City to beautify Whalley Avenue

Known as one of the Elm City’s busiest commercial boulevards, Whalley Avenue will soon undergo a $250,000 beautification project intended to improve the area for pedestrians and businesses alike.

Unanimously approved by the City Plan Commission during their meeting last Wednesday, the revitalization project, headed by the Whalley Avenue Special Services District (WASSD), an organization dedicated to business improvement, is slated for completion before the end of the year. And if the plan successfully draws new businesses to the area, city officials said Whalley Avenue will not be the last district to get a facelift.

The plan focuses on the two blocks of the avenue from Sherman Street to Winthrop Street, the area officials identified as the center of the neighborhood that includes sections of Dixwell, Dwight, Edgewood and Beaver Hills. Although the project focuses on physical improvements such as new facades for businesses as well and new sidewalks, crosswalks and landscaping, the ultimate goal, WASSD Director Sheila Masterson said, is to reinvigorate local businesses and improve the aesthetic appeal of the area for pedestrians.

Peter Dodge, longtime owner of organic market Edge of the Woods, said he thought the revitalization was long overdue.

“It’s taking so long to realize the changes,” Dodge said. “When it’s done, it’ll really help the neighborhood, but with the minutiae of a big city, it’s difficult.”

But Masterson said there are already signs that the plan has begun to draw in new businesses and ensure that existing ones stay. In the area under revitalization, she said, only two storefronts are vacant.

“In this economy, who knew?” Masterson said.

She cited Edge of the Woods, Caribbean restaurant Elaine’s Healthy Choice and a soul food eatery as examples of community cornerstones on which the revitalization effort will try to build.

The most prominent aspect of the plan is physical changes. The old, crumbling sidewalks, which were laid in the 1980s, are to be replaced, as are trees that have become tangled in electrical wires, according to WASSD’s plan. In addition, planters will be placed on Whalley Avenue’s wide walkways to create the sense of a commercial thoroughfare rather than a sprawling plaza, which planners said the area has unintentionally become.

New crosswalks will be inset into the streets, using an “elastomeric material,” rather than painted over them; they seek to calm traffic naturally as cars notice the changes in the pavement.

The second aspect of the plan is facade improvement. The program involves city officials helping stores and businesses to renovate their exterior design in the hopes of attracting more customers and of giving the area a unified feel.

To aid these economically driven intentions, a new zoning overlay district has already been established to regulate which types of new businesses are allowed to set up shop along the avenue. Begun in 2006, the zoning amendment excludes businesses planners feel would give the district a bad name, such as dance halls, drug paraphernalia centers, motels and pawn shops, as well as all drive-thru businesses other than banks.

Originally, New Haven was supposed to further stimulate Whalley Avenue business with its Small Business Initiative, which would have provided technical assistance and up to $50,000 to start-up companies. But with the recession, the federal grant that would have funded the initiative was cut and the program died out. The Economic Development Corporation of New Haven, funded by Yale, however, currently works to invest in the area by providing resources to small businesses to ensure that they succeed in the area.

“We provide business plan assistance,” EDC Business Development Director Kathleen Krolak said. “We hold face-to-face meetings and give seminars on business and marketing.”

Masterson added that she believes the renovations may help decrease crime and disorder in the neighborhood. With the avenue currently so wide, she said, it provides space for unsavory characters.

“Let’s just say, after 8 [p.m.], they’re not selling Girl Scout cookies,” Masterson said.

By narrowing the avenue with planters, she said, suspicious activity will have less room to operate. And when crime decreases, business growth is further encouraged, she explained. Masterson concluded that success could have a positive psychological ripple effect on surrounding communities.

Krolak said development companies are most likely in the process of formulating their bids to present to the city within the coming month.

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