City funds revitalize storefronts

Sassy, a beauty supply shop on lower Chapel Street, just received a facelift and now glimmers like a gem among the rusty fences and deteriorating buildings that surround it.

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and nearly 20 city officials and business and community leaders gathered in front of the store Tuesday to commemorate the beginning of the city’s latest revitalization effort — the downtown facade improvement program.

With support from the city, businesses from College to State streets and between Crown and Chapel streets will have the opportunity to renovate and enhance their deteriorating storefronts. Sassy’s storefront was the first major structure to be improved.

However, the program is not solely a government-run project. Instead, the city is collaborating heavily with private sectors and local businesses, said Henry Fernandez, the city’s economic development director.

“We expect the lower Chapel Street area to change in appearance,” Fernandez said. “We want to bring back these buildings to their original integrity.”

The city will provide an initial grant of $15,000 to businesses for signage, lighting, awnings, canopies, marquees and security improvements. The owners can receive an additional $15,000 matching grant for other improvement costs, as well as a $1,500 grant for the design costs of a new facade.

Sassy’s renovation cost $31,000 in city funds, which is part of an overall $1 million investment in the improvement of 70 stores, DeStefano said.

“This program has been in the works for more than a year now, so there’s a lot going on,” said Craig Russell, the city official overseeing the project. “We thought this celebration would be a really good way to kick things off.”

Currently, designs for 28 more storefronts are in the works, Russell said. Although most of the program’s work has only been done on paper so far, construction for a few more storefronts is slated to begin in the spring.

While downtown only makes up 3 percent of the city’s land, it generates one-third of the city’s revenue and accounts for one-half of the city’s jobs, DeStefano said.

Because the lower Chapel Street area connects Yale and Wooster Square, two of New Haven’s busiest areas, the area attracts a diverse clientele, DeStefano said.

With the prospects of a more attractive downtown area looming in the near future, many city officials optimistically spoke about a return to the city’s glory days.

“We shape our buildings, and forever after, they shape us,” said Ed Franquemont of the New Haven Preservation Trust. “It gives us a sense of who we were, but also the glory we can have in the future. New Haven has taken a lead in restoring the city that it can be.”

City leaders said the key to encouraging investment downtown is making the area attractive.

“Image is so important,” said Anthony P. Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. “Taking the initiative to improve the way things look is great.”

Although officials expect the facade improvements to create a vibrant, attractive environment for shoppers in the near future, business owners have yet to feel the effects.

“I am very happy about the improvements,” said Anna Lee, owner of Sassy. “So far it hasn’t affected my business that much, but I think it will when all the other stores are improved.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and city officials gather outside Sassy, a beauty supply store and the first business to benefit from the city's new storefront renovation program.
Arielle LevinBecker
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and city officials gather outside Sassy, a beauty supply store and the first business to benefit from the city's new storefront renovation program.

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