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A funky warehouse district—who's buying?

A 20-year wait to be discovered may finally be ending for New Haven's Ninth Square.

By Molly Ball

Mike Reichbart surveys Cafe Nine from behind the bar and pours a beer for a customer. "This place obviously doesn't make any money. My accountant has a nervous twitch," he says, laughing. "But that's not what it's about—it's the shared experience that's important."

Reichbart's bar at the corner of Crown and State streets, named after his lucky number, features live jazz, blues, or rock every night and a framed portrait of Jack Kerouac above the register. Now 52, he first opened at this location after graduating from Quinnipiac College in 1972.

The streets around Cafe Nine are empty all day, lined with overgrown vacant lots and elegant old buildings boarded up long ago. This is Ninth Square, ninth as in last, the last piece of New Haven's original nine-square town plan to come up for redevelopment. Bounded by Church, Chapel, State, and George streets, standing between Yale and Union Station, the area has been on the verge of something big for about two decades. According to city leaders, developers, and businesspeople, it's more on the verge than ever right now.

Back in 1972, it was relatively easy to open a business, Reichbart remembers. In those days, his bar wasn't the only thing on the block—it was surrounded by luncheonettes, retail stores, and light industry. There were people on the streets. "I bought this place for $17,000," with plenty of help in the form of loans from the city, he says. "Today, it would cost—lots of money. It used to be you could try something out and not be disabled for the rest of your life."

The empty retail storefronts around Cafe Nine testify to that risk. Most of them belong to the Ninth Square Partnership, a joint venture of two national developers: McCormack Baron & Associates, based in St. Louis, and The Related Companies, based in New York. The Partnership finished Phase One of its grand plan five years ago, constructing two major mixed-use structures and restoring 11 historic buildings to create 335 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail space. The project cost $86.6 million, of which $12.25 million was a Yale investment.

The good news is that people want to live in Ninth Square. The apartments, 56 percent of which are state-subsidized for low-income residents, have a waiting list. Brooks Allen, LAW '01, lives in one of the new buildings, where he and his roommate pay $910 a month for a spacious two-bedroom apartment with air conditioning and its own washer and dryer. "It's not too far from the Law School, it's close to the train station, and it's a nice, quiet area," Allen says.

The bad news is all those empty storefronts. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario: when all the storefronts have tenants, people will come to shop, and when there are shoppers on the streets, retailers will want to move in. But a single business won't generate enough pedestrian traffic to make the location viable for others, and without other businesses to support it, it will probably fail. In an area that looks dilapidated, it's hard to convince, say, two coffeeshops, three clothing stores, four galleries, an antique dealer, and a drugstore to take a gamble and move in all at once.

Nearly 20 years after New Haven first declared its intention to revitalize Ninth Square, it is still the least-walked section of the center city. But the situation is better than it looks. Destinations like Bentara and Royal Palace restaurants and the Gotham Citi Cafe nightclub are doing well. Tycoon's restaurant, Kinko's, and Dunkin' Donuts opened recently. United Way just opened a new office. A new mini-mart is slated to open within a month. The Knights of Columbus are even turning an old Crown Street building into their museum, and private investors have started to buy properties in the area.

New initiatives on the perimeter of Ninth Square may bring more people into the district, too. A new stop on the Shoreline East commuter railroad, which connects New Haven to its eastern suburbs, is slated to open near the intersection of State and Chapel streets in 18 months; the city hopes it will bring more pedestrians through Ninth Square.

The New Haven Coliseum, the clumsy arena that overlooks Ninth Square, has a new hockey team and new management. SMG, the world's largest manager of public venues, promises to stage more events and improve guest services. New Coliseum General Manager John Burnap has also called meetings with merchants to discuss cross-promoting with area businesses. "Hopefully people will not come to the Coliseum only for the event," Burnap says. "They'll bring their families, park in Ninth Square, and walk around or go to a restaurant beforehand."

