At 227 Church St., located diagonally across from the Whitney Humanities Center, a signboard advertises, “Now Leasing Luxury Apartments.” The building, formerly the home of telephone company SNET, has a nondescript exterior that belies an historic art deco lobby. Go up the elevators to the apartment units, and the “luxury” appears in the form of 10-foot ceilings, cherry cabinets, marble floors and commanding vistas of East Rock and the New Haven Sound.
The 15-story Eli building is just one of several new apartment complexes popping up all over downtown New Haven. While their pricey rental rates coupled with the increasing supply of apartments have some people questioning the likelihood of their success, city officials and residents say they are confident the buildings will bring new residents and an economic boost to downtown.
After purchasing the Eli building, Connecticut Properties, LLC first considered reselling it or using the building for office space. But while conducting market research, they decided there was an “untapped market” for luxury housing in New Haven, area manager April Minney said.
Based on the Eli’s current tenants, this market consists of lawyers, businessmen and other professionals associated with the University. Minney also said the building was attracting “empty-nesters” who were interested in living in a college town.
At $910, the starting monthly price for the 19 studio apartments is not cheap. But Minney says the building has “found its niche” in the housing market. The 57 one-bedroom apartments start at $1,280, the 55 two-bedrooms start at $1,800 and the 11 three-bedrooms start at $3,075. The prices vary depending on the apartment’s location within the building.
“I don’t think our prices are unreasonable for what we’re offering,” Minney said. “More times than not, once people see what we’re offering they understand our prices.”
Carol Thibeault, an Eli resident who moved into her one-bedroom apartment on Dec. 19, had nothing but rave reviews for the apartment complex. The owner of Elm City Java on Trumbull Street, Thibeault said she moved to New Haven from her house in Old Saybrook for an easier commute.
Thibeault said she began looking for an apartment in New Haven in September of last year. Despite the higher prices, she said she chose the Eli for its ideal location and beautiful apartments, and also emphasized the “awesome view” she has of the New Haven Green and surrounding area.
“When I saw the apartments that the Eli was offering, I didn’t hesitate,” Thibeault said. “I didn’t think [the rents] were that much higher for what they were offering … for me it’s worth it.”
The Eli plans to finish construction at the end of April, just as the rental market picks up in the summer months. In the meantime, apartment complexes are appearing all over town. At 78 Olive St., the oldest corset factory in the world was converted to 146 apartments in 2002, said Frances DeMaio, property manager for developer David Nyberg. Nyberg’s firm is an “adaptive reuser” — taking office buildings and renovating them into residential space. Though DeMaio said the Eli buildings were “very nice,” she also said that she thought the rents were “out of line.”
City planner Karen Gilvarg, who participated in the City Planning Commission’s meeting Jan. 21, in which the Eli building was an item on the agenda, said while the Eli building is at the top of the market, the rent is still “market rate.” She also called into question the definition of the real estate term “luxury.”
“Luxury is very much in the eye of the beholder,” Gilvarg said. “It’s just very nice rental housing downtown.”
Gilvarg said the commission feels that the buildings fit in well with the city’s comprehensive plan for mixed-use neighborhoods — neighborhoods that blend residences and businesses. Unlike cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, whose downtowns have become primarily centered around business, New Haven has seen an influx of residential properties in recent years, Gilvarg said. City planner Joy Ford also said buildings like the Eli were positive developments for the city of New Haven.
“We look at [the apartments] as a good thing because more people downtown brings more business and more street fabric,” Ford said.
Ford referenced the units currently being built at 900 Chapel St., above the redesigned Chapel Square Mall, adding that additional units will become available in March.
DeMaio said she was slightly worried that there are too many rental apartments and not enough condominiums. Condominiums are like apartments in design, but are owned, not rented, by tenants.
“I am concerned that if they continue at the pace they’re going at with apartments, you might run into a problem with too many apartments,” DeMaio said. “I don’t know personally if the city can absorb this many apartments.”
University Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said buildings like the Eli are a positive addition to the city and that he accepted the Eli’s somewhat elevated prices as a market inevitability.
“The redevelopment of vacant space is obviously a great thing for the city. More people are living in the center city,” Morand said. “A healthy community should have mix of prices. It is also the case that the cost of renovating an old building is very high. It can only be financed if there is a market for it.”
So far, tenants seem to be enjoying their new residences downtown. Thibeault said she is happy with her decision to live in the Eli and, more generally, in New Haven.
“I have become very impressed with New Haven — I think it is improving constantly,” Thibeault said. “I hope to see it become more well-known because it’s a great little city. I think it has a lot of growing to do, but I think it’s moving in the right direction, too.”