Shop vacancies reflect careful growth

As the University attempts to invigorate the Broadway and Chapel street retail markets, Yale officials and local business owners agree — it must be both understanding and skeptical of, patient about and exasperated by, prime locations that have remained empty for nearly a year.

Since the early 1990s, the University has selected businesses it feels “complement” other stores in the commercial district. As a result, owners and residents said, the shopping district is livelier and safer — a sharp contrast to the deterioration that characterized it a decade ago. But many owners and students are tired of comparing now to before: They want a clear picture of the future. Although much of the consumer frustration stems from the slow growth and empty storefronts, some owners are upset with the University’s regulations for the business district.

Visitors sit in front of the former York Square Cinemas, which closed summer 2005 and for which a new tenant has not been found.
Christopher Young
Visitors sit in front of the former York Square Cinemas, which closed summer 2005 and for which a new tenant has not been found.

The vacancies most conspicuous to Yale students are the two empty spaces on York Street: on the corner of Elm Street — where Wishlist mannequins poorly mask the unused window displays that used to belong to Paul Richard’s shoe store — and between Yorkside Pizza & Restaurant and Koffee Too?, the former site of Merwin’s Art Shop before it relocated to Chapel Street last year.

Representatives from University Properties, the Yale body responsible for selecting tenants, said it has to be picky — students have particular needs, and the new businesses must be carefully selected to mesh well with the other shops around them. Shana Schneider, director of marketing for University Properties and head of the local York-Broadway Merchants’ Association, said prospective buyers must meet their high standards.

“It’s a challenge to find appropriate businesses,” she said. “We’re not going to just go to the highest bidder. For example, we wouldn’t go with a bank just because it was the highest bidder.”

Students and business owners said they agree that another bank — which would be located two blocks from the Bank of America — likely is not the best choice. But finding common ground on an appropriate tenant has proven more difficult.

Paul Cuticello, who reopened Paul Richard’s shoe outlet three stores down York Street from its former corner location, said University Properties — from whom he no longer leases — cannot effectively micromanage the types of businesses it brings in. He said Schneider has tried to explain the University’s long-term goals at meetings of the merchant’s association, but he has so far failed to comprehend them.

“I could never understand what this ‘idea’ was,” Cuticello said.

But Ralph Swartz, whose works are on display at Elm City Artists on Broadway, said he and the other artists are happy with their new storefront, which comes after two University Properties-mandated relocations.

The foot traffic and the floor-to-ceiling windows — which are an improvement over the arrangements at a prior location on Audubon Street — make the new spot perfect for both the walk-by and drive-by customer, especially at night when the whole gallery “glows,” Swartz said.

And although the empty store fronts next door to Wishlist are bad for business — the extra advertising in the windows is bittersweet compensation — manager Tracy Houle said she gives University Properties the benefit of the doubt.

“They know what they want here,” Houle said. “Just like they chose us, they want people who are going to bring something special to the area.”

The ‘idea’

That something special is — at the very least, all agree — gentrification. Whether it is anything more is up for debate.

Barth McNeil, who after a 15-year absence is again working at Atticus Cafe, said the past decade and a half have yielded more corporate entities — Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, J.Crew — and fewer independent businesses. But the mere fact that old businesses were local did not mean they were any good, he said, and the area has become much more middle-class — the clash of wealth and poverty is gone, or at least hidden.

“They might be pricing New Haven-ers out of New Haven,” McNeil said.

Many students emphasized the importance of stores that meet their needs, rather than the overarching development plan the University has devised. Some said they would like to see more sporting-good or brand-name clothing stores. Ashley Kim ’11 said she wishes the University would bring in an office supply store — perhaps another Staples closer to campus — or “basically just something cheaper than the Yale Bookstore.”

Cliff Simms, owner of Labyrinth bookstore, said the future of the area is open-ended and that careful planning could create an exciting area full of “interesting” and “funky” shops — the kind that draw late-night traffic on their own. But the process, as it stands now, is too secretive, he said.

“There would need to be real dialogue,” he said. “I don’t know if that really goes on right now in an open way.”

Anirudh Rr ’08 said the shopping district is losing some of its charm because of the direction it is currently taking.

“I think that New Haven is used to having small, independent stores — I’d like to see more,” he said.

But the majority of students said they just want to see more stores in general.

Better for business?

Most owners agree the business climate has improved since the early 1990s, when University Properties started directing its attention to the area. As a result, many said they are willing to trust the judgment of University Properties.

One of those people is Michael Iannuzzi, owner of TYCO copy, who — while admitting that his service business is not as dependent on foot traffic brought in by neighboring stores — said there can be no doubt about the magnitude of positive change effected by University Properties.

While other shops have come and gone, Iannuzzi has been in the same location since 1983.

“What everyone can’t appreciate is, if we turn back the clock, how the area was a decaying area,” he said.

Still, he said, past vacancies have usually led to new construction rather than slow turnover in releasing old buildings.

One of the primary reasons University Properties has a difficult time attracting businesses is that it requires stores to remain open until 9 p.m. every day but Sunday, Cuticello said. He said there is very little retail business at that late hour.

“Forcing them to stay open … is absurd,” he said. “Independent stores just starting out — it’s just not possible. Only chains can do it, but the properties are too small for chains.”

But Kim said late hours are a big plus for students with busy and unpredictale schedules.

“It’s a good thing to have the stores open until 9:00 … because we have to study late,” she said.

Managers and owners of businesses in both the Broadway and Chapel districts said strict landlord-tenant lease agreements set a high bar for staying in business. From the late-hour requirement to prohibitions on leaving store doors open, the University’s regulations make it difficult to take advantage of high foot traffic, they said.

The number of vacancies was disturbing, they said. One pointed to Roomba and Oolong’s Tea Bar as long-time clients that have closed in recent months. But they also said the closures could simply be the result of an economic downturn.

“No one will admit we are in a recession,” Cuticello said. “People aren’t spending the same as before.”

Iannuzzi said that to make the Broadway and Chapel sections of downtown unique and receptive to student needs, “you want 100 percent [of businesses] open late.”

Development is a slow process, Iannuzzi said, but the University is thinking much longer-term than any individual business can afford to do.

“We’re in an academic area where nighttime reigns,” he said. “Private ownerships want something now … Businesses care about their investments, whereas the University is concerned about the area as a whole.”

Ultimately, the consensus among owners and managers about the need for fewer vacancies is clear. In the meantime, owners wait or hope — or some combination of the two.

—Lacey Gonzales contributed reporting.

Comments