Developing downtown requires careful touch

Over the past decade, University Properties has revitalized the retail space around Yale’s campus. Now comes the next step: making sure the area continues to develop in ways that serve Yale students and the local community.

On streets like Chapel and Broadway, the role University Properties has played in making downtown New Haven — and Yale’s campus — a better place to live cannot be understated. Storefronts that were once empty now draw traffic well into the evening, helping to create areas that are safer and more appealing. And with a few major exceptions, University Properties has succeeded in attracting small, locally owned businesses instead of large chains.

Now that University Properties has proven that the blocks around Yale can be profitable and vibrant, it must ensure that continued development fits the market it intends to serve. The danger is that as the properties owned by Yale become more and more attractive, the tenants that come will price out the students and local residents who live nearby.

Upscale clothing boutiques and art galleries — both of which have moved into University-owned spaces in recent months — may draw a higher-end clientele to downtown New Haven. But that clientele cannot and should not be the focus of downtown development. With the proposed move of Gateway Community College downtown, an even larger market for reasonably priced stores and restaurants will exist. University Properties should continue to try to build around that market. And as the city tries to build more attractive housing in the center of New Haven, it becomes even more critical to make it possible to live comfortably downtown without owning a car. That means bringing in retailers that allow off-campus students and other local residents to easily find reasonably priced groceries — or a vacuum cleaner or a soccer ball, for that matter — within walking distance.

In some cases, it is important to tread lightly, too. Policies implemented by University Properties requiring stores to remain open late are good for creating more activity downtown and making streets safer. But it is important that these rules allow for possible exceptions — based on type of business, for example — and that they give long-established stores more freedom in dictating their own hours.

And when it comes to properties farther and farther away from the center of Yale’s campus, University Properties must be especially careful to engage the local community — not just city government, but the people who work, shop and live in the city — as it encourages economic development. In most cases, University Properties has transformed city streets for the better. But Yale must continue to ensure that the development it brings helps build the identity of local neighborhoods rather than destroy it.

It’s easy to take for granted what University Properties has done with an area that once seemed to lack an economic future. Today, few doubt this area can continue to grow. The challenge is to make sure it grows right.

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