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Revamping downtown in the post-mall era

By Aaron Lichtig

"New Haven is an incredible place," John Isaacs, owner of Barrie Ltd. said. "No other city of 100,000 people has this kind of opportunity, with a great university, food, and arts. Cities of that size are usually unknown places without much potential, like Fort Wayne, [Ind]."

New Haven's downtown, in the aftermath of the Tues., Dec. 12 death of the 1.6 million-square-foot Galleria at Long Wharf, will have more opportunities—and face more complications—than ever before. After nearly five years of planning and endless legal battles, complicated environmental questions and mall-related hype, Yale and the state and city governments are now turning their collective attention to New Haven's unique downtown, on which the region's future turns. And no one expects New Haven to decay like Fort Wayne.

The long wait for a mall at Long Wharf began with an announcement in September of 1997 by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., who promised a "high-end mall that will not just make the city proud, but will serve the entire region with distinction." The plan was mired in controversy from its inception—Westfield America, the owner of malls in Meriden, Milford, and Trumbull, filed 15 lawsuits against the proposed shopping center last year. With mounting political opposition and pesky environmental problems, the plan quickly began to unravel.

The final blow came when the city lost faith in the commitment of its primary anchor store, Nordstrom, which was going through a period of major corporate overhaul. "We were concerned with the litigation and we were uncertain about whether or not it would happen at all," Paula Weigand, a Nordstrom spokesperson, told the Herald. "The project not happening is good for us because we are reviewing our real estate holdings."

Without a mall, Yale and New Haven must look elsewhere to replace the 3,000 jobs and generate the more than $7 million in property taxes that would have accompanied the Galleria.

Retooling retail

With the mall's death, Isaacs and other downtown retailers finally have what they have always sought: a status as the city's top priority. The announcement of the Galleria's termination has generated a great deal of enthusiasm for downtown projects that had languished as mall fever hit the city. "The foundation of our complaint was that [the mall] did not build on New Haven's strengths," Isaacs said. Yale President Richard Levin, GRD '74 agreed. "At this stage, I think the mall was a diversion from the growth of the real strengths of New Haven," he said.

Chip Croft, the owner of Seychelles and president of the United Merchants Association, feels that there has never been a more exciting time to be a downtown merchant. "It wasn't so long ago that Chapel Street across from Yale was all boarded up," he said. "Now the buzz about New Haven is really good—my son in Denver met a girl who knew about New Haven's turnaround. The mall's closing is feeding this trend."

"In December the merchants sent letters around, all of them beginning with, `Now that the mall's gone...'" Isaacs said. "Everyone was holding off on upgrades for a while; now no one is holding off." Croft is thinking about expanding Seychelles, and Isaacs has talked to other downtown merchants who are thinking of moving or enlarging their stores as well. "Everything that was once on the back burner about downtown is now on the front one," Anthony Rescigno, the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce president, said.

With the new-found focus on downtown, the city will now turn its resources towards actualizing some of these plans, including those suggested in a March 2000 study by Ernst and Young LLP, for down- town that had previously played second fiddle to the Long Wharf saga.

The foci of the plans are the Chapel Square Mall, which has remained half-vacant throughout the entire mall controversy, and the Macy's building, which has stood empty for more than six years. "Those are really the linchpins," Croft said. "The merchants are excited about what can be done with these sites."

"We hope to turn the ground floor of the [Chapel Square] mall inside out, with retail storefronts facing the street," Karen Gilvarg, ARCH '75, executive director of New Haven City Planning, said. She also plans for part of the space to become a conference center. According to Jorge Perez, president of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, the city will not have as much difficulty with these plans without the Galleria looming. "We won't have to fight two fights at once," he said. Plans for the Macy's building include a sports and entertainment club or a large retail tenant. After the mall fell through, a representative from the global IKEA chain visited the space, but the prospects for a store in the near future do not look good. "We have no interest in Connecticut or New Haven at this point," Michael MacDonald, the president of IKEA's real estate division, told the Herald. Still, many are optimistic. "The prospects for someone in there in the near future are good, though—there's real interest with no mall," Rescigno assured. According to Croft, the city is "talking to a few people, that's all I can say." The adjacent site, the home of the razed Malley's store, could become home to the Long Wharf Theater, "but that's in the hands of the people from the theater," Gilvarg said.

Additionally, DeStefano has requested aid from the state, pitching several merchant-friendly ideas to a receptive Governor John Rowland. In particular, the city is asking for $3 million for more parking downtown, including a 1,000-spot garage between Elm, Wall, Orange, and Church streets. DeStefano also wants to obtain funds to renovate the block of lower Chapel Street between Church and Orange streets. The city put in a request for $9.5 million to renovate the storefronts there and to develop the buildings' second floors as apartments, luring those brought to the area by the biotech industry and the arts into living downtown in the oft-troubled Ninth Square area. "The parking, especially, will help the merchants," Rescigno said. The governor pledged financial support, which should be easier to come by now that the city is not asking for mall-related development dollars.

Many of these plans hinge on successfully connecting the area between the Ninth Square area of downtown and the harbor, a chasm that has been a city planner's nightmare for decades. Plans for new roads are in place—the Church Street South extention will connect with Sargent Drive. "It was done with the mall in mind, but we never did things of the mall, by the mall, and for the mall," Gilvarg said. City officials forsee the harbor and increased access to it as an area that will attract newcomers to the new housing downtown. The plans to move the historic Yale boathouse from its current location along the Quinnipiac River to "Parcel H" between the Rusty Scupper and Long Wharf Pier have progressed to the feasibility study stage and a consultant, whose experience includes moving a historic terminal at the Newark Airport, has been hired. The Amistad will also be docked there.

