Several small wooden tables were pushed together in the back corner of Gourmet Heaven’s upstairs eating area Saturday afternoon, and Evan Lepatner ’02 sat behind them with his hands folded like he meant business.

“Westfield America doesn’t want [our mall] to be the kind of place where you just walk in to get a T-shirt and then walk out,” Lepatner said as he unveiled professional-looking floor plans to an eager crowd of about a dozen prospective retailers and restaurateurs, along with some concerned public officials.

“We really want this to be a unique experience that’s not a traditional mall, but a cultural entertainment complex,” Lepatner said.

But Lepatner isn’t really a developer for Westfield America, the rival mall company whose lawsuits led to the demise of New Haven’s planned Long Wharf mall. And the crowd gathered around Lepatner and his partners aren’t really senators, restaurant owners or bank lenders.

They are all students engrossed in a “New Haven mall war” role-playing game as part of School of Architecture Professor Alexander Garvin’s undergraduate “Study of the City” class. This year’s mall project was inspired by the failed Long Wharf deal.

Five proposals were submitted to a panel of mediators Tuesday. The panel — composed of Garvin and “Study of the City” graduates John Clancy ’96, the architect who designed the Long Wharf plans; and Meredith Kane ’76, a real estate lawyer from New York — decided which, if any, to submit to the “governor.”

“As a game, it works very nicely because people know New Haven and many of the issues involved in it,” said Garvin, who is currently a New York city planning commissioner.

The game began last month when Garvin distributed a 27-page instruction packet including role assignments to his class, which meets for two-and-a-half hours on Tuesday evenings.

Most roles were assigned randomly.

Sarah Rector ’04, for example, was designated as the owner of Wolfgang Puck, a trendy restaurant featuring gourmet pizza that she said she doesn’t even like. She said she’s more of a roast beef and mashed potatoes kind of girl.

The only roles that weren’t randomly assigned were developers. Development teams were formed by Garvin and teaching assistants with students who had proven capable and willing to put forth the extra effort needed — winners from the class’s first game.

“They’re like hot shots,” Sonia von Gutfeld ’04 said enviously.

After selecting a site — ranging from the coveted Long Wharf lot to air rights over Route 34 — each team drew up floor plans, negotiated with retailers to lease space, contacted financial institutions for loan commitments and tried to win the support of public officials and community leaders.

But, as in real life, this wasn’t a simple task.

“You have to think about all the facts that will be effective and interesting for people, and then determine what will work,” said Carrie Pagnucco ’03, a developer for Taubman Centers Inc. “You really have to produce this thing out of your own creative ideas.”

Pagnucco said the game was both time- and thought-consuming. She even had dreams about her mall, she said during a break from a meeting with Amanda Sisley ’03 Sunday evening.

Flipping through papers in the Branford common room, Pagnucco tried to convince Sisley, a representative from Circuit City, to sign a lease with her mall.

Sisley wasn’t sure. It all came down to reasonable lease offers, the best location for her store and who really seemed to want her, she said. Like other retailers, Sisley would be graded on how well she justified the decisions she made, so she wanted to make the right ones.

Sisley said she still had to meet with STC Associates, a fictional development team said to be made up of Study of the City alumni.

STC developed a plan to erect a new mall on the Chapel Square Mall site, which they planned to anchor with Target and IKEA.

However, their plans were complicated by Macy’s owner Ted Wittenstein ’04, who decided not to sign a lease with STC. He said the downtown location was not ideal for his store, since five other Macy’s were located within a 30-mile radius. Still, he worried the development might take business from his other five stores.

In an attempt to derail the development, Wittenstein sent a series of e-mails to the class, accusing STC of being affiliated with a real-life technology company of the same name that is currently under fire for unfair labor practices and environmentally unsafe research, among other things.

That wasn’t the only battle STC fought. A disagreement arose over which group owned the rights to the Chapel Square site, but in the end, the panel of judges concluded that none of the proposals were realistic enough to submit to the governor. Still, the judges said each had impressive features.

“I see similar proposals from clients regularly,” said Kane, the real-life real estate lawyer, “and the thought these students put into their proposals is equivalent to those I see.”

Clancy was similarly impressed. He said the project offered Yalies a rare chance to tackle real-world development tasks.

Students agreed that the game was realistic.

“They call it a game, but it wasn’t really much like a game,” said von Gutfeld, citing countless all-nighters she and others pulled.

Wittenstein said the only unrealistic aspect of the process was the fact that even after all the competition, back-stabbing and bureaucracy, the students were all still friends.

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