the problem and try to find solutions. Missing from the commission, however, is Leonard Udolf, arguably the one man in town who should be on it.
Mr. Udolf’s property holdings take up almost seven pages in the town’s 1984 grand list. He owns two commercial shopping plazas (one on the corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street that he recently purchased for about $500,000) outside the downtown district, and this week he will complete the $1-million-plus purchase of a large downtown block, 27-43 La Salle Road. With that acquisition, it is estimated that he will own about 15 percent of the buildings in West Hartford center.
Beyond that (and in addition to extensive holdings in other communities) Mr. Udolf owns the former West Hartford Armory, which he is converting to medical offices, several other office buildings, apartment complexes and a former movie theater on Farmington Avenue, which he is transforming into a luxury downtown mini-mall.
He owns a large chunk of the town, particularly the downtown, and because of those holdings, he will have an inordinate amount to say about future development in the town’s center, either by taking (or not taking) action, or by influencing others through his decisions. What Len Udolf does with his buildings is watched very closely by other property owners.
Howard Klebanoff, a Hartford lawyer and spokesman for a group of 12 investors who recently paid $1.2 million for a row of four stores near Mr. Udolf’s Central Mall, said his clients made that purchase because of the “pioneer work” Mr. Udolf has been trying to accomplish with his mall. “Udolf’s building was certainly a catalyst for us,” Mr. Klebanoff has said. “When I say it was a catalyst, I mean it certainly served as an example of what can be done.”
What can be done with the town is a question that municipal leaders, on their own, have been having difficulty answering. The tax rate is now hovering at about 47 mills and heading up, with no obvious expansion solutions in sight. Commercial development is already butting up against residential neighborhoods, and the neighbors are complaining. The only place to go is up, but zoning regulations currently prohibit buildings larger than four stories.
A special economic development commission appointed last spring has been studying the issues. But the Town Council is already considering scrapping that body, because members have complained it is ineffectual and lacks direction. Mayor Kevin Sullivan has proposed streamlining the commission and establishing a second committee of town volunteers. While not admitting a formal invitation, Mr. Udolf acknowledged that he has been asked to be a member of the proposed new committee, although he has not made up his mind yet whether he will serve.
It is likely, however, that if the new commission is formed, and a formal invitation is extended to him, Mr. Udolf will accept. A West Hartford resident, he sees the town as lacking the elegance it deserves and therefore not living up to its potential. And he wants to see that change.
So do a lot of other people. The West Hartford Chamber of Commerce last spring issued a somber report, which concluded that the government’s consistent stand against development had cost the town a significant amount of tax revenue and had hurt its reputation in the business community.
Coming off that report, the town began drafting a study of its own, which so far has identified West Hartford Center as one of the most underutilized business areas in the city.
Based on a comparison of the value of buildings with the value of the land on which they sit, the report concluded that the area has “an unusually high occurrence of under-utilized parcels for a central business district. Reinvestment in many town parcels would appear to make economic sense from the perspective of the private sector,” the report found.
Leonard Udolf obviously agrees. In addition to being a real estate entrepreneur, he is also the owner of Udolf’s Clothiers in Hartford (a business begun by his father in 1929), and so he thinks in terms of what’s good for retail business. Mr. Udolf is also an artist, having graduated from the Hartford Art School, and his visions of the city’s development potential reflect his dual interest in business and the arts.
“I feel that West Hartford Center plays a major role in the social-economic life of West Hartford people,” Mr. Udolf said. “I think the town should [be] upgraded, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Both Mr. Udolf and Mr. Kiebanoff said they think the proximity of the town’s center to Hartford, its limited traffic problems and air of prosperity will attract businesses as well as shoppers away from the city. Mr. Udolf said his Central Mall project has already lured a large legal firm away from its Hartford headquarters, although he declined to name the firm.
What West Hartford needs most, he said, is to change its image. On its outskirts is Westfarms Mall, the largest in the state, which attracts hordes of visitors daily, often drawing shoppers away from West Hartford Center. But the town proper is prosperous, and the central district should reflect that more than it does now, he said.
“I’m sparing no expense to bring a beauty to West Hartford Center. Not a lot of people really like to shop at a giant mall, and where West Hartford Center really caters to a more affluent crowd,” that’s the image it should project, Mr. Udolf believes.