There's a long way to go, but something is quietly happening in this quiet part of downtown. Is it finally Ninth Square's turn to flourish? The city and the developers insist that it is. But they've been saying that for a long time. Reichbart points northwest from Cafe Nine, toward the Green and Yale. "When you drive into New Haven," he says, "the signs that say `Downtown' point that way." A glimpse of the future For a few weeks last June, Ninth Square gave a preview of what its boosters dream it will become: an arts mecca. Thousands flocked to the second annual City-Wide Open Studios, a three-week showcase of 250 local artists, the largest event of its kind on the East Coast. In the Chamberlain building at Crown and Orange streets, visitors could view one work by each artist and then pick up maps of studio and gallery locations all over the city. "The idea is, people walk around and familiarize themselves with Ninth Square," Open Studios organizer Helen Kauder says. This year's Open Studios begins Sat., Oct. 7, again in the Chamberlain building. It doesn't have plumbing or electricity and hasn't had a tenant since 1962, but the building makes a perfect temporary exhibition space.


COURTESY NEW HAVEN COLONY HISTORICAL SOCIETY (TOP, MIDDLE), C.A. WHITE (BOTTOM)
The corner of Chapel and Church streets through the ages: Union troops assemble on the Green in 1864 (top); a fire escape and a solid facade are added to the corner building by 1939 (middle); an artist's rendering of the proposed renovation of the corner, which would house a 17,000-square-foot retail space and about 90 loft apartments, linking Ninth Square to downtown (bottom).

For the bohemian dream of renting a cavernous old warehouse and throwing paint around, Ninth Square is ideal. During last year's Open Studios, studio-less artists squatted at the former Backers building, which houses Gotham Citi at street level. When the event ended, many of the artists ended up renting spaces in the building. Now the Ninth Square Partnership has announced it will include 56 units of artist housing—live-and-work studio spaces—in its next construction and restoration phase. With its funky feel, proximity to the train station and downtown, and abundance of raw space, Ninth Square "feels like [New York's] SoHo felt in the early '70s," Kauder says.

She's not the only one who thinks Ninth Square can become New Haven's SoHo—a hip, slightly gritty district of ornate old warehouses redone to house galleries, restaurants, artists' studios, and loft apartments. Like SoHo, Ninth Square was once an industrial area. A century ago, it was "the Detroit of the carriage-making trade," according to Kathleen Etkin, project manager of the Ninth Square Partnership. Its proximity to the railroad and the harbor made it the densest commercial district in the city.

But the carriage trade faded for obvious reasons, and the office population of the city migrated north. Around 1980, Ninth Square was in bad shape—it was the only part of the city not to have received any government dollars since World War II—but there was a silver lining. Much of downtown had been razed for the slash-and-burn "urban renewal" projects of the '60s and '70s, its stately old structures demolished to make room for monolithic developments or parking garages. Ninth Square was dilapidated but untouched. In the early '80s, the whole area was made a National Register Historic District.

SoHo has a similar story: in the '70s, preservationists rallied to save the district's historic cast-iron buildings from being torn down for a crosstown expressway. They won a landmark designation for the district, which then became a popular low-rent area for artists. But Yale History Lecturer Max Page, TC '88, who teaches a seminar on New York, warns against drawing parallels. "Every city now has a part of town it calls its own Greenwich Village or its own SoHo," he says. "New Haven's not going to have anything like SoHo—nor should it."

Even if New Haven wanted nothing more than to reproduce SoHo, it couldn't. When SoHo became a historic district, the cash started pouring in. Ninth Square isn't nearly so lucky. Since its revitalization began, it's been begging for government money. The dollars for the Ninth Square Partnership, which began planning in 1985, didn't arrive until 1993 because of a nosedive in the Connecticut economy—it took a labyrinthine combination of local, state, and federal funding. Now that Phase One is finally finished, New Haven is asking the state for $8.9 million for more restoration.

