Walking through the Audubon district of New Haven, just before the Peabody Museum of Natural History on Whitney Ave., passersby will notice the advertisements lining the windows of vacant storefronts. Indicating retail spaces for rent, these shuttered spaces are part of a growing trend in the historical district of the Elm City and now, local business owners say, they have been forced to relocate at the very time the area should be undergoing a period of growth.
“Times are improving nationally in the economy and overall New Haven remains more resilient and attract place than most peer markets,” said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, University associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs.
And yet, for all the work Morand’s office does on behalf of Yale’s surrounding community, seven business owners interviewed in the last week from the district claim their relationships with Yale University Properties, which manages Yale’s retail and commercial spaces in downtown New Haven, have been defined by conflicts over terms of their leases and its heavy-handed approach to dealing with tenants. Based on this relationship, these tenants said they hope University Properties lowers rent prices and considers more flexible lease agreements when finding new businiesses to fill the empty properties. The office currently holds 42,216 square feet available for leasing throughout the downtown area, according to its website.
“The block is largely empty,” said Richard Stack, former owner of the Toy Store on Audubon, at 77 Audubon Street. “It really does testify to a sort of failure of imagination.”
After five years of selling “original” toys that “you couldn’t find in Toys ‘R’ Us,” Stack and his wife, Suzanne, were forced to sell their business in February 2008 because they were no longer earning enough proceeds to pay University Properties for the rent, he said. Stack added that though they were two months behind on payment, they offered a percentage of their gross profits in exchange. University Properties declined, Stack said.
University Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65 declined to comment.
At the same time, said Stack, it is possible that University Properties was not entirely to blame for his business going belly-up. Citing the area’s poor pedestrian foot traffic and lack of parking options, the street is simply not designed to be a shopping area.
Echoing this sentiment was Matt Feiner, owner of Devil’s Gear Bike Shop that was once located at 97 Audubon St. in 2008, said the University is not responsible for the neighborhood’s layout.
Citing the fact that parking shortage is a city-wide issue, Feiner said attracting more customers and thus more foot traffic is largely the burden of business owners.
“You need to generate your own foot traffic,” Feiner said. “Get out and make it work. You can’t expect your realteor to do it for you.”
For its part, Morand said, Yale does more than its fair share to support local businesses, even in the Audubon district.
“The University provides a lot of support above and beyond what a typical landlord would do in terms of marketing and driving traffic,” he said.
In fact, when Feiner’s Audubon location could no longer generate enough revenue to pay his rent to University Properties after the economy plummeted in early 2008, the office released him from his lease agreement though he had only been there for eight months.
“When they let me out of my lease, they didn’t need to and they did,” Feiner said.
But in large part, other business owners say, Feiner’s story is atypical.
Feiner himself admits that he worries for small businesses in the area as family-owned operations must pay $17 per square foot that they occupy — a price more suitable for larger chain stores, he added. “Yale seems to want to rent to corporations as opposed to ‘mom and pop’ businesses,” he said. “But businesses like [these] really give back to the community.”
Perhaps the largest weight for small businesses to carry is the fact that University Properties does not customize leases based on the size and type of tenants the office recruits, said Robert Muller. Muller, who owns Merwin’s Art Shop on Chapel St. and whose family has leased a location on York St. from Yale since 1934, said he moved his shop in 2006 because University Properties’ “one size fits all” lease agreement required him to keep his store open until 9 p.m. He added that this condition was particularly unfair as he received no customers after 6 p.m.
So for the future of the Audubon District, three business owners say Yale can take a more community-based approach to adding new tenants by giving more opportunity to small businesses rather than boutique chains like J. Crew, Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway.
In its defense, Morand said, Yale focuses on “supporting and nurturing independent businesses” by providing high-quality spaces.
“I really wish Yale were more cooperative, more community oriented,” bike shop owner Feiner said. “The community would flourish more than it already is.”