When the vote tallies for Yale-dominated Ward 1 were called out at Toni Harp’s primary victory party on Sept. 10, one woman in the crowd shouted, “We don’t need Yale! They’re not even part of New Haven!”
In New Haven, Yale often is a source of commendation and criticism. The University is the city’s largest employer and taxpayer, but nevertheless keeps tremendous sums out of city coffers through its tax-exempt status. It is a source of gentrification, but also socio-economic and racial division. To some, it is a benevolent figure looking to improve a downtrodden postindustrial city; to others, a self-interested institution of privilege.
“People beat up Yale all the time, but the reality is that Yale is the largest property taxpayer,” community activist Gary Doyens said. “Yale has been very good to the city of New Haven.”
When the next mayor — either Connecticut State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78 or Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 — takes office on New Year’s Day, he or she will be faced not only with improving the city, but also with navigating the complexities that have come to define the Elm City’s relationship with Yale.
The walk between City Hall and Woodbridge Hall, the seats of power in New Haven and at Yale, is barely a quarter mile, yet in the past that distance has seemed much greater.
Before former Yale President Richard Levin and current Mayor John DeStefano Jr. took office in the mid-1990s, New Haven and Yale frequently stood at odds. The Board of Aldermen stymied plans to build two new residential colleges in the 1970s, and the University was openly hostile to Yale labor unions, whose members made up a significant voting bloc in the city.
University President Peter Salovey and the two mayoral hopefuls say they hope to preserve the strong Levin-DeStefano relationship of the last two decades. Nevertheless, both mayoral candidates emphasize that they would treat the relationship differently, pointing to transparency, respect and collaboration as a point of departure — though they vary in their willingness to dealings, pointed to that same issue in improving town-gown relations.
“There’s generally been a lot of deals that have been negotiated behind closed doors between the mayor and Yale,” Elicker said.
The Harp campaign placed a similar emphasis on transparency, but declined to comment on any errors made by DeStefano. According to campaign Communications Director Patrick Scully, Harp wants to bring transparency to “all aspects” of city government, though he added that some decisions between city and University should be made privately.
To Elicker, the city’s sale of portions of High and Wall streets to Yale earlier this summer is indicative of an off-kilter balance of power between the two entities. The city gave the University rights to the streets in perpetuity for $3 million to help close a gap in its budget. The low price, Elicker said, shows that Yale often enjoys the upper hand in negotiations with the city.
New Haven, which consistently faces massive budget shortfalls, frequently looks to Yale to supplement programs throughout the city. Scully said Harp, who has led the State Senate’s Appropriations Committee, would work to strike a balance between asking for fair contributions from Yale and looking at the University to underwrite all of the city’s activities.
Regardless of their efforts to improve the city’s position in the Yale-New Haven power relationship, both candidates recognize that Yale is vital to the future of the city.
Community activist Doyens said the University provides some compensation to the city for its tax-exempt property through the state’s PILOT program while also funding initiatives like New Haven Promise, which helps Elm City students pay for college. Through University Properties’ acquisition of land on Broadway and Chapel, he said, Yale has prevented New Haven from “starting to fall back apart.”
“It’s a good idea for the city to have a collaborative relationship,” Elicker said. “Our futures are tied together, and we both can mutually benefit.”
Elicker has suggested the University and city work together to improve public transportation downtown and in the graduate student-heavy East Rock neighborhood by combining bus lines. Both Yale Shuttle and CT Transit buses shuttle Elm City residents, some Yale students and others not, along the main thoroughfares of Orange and Whitney avenues, which Elicker said is redundant.
Elicker also said that collaboration between the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and New Haven’s Grove, an incubator for business startups, would benefit both Yale students and Elm City residents.
For Harp, the primary benefit of collaboration comes in the form of one of her campaign’s three pillars: education. According to While Elicker has presented specific proposals for collaboration and instances where he believes the relationship has gone awry, Harp’s campaign strikes a less definite tone.
“I think that Toni’s going to evaluate the city’s relationship with every important entity in the city, and of course Yale is right at the top of the list,” Scully said.
That flexibility is evident in the way the candidates regard the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Yale’s graduate student union. A part of Unite Here, a group that has endorsed Harp in the general election and includes Yale’s powerful Local 34 and Local 35 unions, the union has maintained a contentious relationship with the University since its founding in 1991.
Elicker said involvement in fights between the union and the University does not lie in the purview of the mayor.
“While graduate students should have the right to push that issue and organize,” Elicker said, “I think that the mayor of the city should not get involved in that kind of fight.”
Harp spokesman Scully, though, was less definitive, saying the candidate would “look at” intervening in a dispute if it was “warranted.” He added, though, that the unions’ support of Harp would not engender them any special favor in the mayor’s office should she be elected.
Perhaps more significant than specific policies, though, are the attitudes the two candidates have struck in their dealings with Yale. A resident of Yale-populated East Rock, Elicker’s campaign has maintained a higher visibility on campus amongst students.
“Just the tone of how he approaches Yale … I don’t think it’s going to be a very hard sell to Yale to be more invested in the city,” said David Streever, a former Ward 10 co-chair.
Harp, meanwhile, has built strong relationships with Yale employees, largely through Local 34 and Local 35. Many of Yale’s employees live in the nearby Dixwell neighborhood, where Harp won convincingly in the Sept. 10 primary.
On Nov. 5, one of the two candidates will become mayor-elect of the city of New Haven. How he or she will navigate the relationship with Salovey, though, will only be revealed as the winner changes and charts the city’s path forward.