Alexander ’65 boosts town-gown relations

Bruce Alexander ’65’s day began at 8:30 a.m. when he met with a representative from Achievement First, a program that aims to bring qualified teachers to New Haven public schools. At 10, he met with a member of the Board of Education to brainstorm a site for a start-up high school in New Haven, followed by a meeting with the site developer at 12. By the end of the day, the University’s vice president of New Haven and state affairs had met with four different community groups — as well as squeezing in a half hour for a Yale Daily News reporter. If anything, this was an easy day for Alexander.

“It’s a rare occasion that I get to come home and have dinner with my family, because I often attend community hearings and meetings in the evenings, too,” Alexander said.

Ten years ago, Yale President Richard Levin created the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to serve as a liaison between Yale and the greater New Haven community, in order to address the tense town-gown relations of the previous few decades. Since Alexander’s arrival in 1998, the office has become the driving force behind the University’s involvement in the city.

The office has made great strides in revitalizing downtown retail and real estate through University Properties, a sector of the office that owns much of the taxable property surrounding Yale, as well as in expanding New Haven’s biotech industry and encouraging homeownership. But it has met with less success in combatting the problems that face most of urban America, such as decreasing poverty and improving the public school system.

Alexander said with such a great task before him, it was important to pick his battles.

“You have to find those places where you can actually achieve positive results,” Alexander said. “The most important role of this office is listening to the community and ensuring that the major decisions the University makes that impact the community have community input.”

The Office of New Haven and State Affairs holds a seat on the boards of both the Hill and Dwight development corporations and works closely with the Dixwell neighborhood as well. But as neighborhoods get more geographically distant from the University, such as Fair Haven, it is more difficult to reach out and connect with them, Alexander said.

Hill Development Corporation director David Alvarado said through the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, the University has made remarkable contributions toward affordable housing and financial literacy education in the Hill neighborhood. But this contribution is almost entirely financial rather than hands-on. Alvarado said the University has never overstepped its boundaries on the corporation, and if anything, it could be giving more.

“Of course we always want more money, but many of the projects we have completed already could not have been done without Yale’s funding,” Alvarado said. “And because the office has only one vote on our board, it can’t do something the community is not for or something it has not spoken to the community about.”

Alexander personally sits on the board of the Science Park Development Corporation, which has been a priority for the office in recent years with the dramatic growth of the biotech industry. Alexander’s position is a key link between the scientific research and resources at Yale and the businesses and laboratories established in Science Park. Science Park Development Corporation executive director Sheila Anastas said Yale could be more of a presence in Science Park, and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs has begun to take that step under Alexander.

“When you have a major technology park right next to a major university, it is important to tie it all together,” Anastas said. “Alexander is a vital and strategic member of our board in helping Science Park achieve its goals.”

Levin attributes much of the office’s success to Alexander’s expertise in urban development. Alexander is one of seven Yale graduates at the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, though all come from different eras. Before he returned to New Haven to take his current office, he worked for years in the private sector of urban redevelopment, serving as the innovator behind the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and the Miami Walk.

“I think we’ve had a remarkable improvement in the engagement of the University of the city,” Levin said. “I think we’ve made major strides in the development of downtown and substantial impact on the creation of the industrial city.”

But in recent years, a younger crop of Yale graduates has come to work for the office directly or only a few years after graduation. Reginald Solomon ’98 spent three summers as an undergraduate interning for the office, only to return in 2002 to take on a full-time job as project director. Solomon said he thinks the office is strengthened by being composed of primarily Yale graduates, who have a special commitment to New Haven.

“It is helpful to already have a context of what Yale is because it makes it easier to translate what Yale is to the outside community,” Solomon said. “What we see as the relationship between Yale and the city is largely formed from our experience as undergrads, and because we were all undergrads at different times, it is helpful to have different visions.”

While the office has evolved in the past decade from a new experiment to an energetic enterprise, it is still struggling to find ways to engage and connect with students on a greater level, Solomon said. He said he hopes as the office continues to grow, it will gain more name recognition and involvement among students.

And although he is a busy man, Alexander stressed the importance of hearing from students when making community decisions.

“It’s our job to listen, and our door is always open,” Alexander said.

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