His recent purchases, and plans for renovation and expansion, have spurred other businesses to spruce up their establishments and have brought investors into the town center. “Right now, we’ve got the people who want to spend the money, and they’ve got the money [to spend]. I don’t think we have any major problems,” said Robert Simmons of the Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Udolf’s efforts may also help change the West Hartford skyline. Having proven that renovations and development can be done responsibly and attractively, he has told the town that he wants to add several floors to his La Salle Road purchase. That announcement comes as the Town Council is considering changing the ordinance that restricts building heights, allowing a new maximum of six stories. Mayor Sullivan has cautiously endorsed the idea, warning, however, that he does not want West Hartford to become an “urban canyon,” Mr. Udolf doesn’t think things should go that far, only far enough to spur the town into reclaiming lost glory. “You can stay static, but there is a lot of room for progress here,” he said. “I’m not saying that building owners must do it, but I feel there is an obligation to improve,” he concluded. “These are prime properties in the best locations, and we mustn’t waste them.”
Beyond all his other West Hartford holdings, there is one property that has captured Leonard Udolf’s fancy like no other. The former Central Theatre, now the Central Mall, is his pride, a reflection on his aspirations for West Hartford in general. “This is class,” he says quietly. “You’ve never seen anything like this."
Quality attracts quality, he believes, and he wants to ensure that his downtown min-mall and offices meet the standards of the most scrupulous quality control inspector. So he is spending millions of dollars (he won’t disclose the exact amount) to collect architectural gems discarded from buildings that have been demolished across the country and in Europe.
From the tall brass lamps that used to light London roadways to the wrought-iron railings taken from the rubble of a New York City YMCA, Mr. Udolf is bent on fashioning a mall that is beyond modern architecture. He has highlighted the three-story building’s new modern colonial design with fixtures and ornaments from around the world, making the shopping mall almost a partial museum.
The mall is decorated with seemingly mismatched, but unmistakably complementary, odds and ends from buildings around the world. Mr. Udolf enjoys collecting the interesting odds and ends and has a variety of sources who keep him informed when a building of a particular style is slated for demolition.
“Any time I find anything interesting, I acquire it,” he said. “You may not be able to use it today but someday . . .”
Mr. Udolf acquired the theater building in 1980, buying it for $155,000 from the Hartford Federal Savings and Loan Association, which had foreclosed on the previous owners in 1976 and had let the building stand vacant for years.
He also purchased an abutting row of stores for $495,000, to which he added two floors to connect the properties. The upper stories will have about 35,000 sq. ft of office space, while the ground floor will have 14 retail stores and a restaurant. The completion date has been pushed back several times, but when it is complete, Mr. Udolf said the types of stores (furriers, jewelers and the like) will reflect the image of the mall.
On the building’s exterior, 100-year-old keystone heads decorate the brick façade, formerly part of buildings in New York City and Philadelphia. Cast-iron ornamental window frames from a Philadelphia building accent the building directory.
Lighting fixtures outside the mall are century-old antique coach lamps salvaged from a former Chicago hotel. A dark, grimy black when Mr. Udolf found them, they have been sandblasted to their original brassy luster.
Two of the mall’s interior stores have intricately hand-carved wooden arches, taken from a former New Orleans, La., mansion; the shop doors are stained mahogany with lead designs and beveled glass windows.
The four-antique lead-and-bronze chandeliers in the mall’s foyer are from another old hotel in Chicago. They hang elegantly over a floor made of breccia pernice, an imported Italian marble. The foyer walls will be covered with a peach-tinted mirror, accenting the floor and chandelier.
“These are thing I didn’t have to do to make a nice building,” Mr. Udolf said. “But they do make a nice building. The final result is a magnificent building which evokes the elegance of the past with the convenience of the future.”
WEST HARTFORD – Exactly 10 years ago after some predicted the new Westfarms Mall would suck the life out of West Hartford Center, property there is at a premium and new construction has hit an all-time high.
A new office building, a new three-story shopping mall and more than two dozen shops have been built, sold, renovated or expanded in the past 18 months, all in an area smaller than a couple of city blocks.
Several other major property owners and a new partnership, hoping to strike while the block is hot, are considering increases in the height of their buildings, possibly giving the quiet suburb a modest skyline.
“There’s more excitement, there’s more enthusiasm, there’s more investment than we’ve had for a long time,” said Robert W. Simmons Jr., president of the Chamber of Commerce. “there hasn’t been a surge like this since the center was first developed. That was 25 or 30 years aog.
News spreads quickly through West Hartford Center, and the excitement has become contagious.
Burton I. Cohen has barely touched a brick on this seven South Main Street stores singe he bought them in 1959. But recently he hired engineers to determine the feasibility of adding two more floors.
“I sense a new kind of vitality in the center,” Cohen said recently. “The winds are blowing the right way. The center is getting very hot."
“I didn’t want to do anything until I thought the climate was right,” he said. ”Now that it’s being done, I think it will work.”