Regards to Broadway (and Whitney)

The failure of the proposed mall also shines an even brighter spotlight on Yale's retail properties downtown. "We haven't changed our strategy, but there is lots of interest in this area," Matthew Jacobs, MC '98, the manager of operations for University Properties, said. "It will really bolster confidence in [Yale's properties]."

There has been a lot of shuffling in the Broadway area recently. Whimsel's dessert shop will open shortly in the old Ashley's Ice Cream storefront. In a surprising move, Willoughby's on York Street suddenly departed, to be replaced by Koffee? Too, another incarnation of the popular Audubon Street venue. "Their lease had expired, and the New World Coffee/Manhattan Bagel Corporation, which owned the chain, wanted to consolidate their units in this marketplace," Jacobs said. A sign hanging in the store's window in early December blamed Yale for the departure. Willoughby's officials could not be reached for comment. "I was really surprised to see them go," Isaacs said.

Also new to Broadway will be Gourmet Heaven, whose opening has been pushed back, wreaking havoc with the convenience store situation downtown. Sources close to the business have confirmed that the project was larger than the store's owners expected and that the store may not open until near the end of the semester. In the meantime, University Properties has renewed the Krauszer's lease until May and is allowing the store to continue selling cigarettes. "I wish the store presented itself in a nicer fashion," Isaacs, whose store is adjacent to the convenience store, said. "But it does create foot traffic in the area."

Far from Broadway, Sandra's Place, the Hill neighbor- hood's renowned soul food restaurant, is moving into the Yale-owned former Whitney Winery location at 46 Whitney Avenue. "I'm happy with the Yale lease—they were reasonable and modified a few things to accommodate us," Miguel Pittman, the co-proprietor of Sandra's, said. The move came about when city Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez, LAW '94, and Bruce Alexander, BK '65, head of Yale's Office of New Haven and State Affairs, came to Sandra's for lunch. Fernandez introduced Alexander to Pittman, and Alexander said that Yale had some free space. Alexander and Fernandez are in the process of discussing similar arrangements with other retailers.

We built this city...together

Such partnerships between local store owners, Yale, and the city government are commonplace and will be increasingly significant in the post-mall era. At a Tues., Dec. 19 meeting at the Hillhouse Avenue home of Levin, attended by Rowland, DeStefano, Mayoral Candidate and State Senator Martin Looney, and Alexander, among others, the major players laid out a new vision for the city in the aftermath of the mall.

Additionally Alexander has helped the United Merchant's Association find an office, and Yale and the city's marketing organization has aided the merchants group in marketing its strengths. Both Yale and the Town Green Special Services District have stepped up their retail recruitment efforts in the wake of the decline, but some problems need to be worked out. "There's some crossover and cooperation, but the process still needs to be refined," Croft said. In December, Yale hosted Howard Brandston, a lighting consultant and campus planner, who gave an architectural lighting demonstration along York Street, showing city officials and retailers how to make their locations safer and more attractive through the utilization of well placed, low-wattage lights. "We plan on applying these principals to the area around the Green, and we look forward to working with Howard," Gilvarg said. "Things like this are moving to the top of the list, there's a new impetus, a new momentum," Croft said. There is also a new billboard on Interstate 91 advertising local merchants and restaurants, for which the merchants and city split the cost.

But the keystone of the joint University and city vision can, according to Levin, be summed up in just three words: "Biotechnology, biotechnology, biotechnology!" He continued, "Yale was optimistic about biotech four years ago, but not everyone was convinced. The experience of the past year has convinced the legislature and the city that doing things in this area is important." The biotechnology industry has brought over $1 billion in private investment into New Haven in the past year and has the mayor and Yale excited as well. The increased focus on the biotechnology revolution that began in Yale's laboratories will play a large role in the city's plans for upgrading downtown. Gilvarg noted that part of the planned renovations of the Chapel Square Mall will include a conference center, that, according to Jon Soderstrom, the director of Yale's Office of Cooperative Research, works in tandem with the city's emphasis on the biotechnology industry. "We had an entrepreneurs' boot camp last fall and we brought in a lot of people," he said. "It showed that we didn't have enough facilities of this type—the demand is there." (For more on New Haven's biotechnology revolution, see page 3.)

No mall, no cry

As New Haven looks forward to the new opportunities presented by the mall's closing, everyone seems to be optimistic. Yet with the economy slowing and a history of downtown difficulties, revitalization may be a slow process. But it is one that most agree should be attempted—especially Pittman, who has possibly the most unique position of anyone affected by the mall controversy and its aftermath. As he looks forward to opening his new Whitney Avenue store, he wonders what might have been. Pittman was one of the merchants who had reserved space in the mall. "I was excited about our mall location, but this will create opportunities for new business downtown; the city can concentrate more and put more energy into it," he said. "I look forward to becoming a part of the downtown community—that's where it's happening."

Levin is looking forward to New Haven, A.G.—After Galleria. "A retail mall doesn't have long term growth potential," he said. "I'm not necessarily happy that the mall isn't coming, but I'm very happy to see the alternative course that we're taking."

Graphic by Hyura Choi and Eugene Wong. Photos by Rebecca Rosenthal and Erin I. Lewis.

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