For a generation of New Haven women, the search for the perfect prom dress or wedding gown has ended with a scooped-back turquoise gown, a studded hot-pink halter or one of the myriad other formal gowns at Cooper’s Dress Shop. And integral to the selection process has been store owner Evelyn Cooperstock — who has memorized a Rolodex of dress codes and formal events from the local high schools that many of her customers attend.
But half a century of dress-shopping tradition is about to change.
With the announcement of the College Square Development project, which will build a 19-story luxury high-rise on the block that Cooper’s currently occupies, Cooperstock is biding time before an inevitable — and she says unwanted — move.
“After 47 years of business, I would have stayed here as long as I could,” Cooperstock said. “I’m not ready to leave.”
Cooperstock, who hopes to relocate to a non-New Haven address on Boston Post Road in May, said she thinks her reputation and established brand will prevent the move from causing much damage to her store’s business. But for other small-business owners, the loss of their rental space will mean a drastic reinvention of business plans — and the lingering question of whether to remain in New Haven.
For Antonio Demasi — owner of The Suit Maker, formerly located at 208 College St. — the choice not to reopen in New Haven was based on a lack of retail space that did not fall under Yale’s strict tenancy rules, which require businesses to be open until 9 p.m. at least six days a week.
Demasi, who will continue running the original branch of his business in Meriden, Conn., said he did not find it feasible to run a small business under the long hours that operating in a Yale-owned space mandates. He says such a shift marks the end of a New Haven that was accessible to mom-and-pop stores.
“What was beautiful about New Haven is there was never any of those big merchants — it was local, one of the few towns that still offered that,” Demasi said. “Now, unless you’re Urban Outfitters, you can’t afford it.”
But even once retail space is found in New Haven, the logistics required to relocate are complicated and costly, said Sanjay Patil, owner of College Wine — the only business on the block currently slated to remain in New Haven after the high-rise is built. Patil said although he finalized a lease on 936 Chapel St., the battle for zoning approval has taken almost a year.
Although Patil received approval from the city zoning board Nov. 13, he said he will still have to go through a legal process with the liquor-control group before he can begin renovations on the space. Once relocated to Chapel Street, his business will shift its focus to high-end wines in order to meet the demands of the future College Square residents.
“A lot of people with high income[s] are shopping around for wines,” said Patil, who hopes to open his new location in March. “It will be a different clientele and a good move to have a nice wine store around there.”
Cooper’s and College Wine are the only two active retail stores remaining on this College Street block.
Danny Scarpalino — whose restaurant’s storefront currently reads, “Thanks for all the memories” — says the cost of relocating expensive restaurant equipment meant the end of the 28-year tenure of his Italian eatery, Scarpellino’s.
Scarpalino, who has relocated with his family to Florida, said since he had been operating under an informal lease with his landlord, he did not receive a buyout and was left without the funds to reopen. Although he thinks growth is good for New Haven, Scarpalino said he thinks the lack of concern on the part of the city and his landlords for the original businesses is a gross oversight.
But Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said she is “thrilled” wwith the College Square Development project, which she believes will be a major revitalization for her constituency.
“It’s that many more people frequenting our restaurants and our boutiques, and filling the empty stores along College Street,” she said. “Bringing 495 families into downtown is bound to have an effect. You have to mourn the loss of business, but you have to be realistic.”
Director of Town Green Special Services Scott Healy ’96 said the development marks a large investment in the area and will bring with it enormous economic expansion. The current businesses, Healy said, will be replaced by the retail space in the College Square building, which the owner is keen on filling with stores catering to a contemporary clientele.
Centerplan Companies, the developer for the College Square project, could not be reached for comment.
Despite the replacements, his organization has taken steps to help current tenants find new locations, Healy said.
“There are plenty of vacant storefronts, and too much potential for … relocation to think it’s impossible,” he said. “I don’t think any of the businesses would say that the College Street location has been particularly lucrative.”
Still, New Haven residents are concerned about the effects that the project will have on the neighborhood. Qian Gao, an assistant professor of comparative medicine who has lived in New Haven for the past five years, said he worries that after the building project, the neighborhood will be less vibrant.
Hector Leonar, general manager of upscale seafood restaurant Pacifico, said he thinks the restaurant will suffer from the decline in street traffic and the loss of College Wine, from which Pacifico frequently makes purchases.
But such concerns are normal in the process of any development project, Healy said.
“It would be unwise for the city of New Haven to shun a developer because change can be threatening,” he said. “The cumulative effect of this change will cause many ships to rise in the downtown, which will resonate.”