The retail district that surrounds Yale includes eclectic restaurants, upscale boutiques and late-night college hangouts. But there are also almost two dozen empty storefronts.
University Properties, which manages Yale’s commercial lots, currently owns 21 vacant retail slots throughout downtown New Haven, and five local store owners say they do not think the University is doing enough to fill the openings. Though University officials said University Properties focuses on attracting customers to stores that are already in business, rather than simply filling the empty spaces, times are tough, four store owners said. They said the high rents University Properties charges and its selective leasing policy are keeping new tenants from moving in.
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On Jan. 25, local resident Ed Anderson used the Web site SeeClickFix.com to ask Yale and Bruce Alexander ’65, vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, to take care of a long-vacant space at 986 Chapel St. and “renovate the hideous storefront into something respectable.” Since the message was posted, Anderson’s request has received 45 comments, the majority of which supported the request.
Alexander posted a response to Anderson’s comment on the Web site Wednesday in which he said University Properties had “not done at all well” with the property and that University Properties had made a New Year’s resolution to do better. He added though that putting a low-quality tenant is often worse than leaving a storefront vacant because it “drags down the whole block and makes attracting the better tenants all that more difficult.”
In an interview with the News, Alexander said University Property’s tenants have been doing well and that only 5 percent are behind on their rent, “which is not unusual.”
“Rather than providing rent relief, we are putting our energy and effort into marketing and promotion campaigns for our merchants,” he said.
Five tenants also said Yale does a good job responding to maintenance requests, and that the properties — while expensive — tend to draw in significant revenue from tourists. But not all store proprietors are satisfied.
Liz Dziurzynski, manager of Thom Brown, a shoe store on Broadway, said she thinks University Properties’ rent rates are too high and that they have discouraged new businesses from moving in to empty lots.
“If they are looking to fill the vacant areas, they should really lower their rent significantly,” Dziurzynski said, adding that she does not know exactly what the Thom Brown owner pays to Yale. “It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t even include electrical or AC.”
In spite of these concerns, Abigail Rider, associate vice president and director of University Properties, said in an e-mail that occupancy costs are a “relatively small portion of retailers’ total costs” and consume only between 8 and 15 percent of a retailer’s revenue. Merchants’ biggest concern, Rider said, should be drawing in customers — not how much they are paying in rent.
“If a retailer is failing, it’s not because of rent — it’s because of lack of sales,” Rider wrote. “Retail success is all about getting traffic in the stores and then converting that traffic to sales.”
As for University Properties’ alleged selectivity, Rider said Yale is focused on maintaining a high-quality retail environment, which she said means choosing tenants based on how long they will stay in their slots, how well they will mesh with existing retailers and whether they attract customers. If University Properties did not pick tenants selectively, Rider said, fast food purveyors would line New Haven’s shopping districts because they “can pay very high rents due to their very high turnover.”
Most merchants’ sales have improved since 2008 but are down from their 2007 levels, Rider wrote, noting that University Properties has held a number of marketing and promotional campaigns designed to draw customers to downtown New Haven in the past year — such December’s “Winter Wonderland,” which included sidewalk entertainment, free carriage rides and live models posing in downtown merchant windows.
“We increased our spending on marketing and promotion in 2009, against the economic trend, because we felt that putting ‘feet on the street’ and in our tenants’ stores was the most important single kind of support we could give them,” Rider said.
New Haven businesses have fared better than most in Connecticut during the current recession, said Anthony Rescigno, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. The city’s strong education and health care sectors have helped to keep store owners afloat, he said, adding that New Haven takes an active interest in the welfare of University Properties’ tenants.
But even with these University efforts, three store owners said they still think Yale is too selective in choosing its tenants.
“To me [University Properties’ selectivity] is a mystery,” said Bill Kalogeridis, the owner of Copper Kitchen on Chapel Street. “Why don’t they want people to rent?”
But for Seychelles’ owner Pansy Croft, University Properties’ selectivity is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I like that they’re being selective,” Croft said. “I’m not elitist, but the district needs to maintain a certain level.”
University Properties has retail space in the Broadway Shopping, Chapel Street Historic, Audubon Arts and Retail and Wall Street districts, as well as in the Yale Medical School area.
Vivian Yee contributed reporting.