Improved city relations may enable expansion

In 1972, Yale announced a plan for expansion.

The blueprints had been drawn. Funding was in place. The location had been determined. But on the eve of construction, New Haven officials blocked the addition of Yale residential colleges 13 and 14.

A decade after the erection of Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges, Yale was once again feeling the strain of a quickly expanding student body after the matriculation of the first female class in 1969. Seeking to resolve the resulting housing crunch by building two new colleges, the University quietly drew up a timetable for their construction.

When the plans were made public, the city came out in opposition to the proposed construction, citing concerns about the financial impact on New Haven. The Board of Aldermen voted 15-10 against a proposed change in zoning that Yale needed before it could break ground.

Thirty-five years later, plans to expand Yale are once again on the table, but the political landscape — and with it, Yale’s likelihood for success — is dramatically different.

University President Richard Levin said Yale made a conscious effort to involve the city in the proposed expansion early in the process.

“Before we even started thinking about it publicly, we went to the mayor and asked him what he thought about Yale growing,” he said. “He was very positive.”

Relations between Yale and New Haven were often icy in the 1970s. But today the ice has thawed, partly as the result of the University’s voluntary financial support of the city and greater consultation with city officers, Yale and New Haven officials said.

Although the Board of Aldermen has not yet given the University the go-ahead and city legislators said they need to discuss the proposal with community members before moving forward, some city leaders — including Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — said they are fully on board with Yale’s anticipated growth.

“What has changed is the growth of the University to be not just a teaching institution, but a research institution, which has broader positive economic implications for the city,” DeStefano said.

But while University administrators paint a rosy picture of the improved relationship between Yale and New Haven, city officials insist final approval for the proposed expansion is still far from certain.

“It is a topic of ongoing discussion,” Ward 10 Alderman and chair of community development for the Board of Aldermen Ed Mattison LAW ’68 said. “There may be issue with zoning because Yale has not told us yet what they plan to do. It will not be all sweetness. It would be premature to say everything is going to go smoothly.”

A September 1972 article published in the News reported construction on two eight-story buildings would begin in March 1973, with the colleges scheduled for completion in time for the arrival of the class of 1975.

Funding for the construction came from a $15 million gift from John Hay Whitney ’26, and Mitchell-Giurgola Associates drew up architectural models of buildings to be raised in the Whitney Avenue-Grove Street area near Timothy Dwight College.

Under the proposal, each college would house 250 students, and the first two floors of each building would be dedicated to commercial space.

A 1972 New York Times article reported Yale had reached a “compromise agreement with the city of New Haven” to build two new residential colleges, but city officials had not granted the University permission to rezone the land.

Relations between Yale and New Haven were strained at the time. Nationally, the economy faced rising inflation and New Haven was facing a financial deficit. City officials viewed the University as a burden because it did not pay taxes on land zoned for private use, and Yale’s endowment was bringing in almost no money to the city, said Gaddis Smith ’54, an emeritus history professor who lived in the Elm City at the time.

Yale brought an estimated $90 million into the New Haven economy each year in the 1970s and paid more than $1 million in taxes, according to a 1973 article in the New York Times. But Yale still cost the city approximately $880,000 annually in non-reimbursed public services. Given the drain Yale was placing on New Haven, city officials balked at the University’s proposal to rezone taxable commercial land as private University property.

Few alumni from this period interviewed for this story remembered specifics of the expansion proposal, but many said they recalled tension between Yale and the city.

“I think Yale wishe[d] that it [was] not in New Haven,” Carolyn Kenady ’74 said.

Then-alderman Fred Wilson, who voted against the proposed colleges, described the issue in a March 1973 News article as “whether poor working people will continue to subsidize rich kids for their education.”

At the time, the city proposed a compromise under which the University would donate money to the community to make up for the lost revenue from the University’s untaxed land. But campus sentiment was against this policy. In an April 1973 article in News, an unidentified University official said giving money to New Haven would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Sensing that the resistance from City Hall was great enough to derail the plan, University administrators abandoned their plans for expansion in 1973.

When the issue of expansion came up again in 2005, University officials were determined not to repeat mistakes of the past.

University professor William Sledge said new leadership at Yale and in New Haven has facilitated greater communication between the two sides.

“The difference this time is that the president and vice president of public relations went to the mayor and politicians and worked with them on public policy to ensure that the city will support any changing land usage,” Sledge said.

Changes in city finances have played an important role in the improved town-gown relations.

In the late 1970s, Connecticut developed the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes program, under which the state pays city governments an average of 75 cents for every dollar it loses on tax-exempt property — such as land used by universities and hospitals, Smith said.

Today, the University also provides funding for several city services, including after-school initiatives for local children and, in the early 1990s, began providing New Haven with loans to relieve deficits in its budget. Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Mike Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said these contributions to the community have significantly contributed to improving relations between Yale and New Haven.

“Should there be an expansion, it would add spending and jobs, [and] it would bring more PILOT revenue, building-program revenue and voluntary payment to the city budget,” Morand said. “The University costs the city almost nothing in services but generates enormous revenues, and expansion of Yale is a major net positive, fiscally and economically.”

DeStefano said while Yale’s proposed expansion will bring economic growth, it will be a “double-edged sword,” as the erection of the proposed colleges would require the land on which they are built to be rezoned, from commercial to untaxable residential use.

Largely as a result of Yale’s increased financial contributions to New Haven, the current plan to expand the University has been less contentious than Yale’s last attempt in 1972. In an April 2007 article in the News, DeStefano said he thinks the proposal of 35 years ago reflected the estranged relationship between “political elites and Yale elites.”

“[T]he political community sought it as an opportunity to create an issue by being anti-Yale and basically took the issue to bash Yale,” he said.

Mattison said while the board has yet to address specific zoning matters, aldermen unanimously agreed in 2006 to “abandon” to Yale three dead-end streets that the University would need to convert into pedestrian walkways if construction is to proceed.

But Mattison said the board has not yes discussed zoning, and the level of community support for the project will depend on the specifics of the plan.

Still, DeStefano seems to be wholeheartedly in support of the plans for expansion. He said while Yale’s growth will not cause “fundamental changes in dynamics of the community,” it will lead to a stronger New Haven economy.

“I look at the expansion, the potential expansion, of the residential colleges, of the Science Hill area, of the medical school, where most of the growth is taking place — it will generate interim jobs for construction and permanent jobs for Yale’s infrastructure,” DeStefano said.

The final decision on whether to proceed with the University expansion will be made in February.

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