It has been more than a year since the cancellation of the $500 million Long Wharf Mall proposal cast a dubious shadow over New Haven’s ability to facilitate economic growth. But the failure to build the mall could be a blessing in disguise for the future of New Haven’s downtown. Ever since the mall deal fell through in December 2000, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and economic advisor Henry Fernandez have been actively seeking a development team to lead the revitalization of the Chapel Square Mall and the nearby Macy’s and Malley’s buildings.

In mapping out a redevelopment strategy for this deteriorated and often criticized shopping district, DeStefano and Fernandez have the opportunity to create the vibrant downtown that has long been missing in the Elm City. Despite laying claim to a designation as an All-American City, New Haven decidedly lacks a distinctive appeal or a warm, inviting atmosphere downtown to attract both residents and tourists. As demonstrated by the success of December’s Holly and Ivy Market and the relative prosperity among city retailers this past holiday season, New Haven still bears strong commercial potential that could only be strengthened by providing the city with identifiable character.

To achieve this, the logical place for DeStefano and Fernandez to begin is the Chapel Square Mall property. If the city reaches an agreement with Williams Jackson Ewing Inc., the Baltimore-based firm negotiating to implement a redevelopment plan, the mall will soon replace its dingy, run-down interior with upgraded, street-accessible retailers. Though this plan would certainly constitute an improvement over the mall’s current status, the city should also aim to attract residential shoppers by inviting strong national retailers and popular specialty stores. By making the mall an active community center, New Haven will move closer to creating a citywide sense of identity.

The city should also use this opportunity to improve upon its strengths in the performing arts by relocating the popular Long Wharf Theatre to the vacant Malley’s site on Church Street. This move would allow for easy access to the renowned theater and provide a complement to a revitalized mall, thus accruing further economic benefits for the city.

There is still much encumbering the plans for Chapel Square Mall site and its adjacent properties. The city must settle a lawsuit filed against New Haven by 155 Temple St. LC, a group that agreed to buy the mall but later claimed breach of contract. Even if the lawsuit is settled, Fernandez conceded that any city-developer deal could have its share of difficulties and setbacks. But potential problems should not deter city lawmakers from seeking an upgrade to a downtown that currently lacks the charm to attract shoppers and merchants to Chapel Street and families looking to settle in Connecticut.

After his reelection in November, DeStefano described the job of mayor as a mixture of recognizing needs and making use of opportunities. The mayor has certainly recognized the need to improve New Haven’s downtown. Now he and Fernandez should make use of this opportunity to give New Haven residents the sense of community they have long been seeking.