The Science Park Bubble

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Photo by Jacob Geiger.

New Haven’s Science Park starts at the intersection of Munson and Winchester, about half a mile from Yale’s campus near its Health Services Building. Built from the remains of industrial decay, the mixed-use space of corporate offices, research labs, some retail, and soon, an apartment complex, presents an alternative for New Haven’s economic future.

The city’s redevelopment of the Winchester Repeating Arms historic site mirrors transformations in America’s economic landscape. Following the mid-century collapse of the manufacturing industry, federal and state governments planned office park developments across the nation to help states transition towards an information economy.

Science parks are often built near universities — the idea being that businesses and tech companies will benefit from being closer to their resources, students and research faculty, and vice versa. Ideally, this new highway of communication leads to increased innovation. In the best-case scenario, one ends up with the Stanford Industrial Park, also known as Silicon Valley.

In New Haven, the Science Park Development Corporation (SPDC), a nonprofit 501k, was founded in 1982 as a joint collaboration between the city, the factory’s previous owner (the Olin Corporation) and Yale. SPDC’s plans are aimed at encouraging New Haven’s economic strengths in education, research and medical care. But unlike other major manufacturing cities, New Haven’s possibilities for economic recovery were severely limited by its intense dependence on the manufacturing industry.

The Park currently houses the outsourcing of the administrative, IT and maintenance staff from Yale, which has filled Winchester’s shoes as the city’s largest employer. The reality of New Haven’s Science Park has yet to live up to the tech boom’s promise.

Ivy Bistro, one of the Park’s only retail establishments, floats precariously as a trial balloon. Jeff, an older Asian man working the cashier, said it was “sometimes lonely” being the only business in the area, especially when business was slow. The restaurant is nestled, somewhat comically, in between 25,000 square feet of empty space for lease that has yet to see any offers. The “Now Open” sign that has been hanging outside since April might as well read “Open — For Now.” David Silverstone, president of the SPDC, said the process of finding additional tenants to lease these spaces — ideally “a mix of IT firms, biotech, retail and development, and state agencies” — has likewise been “slow.”

 

The Park’s surrounding neighborhood of Dixwell-Newhallville no longer has the same proximal relationship to jobs that it used to, back when Winchester was the source of those jobs and the sense of its community. At its peak during the World Wars, the factory employed over 20,000 workers, 85 percent of whom lived nearby and walked to work. Ward 21 Alderman Brenda Foskey-Cyrus, who was raised two blocks up from Division and Winchester, estimated that up to 25 percent of the neighborhood was unemployed — three times the national average. But the direct link — between people who live in the neighborhood and work there — has been severed.

The street that bisects Science Park and Winchester to its north is literally named Division Street. This fracture is also physical. The cosmetic difference between the developed Science Park section of Winchester Avenue and the rest of the street to the south of Munson and north of Division is startling: one half is paralyzed; the other, while not quite animate, is operative.

On the four blocks leading up to where Science Park starts, Winchester’s sidewalks swell into concrete lumps that crack open with weeds and small shrubbery. Houses that aren’t burned out or boarded up are often next to houses that are. But reach the corner of Munson and Winchester and the sidewalks level out into linear walkways, and Blue Phones glow from every corner of the new parking garage.

The design of Science Park heightens this sense of alienation from its surroundings. Biking and walking around the park in the rain, or after dark, or anytime, really, feels like bobbing around a ghost town. At night, its buildings stay lit. They are blank and glowing and completely anonymous. Peek inside the low-slung 344 Winchester for a deadpan world of polished white cubicles and thin white beams: unpeopled, weightless and humming, like the glowing ghost of capital to come.

Last April, Higher One, a financial services and data analytics provider to universities nationwide, opened its headquarters in Science Park. The Park’s biggest employer after Yale, the company seeks out advanced financial and technical acuity; scientific research requires a series of advanced degrees. Yet many residents in Dixwell-Newhallville don’t have high school diplomas.

Elihu Rubin, an assistant professor of architecture at Yale who specializes in urban redevelopment in New Haven, believes that workforce training programs, partly sponsored by private enterprises and partly supported by government, can help bridge this “skills mismatch.” Initiatives, he says, should make sure that people who live in the area are positioned, whenever possible, to take new jobs in emerging markets: “It should be that if you grow up here you can have job at whatever it is: Higher One, a new biotechnology company, a new kind of service industry … It would be a missed opportunity, if the jobs created by the Park seemed a world away.”

 

Newhallville Alderman Brenda Foskey-Cyrus sat in the renovated section of the Higher One courtyard. The space has been constructed, in part, from within the outer walls of the yet-to-be-renovated old Winchester factory where her father used to work. The Winchester rifle, renowned for its reliability and branded as the gun “that won the West,” was once shipped from here to every state in the Union. These days, Foskey-Cyrus says Newhallville-Dixwell’s biggest export is its number of shootings: the neighborhood that once profited from manufacturing munitions for war now put their triggers to use for murder.

