Audubon finally fills up

With the planned opening of Northeast Credit Alliance next week and the recent openings of numerous arts-oriented stores, including the Bead Hive II, Yarn LLC and Katahdin Furniture, Audubon Street has filled its retail spaces after decades of attempted urban renewal.

“Audubon is finally reaching the apex of what it was supposed to be back in 1964,” said Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsy Clark, who has lived in the area for decades. “It’s a 41-year development that is finally being completed.”

When New Haven city planners first got the idea in the 1960s to turn the abandoned industrial area surrounding Audubon into a profitable arts, residential and retail center, conditions were not ideal. Home to abandoned factories whose fishing lures and birdcages were no longer needed, the neighborhood did not seem like an ideal candidate for urban renewal.

By the 1990s, the factories had been torn down and arts institutions such as the Neighborhood Music School had taken their places. But the area still lacked a strong retail presence, leaving Audubon’s streets nearly as empty as they had been decades earlier.

With the addition of Northeast Credit Alliance, the retail area on Audubon Street will be completely filled, Director of University Properties David Newton said. Since the University acquired a large portion of Audubon’s retail space in August 2002, nine businesses have set up shop in the area, he said.

Audubon’s recent success can largely be attributed to the confluence of residential, educational and retail units, Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said.

“Audubon was really one of the first places where New Haven began to execute what’s proven to be the path to success, which is to have a mix of uses,” Morand said. “I think it offers some framework and guidelines for what works here.”

Newton said University Properties, which also manages the Broadway and Chapel districts, tries to bring in businesses that complement the character of each shopping district it manages. In the case of Audubon, Newton said his office made an effort to adhere to the arts-oriented focus city planners in the 1960s had in mind for the area.

The influx has injected a needed jolt of energy into the district, Audubon Merchants Association President Krista Flynn said.

“In the last year there has gained an impressive amount of awareness and foot traffic and positive feedback in the neighborhood,” Flynn said. “I think people enjoy seeing some action down here … What I hear is that people stopped looking down Audubon Street because retail spaces were empty … [Now] they’re seeing activity.”

Flynn, the owner of Sogno Boutique, which opened in Audubon two years ago, said local arts institutions such as the Neighborhood Music School and the Educational Center of the Arts have long drawn customers to the specific businesses within Audubon district, although those people have not always explored the surrounding areas of the Elm City.

“I would come down all the time, and for the most part people were staying in their cars and picking up kids, and not even getting out of their cars,” she said. “Now, parents are parking in the lot and walking around, I see a lot more openness and friendliness.”

Although the arrival of merchants has been relatively quick, Newton said his office took time to find merchants that would be compatible to the personality of the district.

“Most of the spaces we’ve had, we could’ve put retailers in there quickly,” Newton said. “But we were very careful in trying to identify and place retail merchants that would be consistent with the overall philosophy of the area which is arts-oriented, family friendly.”

University Properties Retail Analyst Jeanne Davis said fostering an artistic community came naturally to Audubon Street because the sizes of the district’s retail spaces are ideally suited for small businesses.

“Most of our spaces along Audubon and Whitney corridor are about 1,000 square feet or less, so for artistic business it’s a lot less overhead and rent,” she said.

The small size of the spaces has also kept national brand-name retailers out of the area, Davis said. Although brand name outlets would attract more Yalies to the area, Flynn said, keeping the artistic personality of the district and its “quieter, older crowd” hinges on continuing to resist changing the district’s character.

“It’s nice that this being the arts district, it has more of a sophistication to it,” she said. “We’re not jam-packed with every brand on every corner, … [which] makes this couple of blocks that make up the district special.”

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