The death and life of Chapel Square

In 1965, the doors to a new 160,000 square-foot, air-conditioned mall at Chapel Square opened. The clearing of three blocks downtown had paved the way for an entirely new shopping model, the kind that had begun popping up around the country.

But poor planning and some bad luck prevented the mall from becoming a major retail center, prompting urban experts four decades later to refer to the decaying site as a “white elephant,” and Yale students to call it the “Ghetto Mall.”

“The initial design of the mall was woefully unsophisticated, and that by itself was enough to doom it,” Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae said.

The Chapel Square Mall has bewildered many developers to the point that in 1996 city officials began planning the Long Wharf Mall and scrapping Chapel Square for good.

But this month, the city entered exclusive negotiations with Baltimore-based Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. Forty years of changes offer hope for the mall, but many hurdles remain.

Richard C. Lee

The revitalization of downtown was the focus of Mayor Richard C. Lee’s eight terms, which stretched from 1954 to 1969.

“Mayor Lee was an energetic and good intentioned mayor who also pioneered many urban planning theories,” said Andrea Pizziconi, a financial analyst for Yale University Properties.

In his book, “The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t,” Yale School of Architecture professor and distinguished urban planner Alexander Garvin describes New Haven’s business district in the 1950s as experiencing physical deterioration and diminishing sales. Lee believed he had the answer: Chapel Square.

“The plan called for clearing a major portion of the central business district and creating Chapel Square: two department stores, an air-conditioned shopping mall, an office building, a hotel, and a parking garage,” Garvin wrote in his book.

Roger Stevens

Lee selected Roger Stevens as the Chapel Square developer. Stevens was a successful real estate investor, having assembled a team to purchase the Empire State Building in 1951.

Under the plan for Chapel Square, Malley’s department store would relocate two blocks to the southwest, a shopping mall would face the New Haven Green, and another department store would lie on the block between.

Malley’s was previously located where the former Yale Co-op used to be, said Judith Ann Schiff, chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library.

But, Garvin wrote, Stevens was unable to focus on the project because of other ventures, including developing the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1961. By then, only the construction of the 1,280-car garage was under way.

Lee tried unsuccessfully to lure retailer G. Fox to New Haven, Schiff said. Although Lee finally convinced Macy’s to open a department store at Chapel Square in 1962, rising costs hindered construction, causing Stevens to question the mall’s profitability. Stevens left the project in 1964 with Chapel Square incomplete.

Fusco-Amatruda and Mordechai Lipkis

The Fusco-Amatruda Construction Company took over and completed the project in 1965. In some respects, the Chapel Square Mall resembled what current city officials hope to restore.

“In its original state, the mall did open to the outside, but the stores also faced indoors to a complex with a fountain,” Schiff said.

Even the lobbies of the Park Plaza Hotel, now the Omni-New Haven Hotel at Yale, opened directly into the mall.

Schiff said security problems eventually eliminated most outside entrances.

In its early days, Chapel Square was so busy that it would take over an hour just to exit the parking garage, Schiff said.

“Those were the days when department stores were department stores,” Schiff said. “You could buy hardware, books, furniture, even eat at restaurants.”

But while Macy’s and Malley’s thrived initially, their placement hurt the mall.

“The mall’s setup sort of strangled the smaller shops facing the Green because they were not positioned between the two original anchor department stores,” Pizziconi said.

And Malley’s success did not last long. Schiff said the Malley family sold the store when Edwin Malley died. The store’s overall quality declined, and Malley’s closed in 1982.

Prominent New York developer Mordechai Lipkis then purchased the building, where he unsuccessfully installed his indoor flea market, Caesar’s Bazaar, for several years. The building remained vacant until late 1996, when New Haven purchased it for $6.15 million. The city demolished the building for $3.2 million in 1997.

Rouse Company

In the late 1980s, with Malley’s vacant and the shopping mall struggling, the city selected the Baltimore-based Rouse Company to revitalize Chapel Square.

The new developing team, which also redesigned Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, attracted prominent chains to the mall, including women’s clothing store Dress Barn and British furniture retailer Conran.

But the Rouse Company only had control over the shopping mall. When Macy’s and the Park Plaza closed in 1993, the mall floundered, and Rouse Company sold the mall to the city for $400,000 in 1995.

John DeStefano Jr. and Williams Jackson Ewing

In March 1996, current Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced the city would build a one-million square-foot mall at Long Wharf. But when Nordstrom withdrew its offer to anchor the waterfront mall in December 2000, the plan fell through, and city officials regained interest in Chapel Square.

The city is currently negotiating exclusively with Williams Jackson Ewing Inc., well-respected for creating a vibrant retail center at Grand Central Terminal in New York.

But problems that vexed previous developing teams remain.

“The mall displaced so many small retailers that the area never recovered from urban renewal,” Rae said.

To avoid a similar dislodgment, sources said the large number of vacancies in the Dixwell shopping center could offer alternative sites.

And for New Haven to continue its progression toward a retail destination, the renovated site must differ from suburban malls, something the Williams Jackson Ewing proposal indicates.

“Chapel Square Mall lost customers to suburban shopping centers that were built to attract the growing population of metropolitan New Haven,” Garvin wrote. “Instead, new shopping facilities should — offer something unique that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

Born out of the urban renewal movement of the 1960s, the Chapel Square Mall, known to many Yalies as the
Alyson Sudow
Born out of the urban renewal movement of the 1960s, the Chapel Square Mall, known to many Yalies as the "Ghetto Mall," will soon be completely redeveloped after decades of stagnation.

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