In the last decade, the siren song of the downtown regional shopping mall has twice ensnared the administration of Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Burned by a combination of lackluster state financing and opposition from a coalition of local groups — once in 1992 when the Taubman company’s plans for a mall stalled and again this year when a deal with New England Development Corp. unraveled — the mayor finds himself at a crossroads.
Though he has frequently ignored it, DeStefano’s own advice through the last decade is the most sound counsel of all: The age of the downtown mall is over. As DeStefano noted in 1996, core urban centers are an impossible marketplace for malls. “Cities are not going to lure department stores in anymore,” he said. Four years later, after embracing a plan for the proposed 1.2 million square foot Galleria at Long Wharf mall, he sounded the same theme. “Everyone has a vision of downtown as a center of retail which frankly, in New Haven, ended 10 or 20 years ago. I don’t know why we would try to create something that will never happen.”
But trying to create a downtown retail center is precisely what DeStefano did, throwing caution — and precedent — into the wind. As costly as it was, the death of the Galleria at Long Wharf mall proposal has, fortunately, reshaped the post-Chapel Square Mall dialogue about downtown.
The question is no longer whether there will be a suburban-style mall in New Haven. There will not. The question now is how to work with downtown merchants to revitalize an existing shopping district while moving forward with long-term plans to develop the waterfront on Long Wharf.
Much of downtown remains vastly under used, as DeStefano said in his last State of the City address. Huge swaths of prime retail property — including the site of the former Malley’s store on Church Street — have sat vacant for more than a decade. This is where the mayor and his team of planners must focus their energies now that the mall is dead. The mayor should continue to allow merchants to apply for $15,000 grants for new facades, signs and lighting. This money, originally offered to anxious retailers as an antidote to the proposed mall, is a vital part of the city’s strategy for making downtown retailers competitive with their suburban counterparts.
Long Wharf, meanwhile, remains New Haven’s best chance for a regional attraction. With the mall out of the picture, the City Plan Department must iron out a comprehensive plan for making the waterfront accessible to city residents and tourists in a way that a windowless shopping mall never could. The proposed Amistad museum is a small step in the right direction.
DeStefano’s opponents in next year’s mayoral race are likely to pounce on the him for throwing so much political and financial capital into a project that remained in suspense for so long. The wisdom of pursuing the five-year project as doggedly as he did — in the face of merchant opposition, growing ill-will from neighboring towns and a welter of litigation — is a judgment voters will render when they go to the polls in Democratic primary next year.
A legacy-conscious DeStefano has always tried to soft-pedal the significance of the massive retail project. “I don’t want to be remembered for the mall,” he said in an interview before his re-election last year. “The mall is just a mall. The question was what is the best thing we can put there that would generate jobs and taxes. It happened to be a mall.”
In order for his legacy to transcend a fierce mall battle, the DeStefano administration will have to redouble its efforts to round out downtown’s retail core and turn Long Wharf into a waterfront destination.