Little by little, a new downtown

When it first opened in 1965, the Chapel Square Mall was a small part of an urban renewal program that included large department stores such as Macy’s and Malley’s.

Five years later, the arrival of the New Haven Coliseum several blocks away established New Haven as Connecticut’s premier destination for shoppers and spectators. But modern shopping centers and sports arenas elsewhere in the state and limited local upkeep have left the blocks south of the New Haven Green neglected and unable to compete.

Now, the Chapel Square Mall is set to anchor a large downtown redevelopment plan, which could establish an upscale shopping and arts district. But the project also could require demolishing the Coliseum as the emphasis on sporting complexes wanes at City Hall.

“The downtown incorporates four main elements: retail, arts, residential and office space, and education,” said Henry Fernandez, New Haven’s economic development administrator. “We’re looking at all those areas in any of our projects.”

Retail and the arts

Earlier this month, the city sold the Chapel Square Mall to Baltimore’s Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. and Philadelphia’s Lubert-Adler Partners in a deal worth approximately $6 million. The developers plan to add street access to all stores and mix national and independent retailers.

By December, new stores could enter the 160,000 square-foot mall, which will undergo major renovations this summer.

Other nearby landlords have joined the redevelopment trend. University Properties has been working since August to fill two vacant storefronts on Chapel Street a block from the mall.

But the city-owned sites of the former Macy’s and Malley’s stores remain vacant. New Haven officials hope to infuse additional retail and arts destinations into the area.

The Long Wharf Theatre, currently located on Sargent Drive in Long Wharf, has decided to work with the city to find a new location, theater spokeswoman Jennifer Manzo said last week.

The theater has outgrown its current home at the New Haven food terminal, which it has occupied since curtains first opened in 1965. Both blocks that formerly housed the Macy’s and Malley’s stores are possible sites for a new theater, which will likely occupy city-owned land, Manzo said.

A new Long Wharf Theatre downtown would augment New Haven’s theater district, which now runs along Chapel Street from the Shubert Theater on College Street to the Yale Repertory Theater on York Street.

Abandoning sports

Expanding downtown arts could also involve simultaneous contraction; the city has asked the state for $10 million in aid to demolish the Coliseum, New Haven’s primary venue for shows and sporting events. The Coliseum’s potential demolition represents an ongoing shift in Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s administration away from athletics as an economic stimulus.

In the early 1990s, local politicians actively recruited sporting events to New Haven. The world-class Connecticut Tennis Center, completed in 1992, is the home of the Pilot Pen tennis tournament. The New Haven Ravens, a minor league baseball team, arrived at a renovated Yale Field in 1994.

But while these modern sports complexes lie near the West Haven border, the Coliseum continues to crumble downtown. And the financial struggles of the Ravens and the tennis tournament have led politicians to abandon sports teams in their downtown renovation plans. The Coliseum’s main tenant, the New Haven Knights minor league hockey team, has not committed to a contract for next season, Fernandez said.

Several months ago, Philadelphia-based SMG, which has managed the Coliseum since 1999, asked the city for $400,000 to keep the complex open through June. SMG also asked for an additional $700,000 to keep running the facility beyond the summer months. The city already devotes $600,000 of its share of the state’s hotel tax to the arena annually. New Haven has hired a consultant to determine if additional funding is necessary.

“If it does need additional public subsidy, we need to decide if it’s worth it,” DeStefano said. The city will reach a decision in the next two months.

Bringing the dilapidated, 11,171-seat Coliseum up to par would require at least $30 million, DeStefano said.

Fernandez said if additional funds prove necessary, and the city refuses to provide the money, the Coliseum would likely be demolished rather than sit vacant and closed.

The city most likely would not construct another amphitheater.

“I can’t imagine where the resources would come from,” DeStefano said.

Population

In the midst of all the negotiations lies Gateway Community College, which plans to upgrade its Long Wharf campus through either expansion or relocation. Both of the former department store locations are possible new sites. The downtown Gateway campus would add to the already significant consumer presence in the area that Yale provides.

Although Gateway students commute to class, several residential projects will further increase the downtown’s population and relieve the tight housing market. The vacancy rate downtown is approximately zero.

The Strouse-Adler Building in Wooster Square, a former corset factory, is being redesigned into about 130 apartments by New Haven developer David Nyberg. Even the soon to be redeveloped tower above the Chapel Square Mall will include apartments.

But attracting people downtown just for a few hours is as important as increasing the number of residents.

New Haven’s economic development officials have said they hope to design an area that differs from what the suburbs offer, in part by augmenting the theater district and reinvigorating the Chapel Square Mall.

Thirty years ago, the New Haven Coliseum and the Chapel Square Mall were major components of a downtown redevelopment scheme. Now the city is completely revamping the mall and wants to demolish the Coliseum.
Arielle LevinBecker
Thirty years ago, the New Haven Coliseum and the Chapel Square Mall were major components of a downtown redevelopment scheme. Now the city is completely revamping the mall and wants to demolish the Coliseum.

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