Foskey-Cyrus said she became an alderman because of crime. Her brother was murdered just before Christmas in 2011. That year, Dixwell had a violent crime rate of more than twice the New Haven average. Though the area north of Newhallville comprises only one-fifth of New Haven’s total area, DataHaven, a Connecticut advanced data analysis organization, calculates that it accounted for over four-fifths of the city’s 2011 violent crime.

When Foskey-Cyrus knocks on doors and asks the question, “What would it take to calm down the neighborhood?” she said that there was one urgent answer on everyone’s mind: jobs. As I did the same, asking residents on their porches and chatting with proprietors in their stores, I heard the same refrain — “jobs” — that seemed to have incantatory powers.

I talked to residents living on Ivy, on Highland, on Lilac, on Star, on Newhall. Their problems with Science Park were not so much with Forest City’s new housing development, but with what seemed to be the beginning of yet another saga in its long history of neglect. It seemed, to those living in Newhallville-Dixwell, that forces no one had told them about were shaping a development nearby that they would never work at, let alone ever see.

So long as getting hit by a stray bullet was more likely than finding a job, some magic bullet seemed necessary to conjure real results. Could Science Park help with this? Could it have the same responsibility to the neighborhood into which it has plopped itself as Winchester once did?f

Twenty percent of the current phase’s apartments have been set aside for low-income housing. “It should be half and half if anything,” Darrine Padgett, who lives on Lilac Street, said, of the 20 percent allotment for low-cost housing. Both of her friends nodded. But Padgett laughed and then said how unrealistic that would be, considering the apathy towards the community.

Tiffany Barnes, 24, and her cousin Christina, 23, sitting outside on their porch on Winchester, explained that most people in the area didn’t know about the relief programs available to them because no one ever stopped to have a conversation with them.

“They should post jobs here. The only posts I’ve seen is move your car or clean up litter,” Tiffany said. They see the city’s silence on neighborhood housing plans as a sign. They fear that locals will “slowly but surely” be pushed out by students and the middle class. “We feel like they’re trying to clear everybody out of neighborhood,” Christina said.

“I’m just going to say it — don’t take it the wrong way — but I see white people coming over there trying to plan it,” Tiffany continued. “They definitely have plans.”

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Jacob Geiger

Last fall, the Board of Aldermen unanimously approved the plans by the developer Forest City to convert the rest of the old building surrounding Higher One courtyard — the rest of Winchester Repeating Arms historic site — into 158 loft-style apartments.

When I asked SPDC President David Silverstone whether he would classify this type of development as gentrification, he explained that he understood the issue but didn’t see it as relevant in this case. “We’re taking abandoned factories — what Europe used to look like after World War II —and we’re turning them into productive uses. To me, that’s not gentrification,” he said. “To me, gentrification is taking out buildings, adding colored paint and upping the counters so that existing neighbors can’t pay the rent. We’re not doing that; we’re making existing area more attractive. We’re making the existing area better and more attractive to existing residents. We’re not displacing anybody. We’re not taking over buildings that benefit blue-collar workers and making them better for white-collar workers.”

Drew Morrison, a Yale junior whose organization New Haven Action has worked with City Hall on solutions for housing and crime, supports the Winchester renovation but sees the “pressure to follow this model” of development in other areas so that everything becomes “high-tech parks and apartment buildings” as dangerous. “As much as I support Winchester, it shouldn’t be the model, though it makes sense for this particular situation. Something in Newhallville has to benefit Newhallville.”

Silverstone has spoken of plans to open a daycare center for employees in Science Park, with 15 percent of its slots reserved for Newhallville. A nonprofit center, established by the SPDC at 4 Science Park, houses a jobs center, Literacy Volunteers and New Haven Reads. The Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCat), which is not part of the center but is located next door, prepares adults for jobs through a holistic training program that, as Rubin hoped, caters directly to the current demand of the market. This type of workforce training opens dialogues between new employers, educational institutions and people in the area to tailor opportunities to resources already available.

Though ConnCat serves the needs of the larger New Haven community in addition to Newhallville, Clemons says that he chose the location of Science Park intentionally so as to be in the “midst of cutting-edge technology while also being in one of the most depressed neighborhoods in New Haven.” He says that he hopes to debunk the myth of Science Park as an “unfriendly, tread-with-caution place” that people never even drive through by “bringing people into the idea that is Science Park.”

The proximity provided by Science Park’s shared space has led to mutually beneficent results: ConnCat has worked with Literacy Volunteers to target the specific needs of applicants who didn’t pass ConnCat’s intake assessment, so that they can try again.

ConnCat is now looking to expand its ability to serve more people given the “incredible need” and demand from the community. In ConnCat’s future, Clemons sees the possibility of building a culinary school to serve  the criminal re-entry population, who cannot legally work medical jobs but are allowed to cook.

