Yale’s new director of University Properties is a renaissance woman — a New Haven renaissance woman, that is.
Hailing from Brown University, where she was the director of Real Estate and Administrative Services, Abigail Rider is described by her supporters and co-workers as well-qualified to sustain and bolster New Haven’s “downtown renaissance.” But observers also acknowledged that the University’s recent legal dispute with the owners of Roomba has colored perceptions of the directorship, which critics deem “powerless” in the face of higher-ups within the University administration.
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Rider takes the reins at University Properties at a time when numerous Yale lots in Broadway and throughout downtown stand vacant and some students have questioned the University’s vision for developing New Haven.
University Properties Director of Marketing Shana Schneider ’00 said Rider brings extensive experience to the University Properties team, which handles Yale commercial properties, ranging from retail stores to office spaces to residential units.
“Ms. Rider has an extensive background in the private sector,” Schneider said in an e-mail. “Her experience in a university setting and her understanding of having to balance both financial and, [more] importantly, social returns on real estate investment properties is invaluable.”
During her tenure at Brown, Rider was instrumental in helping the university acquire city properties situated between campus and a hospital district where Brown students engage in research and medical training, Brown Executive Vice President for Finance & Administration Elizabeth Huidekoper said.
This event was “historic,” Huidekoper said, since Providence and Brown were not as connected prior to the deal.
Rider assumed her position at University Properties in June after former director David Newton announced his retirement last September, leaving community members to wonder whether he was forced to retire because he had improperly represented Yale’s interests in a settlement dispute with a tenant.
In September 2006, Newton and an attorney signed an agreement to share a piece of property with Suzette and Arturo Franco-Camacho, the owners of the restaurant Bespoke, a restaurant on College Street. After the settlement was confirmed in court, Yale officials decried the settlement’s execution, arguing that Newton and the attorney were not authorized to settle in the first place.
The two parties are once again in court, and last spring Yale declined to renew the Franco-Camachos’ lease on their “Roomba” restaurant, citing the ongoing legal conflict as a reason for effectively shutting the restaurant down.
Joel Schiavone ’58, a New Haven developer who has been in the area for almost 30 years, said the clash between Yale and Bestoke highlights the lack of authority the University Properties director has as a result of what he called the “iron fist” of Vice President and Director of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65.
As long as University Properties retains the same leadership, Schiavone said, the agency will continue to “intimidate” tenants regardless of who is the new director.
“David Newton was seen as somebody who had no authority,” he said. “He went out and would talk to people, and then he’d come back and change his mind. Behind the scenes there were thousands of incidents like that where he’d go and work something out and Bruce would say ‘no.’ ”
Newton was quoted in “Business New Haven” as saying he had “a lot of responsibility and very limited authority” as director. Newton refused to elaborate to the News the extent of his authority during his five years with University Properties.
Some observers said perceptions of Newton’s authority and the directorship in general have been particularly altered by the Roomba dispute, but others, such as executive director of Town Green Special Services Scott Healy ’97, said Newton’s term as director was significant and focused on the city. Healy said he hears similar comments about Rider’s work thus far as well.
“I think he was very effective, and I think he was empowered to do what he needed to do,” Healy said. “Bruce Alexander hires very effective and community-minded people and he tends to hire people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get out there.”
Rider’s ascension to the directorship comes at a time when a number of the University’s properties are vacant, with the Broadway shopping district alone counting eight empty store fronts. Alexander said shifts in retail and the in-between vacancies are not highly unusual because “as consumer preferences shift, merchants will sometimes go out of business to be replaced by those with new concepts.”
Cognizant of student criticisms concerning University Properties’ selection of businesses and the noticeable vacancies, Rider said one of the most difficult aspects of her position is communicating New Haven’s long-term improvement to a population that is constantly changing.
“It’s hard to describe what New Haven was like 15 years ago to those who didn’t see it then, and therefore difficult to convey how wonderfully far the city has come,” Rider said in an e-mail. “Students and other short-term residents of the city see what remains to be done … but what’s difficult to communicate to them is what already has been done.”
Philip Cutler, the third-generation owner of Cutler’s Records, Tapes & Compact Discs on Broadway, said that as a University Properties tenant he has never had a problem with the University Properties administration.
“I think a lot of stores have voiced complaints, but as far as I go, [University Properties has] always been upfront and sincere with me,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad thing to say about them — you sign a lease and if you pay your rent, you’re fine.”
But while he is confident in the University Properties team, Cutler said the vacant properties in the Broadway shopping district are a worrying sight since they mean less foot traffic for the area.
Because the University is constantly striving for “an outstanding retail mix … to give New Haven a unique character,” Yale waits many months before settling on tenants, Rider said.
Rider said Yale is in the midst of signing more leases, but she could not comment on them until they were “done deals.”
In addition to owning 85 retail properties in downtown New Haven, University Properties also holds more than 500 residential parcels in its portfolio.