Chapel Square renewal going slowly

Plans for the complete revamping of the Chapel Square Mall are proceeding — slowly.

Signs in its vacant street-front windows say the mall will reopen with a new look in the spring of 2003. Area business development officials had predicted that new stores would open by New Year’s Day, but delays in evicting former tenants and other design holdups will push the grand opening back several months.

In a $6 million deal, New Haven sold the mall last April to a development team consisting of Baltimore’s Williams Jackson Ewing Inc. and New Haven financier David Nyberg.

Neither Nyberg nor Lehr Jackson, the principle partner of the real estate giant, returned repeated telephone messages left earlier this week.

Williams Jackson Ewing is well-known for its redevelopment over the past decade of New York’s Grand Central Terminal and Washington’s Union Station.

Last April, Jackson told the Yale Daily News that he hoped to attract fashion stores, home furnishing retailers, restaurants and cafes to the mall. He also said that the new retail center would include a food court and that the final commercial mix will include independent and chain retailers.

The mall’s roof and air conditioning system both need to be upgraded. The air conditioning unit dates to 1961, when the mall opened as one of the first retail centers in the state with the cooling system.

But the once state-of-the-art facility slowly declined over the years, struggling to compete with the more modern suburban malls that sprang up across the state. Several attempts to revive the mall failed over the years, most recently one with the Rouse Corporation in the early 1990s.

The biggest change to the mall will be to the exterior: The development team hopes to offer street access to most stores by redesigning the glass facades. Even the office tower above the mall will be renovated to allow for a combination of residential and office units.

But before any renovations can begin, the developers have focused on emptying the mall. The 160,000-square-foot mall must completely close for several months to allow for the improvements.

And many of the merchants are refusing to leave the mall quietly.

In late April, just days after purchasing the mall, the development team sent the tenants a letter telling them to leave the facility by June 1.

Upset with the notification, 14 of the mall’s 21 tenants went to court in May. A judge ruled that the evictions were permissible.

But weeks later, because the development team’s firm was not registered in the state as a limited liability corporation, a court determined that evictions could not proceed. The Chapel Square Development LLC soon registered, and in late July it sued the tenants, seeking damages for unlawful occupancy. The lawsuit is currently pending, said Tony Bialecki, a city business services officer.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez, who negotiated the deal with Williams Jackson Ewing last spring, declined to comment on the mall’s progress.

But Fernandez’s office has attempted to work with some of the mall’s tenants to help them relocate to nearby vacancies.

Craig Russell, another business services officer in Fernandez’s office, helped The Marketa find a new site across Temple Street from the mall. The grocery shop plans to reopen on Monday, joining the Ninth Square Market in a nascent market district.

Russell is also negotiating with cellular phone retailer Mbengue Paging, men’s clothing outfit Blue Nile, music store Cross Flava Records, and a pushcart formerly situated in the mall.

Athlete’s Foot intends to move to the Amity district northwest of the city, Russell said.

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