Bridgeport's East End hopeful as Honey Locust Square rises

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Maricella Concepcion in one word summed up her feelings about the new concrete foundation built across Stratford Avenue from her beauty salon.

“Happy,” said Concepcion, who has owned Dominican Diva on the East End for five years.

The concrete poured between Central and Newfield avenues will support a long-awaited grocery store and additional retail/restaurant/office space now expected to be completed next spring.

And that drab gray slab looks beautiful to a community that has for years awaited transformative economic development.

“It’s the first major project we’ve had in this community in a long time,” said City Councilman Ernie Newton, who represents the area.

“Maybe everything will change,” a hopeful Concepcion said.

It will, insisted developer Anthony Stewart this week. Having grown up in the East End, his Ashlar Construction was chosen by Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration in late summer 2018 to take on the long-planned transformation of a run down block of Stratford Avenue into what is now dubbed Honey Locust Square.

“I grew up with Mr. Stewart as a kid. We played Little League baseball,” Newton recalled. “He’s like family. And to see him wanting to come back... He’s probably one of the first homegrown minority developers to ever get a big job in our city.”

“A problem in a neighborhood like this is dis-investment,” Stewart said. “People have not been putting any money into the East End for years and years and years and years and years.”

Despite delays and the coronavirus pandemic, progress has continued at the Square. Stewart said the underground electrical and plumbing installation is complete and he plans to have “steel go up” on his commercial buildings “by the end of May.”

“I can tell you with absolute confidence we expect sometime next year, sometime before June or so, to be able to start opening parts of it,” he said.

Meanwhile the adjacent new library on Newfield Avenue, which Ashlar was hired by the library board to build, is much farther along with an anticipated opening by this summer.

Stewart said he is already noticing the positive impact the entire redevelopment is having: “When I drive down some side streets, I see people fixing up some of their properties. I see it being a catalyst for revitalization of the East End,” he said.

While Stewart has most tenants locked in, including Gala Foods, a health clinic, a pharmacy and Ashlar’s headquarters, it has been harder to lure a dining establishment than he had hoped, he said.

“I have spoken with at least six different restaurateurs,” Stewart said. And, according to him, beside the challenges COVID-19 has posed for that industry, all said they had reservations about attracting customers to the East End.

“They don’t want to invest on Stratford Avenue and not be able to get good enough business,” Stewart said. “In order for a restaurant to be successful, we’ve got to get people from all parts of Bridgeport and at least 10, 15 miles away.”

Stewart’s sales pitch is to “take the ‘third eye’ approach.”

“If you look through your eyes right now it looks like a lower income neighborhood. It doesn’t look too inviting,” he said. “But in the future, with all the investment me and people like me are going to do, that’s all going to change. It’s going to be livelier, vibrant, have beautiful buildings. (And) it’s going to be safe. ... They want to make sure it’s safe to be open at night.”

East End community leader Deborah Sims said, “every time you go by there you see something getting done.”

“COVID slowed us down a bit,” she said. “But we’re getting there.”

Ashlar was already experiencing delays related to environmental cleanup before the global health crisis struck Connecticut in March 2020, temporarily shutting down the economy to keep the public home and stop the illness’s rapid spread.

The impact to the construction industry not only set back Ashlar’s commercial venture along Stratford Avenue but construction of the Newfield Library, where ground was broken in summer 2018.

“It changed getting materials, manpower — working together — and inspections,” Stewart said. “The building officials were afraid to come out. ... The plumber didn’t want to work with the electricians and the electricians didn’t want to work with the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) guy.”

And suddenly items like flooring tile produced in Italy “dried up,” he said.

“We had to substitute different stuff. It took us months,” Stewart said. “But it came out gorgeous.”

He said he expected to receive a certificate of occupancy and turn the building over to the library board this month.

Assistant City Librarian John Soltis this week said “once we get the (occupancy certificate), we’ve got books, computers and furniture to go in. We’re going to have a soft opening (and then) a formal, large, celebratory opening probably mid- to late summer.”

Library Board Chairman Jim O’Donnell said the new Newfield structure ran about $1 million over budget — from $6.2 million to $7.2 million. But, he said, the new building alone is “going to be transforming for the people in that neighborhood who have waited decades — generations — for a decent library. It’s a great place. We’re anxious to get it open.”

Keith Williams is head of the East End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, a community organization closely involved in planning for the future of that section of the city.

Anyone who has ever spoken to Williams knows that he can be skeptical when it comes to city hall and developers keeping their promises, having been burned in the past. But even he is sounding more sure that this time is different.

“It’s starting to feel real,” Williams said of Stewart’s efforts. “It’s been a slow process. We understand, COVID and everything. But we’re still hopeful. It’s going to be the center of the East End, to start reviving the East End, bringing it back. It’s been a long time coming. A long time.”