Two weeks ago, a 12-member partnership paid $1.2 million for a row of four stores in the heart of the center – at the corner of Farmington Avenue and Main Street.
Howard Klebanoff, a Hartford lawyer and spokesman for the group, said they hope to add two floors of office space and a flashy new façade.
“I think we’re looking at the beginning of an awareness of the center’s value,” Klebanoff said. “Certainly that’s a big factor for us.”
Klebanoff said a key reason he and his partners bought the property was the pioneer work of Leonard Udolf, a Hartford area developer who is creating a retail-and-office complex [See Westfarms, Page C2] [Continued from Page C1] two doors from the Klebanoff group’s purchase.
If any one development has sparked the center fever, merchants and property owners say it is Udolf’s conversion of the former Central movie theater into a three-story shopping mall and office building.
“Udolf’s building was certainly a catalyst for us,” Klebanoff said. “When I say it was a catalyst, I mean it certainly served as an example of what can be done.”
Mayor Kevin B. Sullivan called Udolf’s project “a fine example of what many of us see as the type of caring commercial renewal which will keep our community moving forward.”
And barely a block west of Udolf’s building, a longtime center property owner, Seymour Sard, is almost finished with a new three-story, 17,000 square-foot building. The building’s retail space, on the first floor, opened this week and offices on the upper floors are to open later.
The center’s activity is a sharp contrast to the years when Westfarms Mall was a shiny new attraction. Then, many center merchants watched their customers drive three miles farther along Main Street to shop.
“When Westfarms was first conceived, everyone was a prophet of doom.” Cohen said.
Fear of the mall no longer haunts the center. Merchants say most of their customers have tried and not liked Westfarms, and there is a difference in the clientele.
Leslie Rottner is the owner of Leslie’s shoe store for women in the center.
“Westfarms Mall is like the McDonalds of clothing. It fills you up, but it’s not good for you.”
“Our customer, she doesn’t shop at the mall.” Rottner said. “They’re appealing to Middle America . . . I’m looking for the woman who wants to see something a little bit different.”
The heart of West Hartford Center, a two-block stretch of Farmington Avenue, LaSalle Road and part of Main Street is home to a few dozen small stores. They sell a variety of goods, including bridal wear, children’s clothing, books, gifts, records, hardware, toys, and baked goods.
Most merchants say the biggest reason they have survived is the area’s personality, a quality they say the center has and Westfarms lacks. Many center merchants live in town and some have known their customers for years.
Much of the center’s recent development has been office space and, although the market is relatively untested, a recent town study indicated there is a need.
The preliminary draft of the town Planning Department’s report on the center, released in July, concluded, “The total gross office space (199,249 square feet) is relatively low for a suburban business center of West Hartford’s size.”
Klebanoff and Udolf said they think the center’s proximity to Hartford, limited traffic and prosperous atmosphere will draw businesses from the city. Udolf said his renovation already has attracted a large legal firm away from its Hartford quarters.
Town officials also are spending a lot of time and money to encourage the center’s development, something uncharacteristic for a government that usually sides with residents against business in an effort to maintain the town’s suburban character.
Last spring, the Chamber of Commerce concluded in a stern report that the government’s consistent stand against development had cost the town a significant amount of tax money and its reputation in the business community.
Now, however, the town is in the midst of a three-year study primarily intended to determine how it can intensify development, thereby broadening its tax base, without changing the town’s character.
As a town, West Hartford has reached maturity, meaning most of the developable land is gone. Without a growing tax base, officials are concerned that homeowners will face persistent steep increases in their taxes.
The town’s study so far has identified West Hartford Center as one of the most under-utilized business areas in town.
By comparing the value of buildings with the value of the land on which they sit, the report concluded the area has “an unusually high occurrence of under-utilized parcels for a central business district.”
“Reinvestment in many town center parcels would appear to make economic sense from the perspective of the private sector,” the report said.
If the center’s plans have an Achilles’ heel, it is inadequate parking. A short time ago town traffic officials estimated that a multilevel garage would not be needed for almost five years.
With the recent development, however, town officials devised a temporary solution to the parking problems my removing the walls dividing some of the parking lots to create larger areas. They also hope to see construction of a garage started by next summer.
Klebanoff and his associates have proposed a garage behind their property, knowing that their dreams of a taller building are impossible without it. Udolf also has proposed a garage and town officials are looking at a third site.
Simmons, of the chamber, has asked for a garage as soon as possible, while center euphoria is still on developer’s minds. “Right now we’ve got the people who would like to spend the money and they’ve got the money. I don’t think we have any major problems.”