All along Broadway, storefront letterings and window displays flash the colors of commerce. There’s the maroon overhang of Gourmet Heaven and the bulldog blue of Campus Customs. Close by, Toad’s Place’s lime green canopy juts out over a crowded York Street.
Lately, however, a different and duller hue has spread through the Broadway district: Sandwiched between the street’s vibrant retail outlets, the whitewashed windows of vacant properties stand out amid the bustle of one of New Haven’s busiest thoroughfares. While area business owners and Yale University Properties officials say the Broadway district remains vibrant, University Properties’ demanding tenant selection process has kept a number of local outlets vacant.
The former homes of York Square Cinema, NorthEast Alliance and York Copy have each remained empty for months.
The vacancies that dot the area may remind longtime city denizens of the darker days of the early 1990s, when a lack of traffic and parking and a profusion of crime kept retailers away. But starting in 1996, things slowly began to change after Yale dedicated $6.2 million to revitalize the area.
Despite these vacancies, Mike Iannuzzi, Tyco owner and president of the Broadway Merchants’ Association, said he is far from nervous about the district’s condition.
“If I went back 10 years ago I would say yes, I would be worried about these vacancies,” he said. “But the climate is very positive in the downtown area in general, and specifically our district — the area’s stronger than it’s ever been.”
Many Broadway business owners agreed that the district is not in danger of a downturn. Phil Cutler, owner of Cutler’s Records, has witnessed Broadway’s transformation during the 35 years he has worked in the shop. He said the local retail environment today, though not booming, remains stable.
“It’s a tough call for retailers no matter where you are,” he said. “But Yale so far has done really well. They’ve got a plan, and I have faith in them.”
That plan, according to Director of University Properties David Newton, is to search for tenants who will add variety and novelty to Broadway’s retail mix and not just pay the bills.
“We will wait until we have the right tenant rather than simply fill a vacant space with a tenant who will pay rent, but not add to the vibrancy of the area,” Newton said.
For a number of Broadway’s empty locations, that wait may end soon. According to Newton and Shana Schneider, communications director for the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, a number of stores will be introduced to the area within the next six to 12 months. The newly renovated space beneath the Davenport College annex will host a sports-themed restaurant that is projected to open in early 2007. A new tenant for the old NorthEast Alliance space is also in the works.
“Retail districts have turnover, and it is a good thing to some extent,” Schneider said. “It really enables us to keep the area fresh, dynamic and up-to-date.”
Still, some Broadway store owners said this progress does not come without a price. University Properties’ exacting regulations — such as their demand that occupants’ businesses remain open late into the evening — have strained some of the area’s independent owners.
Kelly Tobey, manager of Origins, a body care store on Broadway, said having to keep her store open until 9 p.m. is taxing.
“I would love to be able to close the store a bit early,” she said. “There’s no business here after seven, so it’s kind of ridiculous for me to have to pay another person to be here.”
The scarcity of free parking in the area also poses a problem for local businesses, Tobey said, as customers can just as easily go to a mall and park for free.
Though Iannuzzi said Broadway has more parking than other downtown areas, he agreed the issue could become more of a problem in the future. Walking traffic does not provide enough customers to sustain the area’s retailers, he said. Even finding sufficient employee parking has often presented problems, he said, and things will only worsen as the vacant Broadway lots are populated.
For his part, Cutler said his store’s night sales are usually strong and that he would rather cut out a few business hours in the morning. Even so, he said, he would rather leave the tough decisions — like setting hours and picking tenants — to Yale.
“I don’t have any idea what will work that isn’t here now,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes filling these spots, that I can say.”