But the state Bond Commission won't entertain New Haven's pleas for major Urban Act grants until the battle over the proposed Galleria at Long Wharf is resolved, so Ninth Square is stalled again. The Galleria, a proposed upscale mall a few blocks from Ninth Square, has been the subject of local infighting and regional lawsuits since New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. proposed the $500 million project. "With the amount of money [New Haven] is going to invest in Long Wharf, and the political capital [the city] will have to marshal to get it done, it's going to drastically undermine the effort to revitalize downtown," Page says. City officials say there's no conflict between creating the Galleria, which the state legislature approved two years ago, and strengthening downtown. Phase Two If and when the state grants the $8.9 million, it will go to three developers to fill funding gaps—that is, making up the difference between how much they want to spend and how much they stand to make from their Ninth Square projects. About $2.4 million would go to a local developer, Salatto Bros., to build a parking structure on lower Chapel Street; $3.5 million would go to the Ninth Square Partnership for building and restoration on lower Crown Street, which would create 100 more residential units; and $3 million would go to local developer C.A. White to restore the corner of Church and Chapel.

This last piece is the keystone. Facing the Chapel Square Mall and caddy-corner to the Green, the historic corner is Ninth Square's link to the rest of downtown. The corner building was the tallest commercial building in the city when it was built in 1861 for the First National Bank of New Haven, the second nationally chartered bank in the country. It currently houses Ashley Stewart's, a plus-size women's clothing store; the L-shaped Woolworth Building wraps around it, with entrances on both Church and Chapel, and housed the American Discount Store until it went out of business recently.

C.A. White, a third-generation local family business, wants to renovate and merge both buildings to create a 17,000-square-foot chunk of retail space topped by about 90 luxury apartments. But converting an old building to modern housing, complete with a gym and high-speed Internet access, is expensive. By the developer's estimate, the project would cost about $13 million.

C.A. White partner Michael Shaffer believes it's worth it. The restored corner, visible from busier parts of downtown, would draw people into Ninth Square, and its upscale, new-economy focus would make New Haven a competitive 21st-century city. "As a state, Connecticut has perhaps the highest brain drain in the country," he says. "New Haven has to retain and attract young professionals to compete with other cities in the new economy."

This is a noble goal, but plenty of non-professionals live and work in downtown New Haven. The Ninth Square Partnership rebuts accusations that it's trying to gentrify the area by pointing out that over half of its apartments are subsidized. The development does house a diverse mix of incomes and races, but what about those empty storefronts? On average, the Partnership's asking rent is $12.50 per square foot, including taxes. Compared to Broadway, that's cheap. Compared to a mall, where rents average $30 or $40 a square foot, that's nothing. But compared to lower Chapel Street, where rents run as low as $6 or $8 a square foot, that's a lot.

By all accounts, the Partnership is being choosy about who it puts in those storefronts. It would rather leave them vacant than create a neighborhood full of liquor stores, adult bookstores, and chintzy wig-and-nail salons. But the higher rents the Partnership is charging to keep these establishments out may be prohibitive to small business-people. "If you fix up downtown and make it attractive, you still have to make it a place with retail that appeals to everybody, not just the elite," New Haven Arts Council Executive Director Bitsie Clark says. If Ninth Square does fill up with galleries, pricey restaurants, and chic boutiques, it will be a yuppie's dream, but a little steep for low-income residents. Whither Ninth Square? It's not easy to set an entire area in motion. Maybe if the district had more money, it could build the things that make people come. Maybe if a gallery opened, people would suddenly discover Ninth Square. Maybe if all the apartments had high-speed Internet connections, or if the retail rents were just a little cheaper, or if New Haven had a new mall, or a new commuter train station, or a bullet train to New York, or a slightly better regional economy...

Mike Reichbart leans across the bar of Cafe Nine and sighs. He's been hearing these hypotheticals for decades. "If, if, if!" he says. "If your sister had balls, she'd be your brother!" Photos by David Gest. Design by Shawn Cheng and Sarah England.

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