After decades of dormancy, downtown New Haven’s Ninth Square is pulsing once again with the signs of development.
Last Saturday, demolition crews imploded the Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum — for years a New Haven landmark — to make space for a $230 million project that will feature a community college and a theater. A block over, construction workers are busily readying the storefront at the corner of Chapel and Church streets for the opening of a new Starbucks. In City Hall, New Haven officials are still deciding among the nine development proposals submitted for the site of the old Shartenberg department store.
For longtime New Haven residents, this rush of growth stands in welcome contrast to the urban flight of the 1950s that devastated the city’s downtown area. In the following decades, many of the stores that had anchored the district — Shartenberg’s, Malley’s and Macy’s, among others — closed up shop. As New Haven’s traditional commercial center languished, the area surrounding Yale, still flush with students, fared slightly better.
Today, after years of development by the city and the university, the sections of Chapel Street bordering Yale are filled with stores, restaurants and apartments. And while previous attempts at downtown renewal have floundered, local developers and politicians say the time is ripe for the rest of Chapel Street to follow — bridging the gap between the so-called Yale bubble and the street’s downtown section.
Throughout the area, developers are competing to buy property and lease up space, said Chris Nicotra, managing member of Olympia Properties.
“Recently, a lot of properties have changed hands, purchased by developers who know that this is the last section in downtown that needs to be revitalized,” Nicotra said. “There isn’t that much space available anymore.”
In September, Nicotra’s firm submitted a proposal for the development of the Shartenberg lot that would include a 30,000 square-foot office building, an eight-story hotel, condominiums, stores, and a 500-car parking garage.
Plans like these appeal to Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark, whose district encompasses most of the downtown area. Clark, a New Haven resident since 1956, witnessed the downtown’s decay and said she is confident in its reemergence.
“We’ve reached a tipping point now,” Clark said. “Things are feeding off each other, and large numbers of developers are coming in and building. To be here when this is happening is very exciting.”
Despite their enthusiasm for the new projects, some developers say many challenges remain in revitalizing downtown New Haven. For one, the dilapidated state of many of the area’s buildings has inflated the costs of repairing and renovating the structures, Nicotra said. At the same time, rental rates on lower Chapel Street remain considerably lower than those for buildings near Yale. For Nicotra and other developers, this means that investing in downtown projects is a risky endeavor.
“You have to make a conscious decision that you believe in the area,” Nicotra said. “Yes, it’s got everything going for it — Wooster Square, the new State Street train station, the Shartenberg development — but nothing is certain.”
Clark, on the other hand, worries that high-end projects downtown will force up area rental rates. Though she advocates development, Clark said the new downtown should feature a mix of higher-end spaces with market-rate apartments and affordable stores. The alderwoman pointed to the Ninth Square district as a model for balanced development with its blend of upscale restaurants, affordable housing and reasonably priced shops.
But local developer Joel Schiavone ’58 said the city’s efforts to control rental rates and real-estate prices are hindering New Haven’s revitalization. Schiavone also criticized Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s proposal to bring non-profit organizations like Gateway Community College downtown. The college would not attract as many full-time residents as would apartments and condominiums, Schiavone said.
“The mistakes John DeStefano is making are similar to the mistakes they made in the 1950s,” Schiavone said. “The only hope for the city is to create places for people to live downtown. If there are more people downtown, there’s more retail activity.”
City and Yale officials have also said they want to make sure that the downtown area retains its character amid the frenzy of development. Shana Schneider, communications director of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, said though she welcomes Starbucks’ new location, she also wants to see local retailers filling downtown vacancies.
“Sometimes it does take a little longer to find retailers to come into these spaces,” she said. “But you don’t want a whole slew of national chains coming into the area and making it generic. You could go to the mall for that.”
Despite these challenges, developers and city officials said they are optimistic that they can restore downtown New Haven’s commercial and residential appeal. For longtime city residents like Clark and Nicotra, the area’s transformation is particularly gratifying.
“This is the last section of downtown that needed to be revitalized, the last piece of the puzzle,” Nicotra said. “For those of us who have lived here all our lives and seen its ups and downs, it’s so fantastic to see this happening.”