Residents have also spoken hopefully about programs like Solar Youth, Achievement First, CitySeed and the Winchester Arts Initiative that had all recently moved to the area.

 

On a Monday morning in October, Abe Naparstek, the project’s manager and Forest City’s vice president, gave me a tour of the old Winchester factory so that he could better illustrate these plans for its future restoration. As he unlocked the gate to the section of the building that had been left to rot since the 1980s, he explained that the way these traditional industrial spaces were designed in the early 1900s — connecting section onto section as needed — had proved inefficient over time. After restoration, however, these sections made for bright loft spaces: the structure’s narrow frames, big windows and high ceilings allowed for lots of sunlight.

Inside, it was cool and quiet. As we carefully stepped across the floorboards jutting out in every direction like fallen Jenga pieces, Naparstek said that the new apartments at Science Park would be “top of the market,” geared towards people who “appreciate historical details and the urban fabric of living there.” He expects its tenants to primarily be “young professionals interested in the flexibility of renting,” graduate students, people working in the area, or couples looking to downsize from a home.

From where we were standing, it was as hard to imagine a young 20-something someday cooking quinoa as it was to conceive of the thousands of men who once delicately pieced together the parts of a revolver. Rows of thin beams and soft pink columns, their pastel paint peeling and tearing, ran down the long length of the narrow rooms. Some rooms were filled with shells and casings. Others were emptied of everything but dust and an old sign: “DO NOT THROW CIG BUTTS ON FLOOR.” One bathroom’s toilet had exploded, scattering shards of porcelain across its bright teal tiling.

Outside, the old buildings enclosed an unrenovated courtyard the size of two baseball diamonds. Unlike Higher One, strings of long weeds and snarling purple flowers all spun and fell over the trees like tufts of hair thrown down to earth from a barbershop up in the sky.

“Every time we do development, we have to spend a lot of money on cleanup,” Naparstek said. “During the last 100 years, these factories didn’t have the sensitivities to lead, soil, all of these chemicals that are left around.”

 

Erik Johnson’s job is to serve as an intermediary between the forces of development and the interests of the neighborhood, and if all goes well, to resolve these differences in a mutually beneficial way. Johnson works for the Liveable City Initiative (LCI), whose principal concern is to make sure there are “opportunities available to residents and existing homeowners.” Johnson’s family grew up in Newhallville when it had its highest concentration of home ownership.

LCI has partnered with Neighborhood Housing Services, which tries to aggressively acquire and rehababilitate formerly vacant properties. NHS, using LCI funds, has helped create a new home-ownership community through a concentrated approach to development.

Johnson believes that Forest City’s $50 million investment in new apartments and NHS’s commitment to development in Newhallville are “working to the same end from different spectrums.” While NHS is working on preservation, Forest City is working on “opening the eyes of the market to a neighborhood that’s been neglected for 25 years.” The return of a larger middle class to Newhallville can help to stabilize crime, increase retail and promote improved housing stock and green space. He foresees the neighborhood regaining some of its diversity — both “racial and income-wise” — as Science Park emerges as a “business and entrepreneurial destination point in the city.”

I wondered aloud to Johnson about the two sides of this coin. On the one hand, if the area becomes more attractive and more desirable, property values starts to rise. On the other, this may affect tenants negatively as what was once affordable housing will now be out of reach. At the moment, only 26 percent of New Haven residents own their own homes; the national average for cities is 50 percent. For the 15 residents I talked to, development, Yale and gentrification, were all different words for the same thing: rising prices and, eventually, displacement of renters. These developments seemed particularly inevitable to residents because of the Park’s ties to Yale — its proximity, its new colleges and its stake in these investments.

But it was precisely this convergence of activities, Johnson said, that LCI is trying to prevent by putting measures in place to help sustain the neighborhood long before the pull of the market hits full stride. LCI’s strategy, he said, is to be “proactive” rather than “reactive” in order to help people take advantage of the “trail of investments” that follow from Forest City’s.

When these conflicts of interest do collide in three to four years, Johnson is optimistic that the question will become, “How are we going to manage the change that’s taken place in neighborhood?” rather than “How are we going to manage the decline of this neighborhood?” Though Johnson conceded that pairing investment positively with cost and affordability was a constant struggle, he added: “I’d rather have that first conversation.” Anything was an improvement over the status quo.

It was possible, Johnson said, for Newhallville to again become the “mixed neighborhood of choice” it once was. The best parallel for Newhallville to follow may be itself: it was once a dynamic mixed-income community. “New Haven as a whole,” he said, “is too hard on itself.” New urbanism, walkable streets, porches — “it’s already here, we already have that. The question is, can we accept the fact that we have it?”

As Science Park appears today —straddling old and new, decay and progress, ruined industry and bright new glass — it is a screen onto which everyone projects home videos of the past and visions for the future. But the rate of change and development negotiated between the Park and Newhallville will tell which of these projections will someday become real — and to whom.

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