This time last year, Shaw’s Supermarket on Whalley Avenue had fully stocked shelves and a bustling parking lot. But for the past seven months, the store has remained empty, along with its former neighbors Rite Aid and Staples, leaving a gaping vacancy along the major thoroughfare.
But these empty lots are not indicative of the neighborhood’s economic prospects, as community leaders said Whalley Avenue is on the verge of securing a new tenant to replace Shaw’s. In fact, recent initiatives on the part of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District (in conjunction with the city of New Haven and Yale) have already brought the a new bank headquarters to the area, as well as new sidewalks and building facades developed over the summer.
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Five to six years ago, the Whalley Avenue Special Services District — the 1.2 mile-stretch along Whalley Avenue from Howe to Pendleton streets — was a magnet for development, said Linda Townsend-Maier, executive director of the Greater Dwight Development Corporation, which owns the Shaw’s lot.
However, “after the economy went, so did Whalley Avenue,” she said, referring to the big chains that moved out of the neighborhood.
The most significant of these moves was Shaw’s departure, as it not only sustained the area with jobs and income, but also provided downtown New Haven with its only full service grocery store, said Sheila Masterson, the executive director of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District.
“It’s horrible,” she said. “I miss a major supermarket. Where do we shop now?”
Masterson has taken to buying at local boutique grocery stores such as Edge of the Woods, but she said that the minute a new full-service grocer opens up, she and others will be back in droves.
That day may be fast approaching. Townsend-Maier said that there is a lot of activity going on in the negotiation process of finding a new full service grocer. She said she is optimistic that a new grocer will open in roughly six months. If Townsend-Maier’s prediction proves correct, the replacement for Shaw’s would arrive around the same time as the future food co-op at 360 State St., which is set to open until March 2011.
Masterson was more confident.
“We are very close,” she said, adding that the GDDC, along with several other parties, are in negotiations with an national grocer, which she declined to name outright.
She said the seven-month turnaround time from the store’s closure to reaching this stage of negotiations speaks to the potential market in the area.
The process for finding a tenant has involved several parties, including University Properties and a Yale Law School clinic, which have been working closely in support of GDDC, said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, associate vice president for New Haven and State Affairs.
Morand said he is impressed with the pace of negotiations for the Shaw’s lot, which he said demonstrate that the city is “resilient” despite the national economic downturn.
But in the meantime, the void left by Shaw’s, Rite Aid and Staples has been partly filled by other businesses along Whalley Avenue, which are offering new services to compensate for the loss of these chains, Masterson said.
“The major national chains seemed to be affected negatively by the recession, as opposed to the privately owned businesses which can make decisions to change at the drop of a hat,” she said.
She cited Custom Tee’s Plus as an example of a local business that has done well with the closure of a large chain. After the closure of Staples, Custom Tee’s Plus — which had previously been focusing on clothing — quickly added commercial printing and mail services to its business model.
Still, given the size of the site originally occupied by Shaw’s and company, only larger regional or national chains could move in, Masterson said. To help with the search for tenants, she has enlisted the help of the New Haven Economic Development Corporation. The organization, which was started with grant money from Yale, is tasked to help businesses and “connect the dots” for special service districts, said its CEO, Anne Haynes.
She said the city’s goal for the Whalley corridor has been to make it safer and more pedestrian-friendly, and that the development of that area is a priority for New Haven. Haynes said there have been a lot of resources — from state, city and University organizations — spent in the development, but improvements sometimes take time to realize.
Some changes can already be seen. Starting in the first week of July, and finishing four weeks ago, the city laid new sidewalks along the south side of Whalley between Sherman and Winthrop as part of Whalley Avenue Revitalization Program, which also has been building new facades on Whalley businesses such as Best Gas.
The University also has a hand in helping the neighborhood in its improvement efforts. Start Community Bank received start-up funds from the University, and its development was supported by pro bono work from the Law School, Morand said. Masterson said the bank is waiting on FDIC approval and is scheduled to open in mid-October.
The bank will open on the corner of Whalley and Sherman, a block away from Shaw’s former location, in a historic building which used to house another bank as well as a dental lab.
“[The Start Bank building] is one of the prettiest buildings in the area,” said Masterson, “I’m thrilled.”
Still, the bank will not resolve the vacant stretch of land originally occupied by the three departed chain stores.
In addition to new store fronts and sidewalks, the Whalley Avenue Special Services District, along with the city of New Haven, had placed large planters through the middle of the larger sidewalks. A committee is currently discussing what kinds of flowers will be planted.
The Whalley Avenue Special Services District was the first special services district of its kind in New Haven.