The opening of Avellino’s Trattoria earlier this month marks the arrival of yet another hip restaurant and bar in New Haven’s historic Ninth Square District. But the vacant commercial spaces surrounding Avellino’s and other downtown hotspots like Bentara and Central Steakhouse are no closer to being filled.

Occupying the blocks bordered by Church, State, Chapel, and George streets, the Ninth Square District is named for its place in the original grid city founders used when they laid out New Haven in 1638. In the early 20th century, the area was a flourishing business district, but by the late 1980s, Ninth Square had become a depressed commercial center. When Yale invested $10 million in the Ninth Square redevelopment in 1994 on top of the city’s initial investment, the University embraced the concept of a mixed-use space that would increase the vitality of downtown New Haven. More than a decade later, Yale and city officials have met with very mixed results.

In the early 1990s, the city hired New Haven real estate firm Herbert S. Newman and Partners to develop a plan for urban renewal. The firm rehabilitated virtually all of the historic buildings in the district, integrating retail and residential ground floor spaces with apartments above. In 1996, the Ninth Square project received an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for excellence in urban design.

Firm founder Herbert S. Newman said he thinks streets are the most important spaces in cities and that his plan was intended to inject new life into the streets of the Ninth Square “both day and night.”

“We revitalized the Ninth Square as a restaurant and cafe area,” Newman said. “Our goal was for it to become a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood by having apartments above and shops below.”

But while the Ninth Square’s residential spaces met with success from day one and its high-caliber restaurants have become a destination for customers from all over New Haven and the surrounding areas, all other forms of retail have virtually failed in the area, Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander said. Alexander, who worked in retail development for years before he came to Yale, said this problem stems from the missing critical mass of merchants that is necessary in every redevelopment project.

“When you open a project from its earliest days, there needs to be an established number of merchants who have already signed leases in the area so that they will draw a solid base of consumers,” Alexander said. “Otherwise any retailer who considers moving there will fear being the lone ranger.”

Many of the restaurants in the Ninth Square District are open in other parts of Connecticut and New York and have already developed a loyal customer base. Avellino’s has been open in Fairfield for 10 years, so its new location attracts previous patrons who live or work closer to New Haven, manager Lorenzo Gaudioso said.

Gaudioso said the Ninth Square was an ideal location for his restaurant because the real estate is more affordable than Chapel and Broadway spaces, and the diversity of restaurants in the area makes for a friendly and noncompetitive atmosphere.

“The restaurants here kind of feed off each other,” Gaudioso said. “Customers see us when they eat at other restaurants like Miso or Royal Palace, and then next time they try eating here instead.”

But because the Ninth Square is set apart from the rest of downtown New Haven and Yale University, it does not receive the significant foot traffic of the Chapel and Broadway areas. Apart from a jeweler and a couple of beauty salons, the bottom floors of the redeveloped district are occupied only by offices, restaurants, and vacant spaces.

Woodland Coffee and Tea, which opened on Orange Street last year, has had trouble drawing the attention of New Haven residents who do not live or work within direct sight of the property, manager Nebyat Shewaye said.

“Although the lease was affordable, the Ninth Square is not an ideal spot for a coffee shop because we need more successful shops to draw pedestrians who might then stop by,” Shewaye said. “We are hoping to move closer to Yale’s campus if a space becomes available.”

Unlike retail, apartments and condominiums are still successful investments when developed before the spaces are leased to residents, Alexander said. Because of New Haven’s constant housing shortage, the more than 500 residential units in the Ninth Square have shown an average of 99 percent occupancy rate since they opened.

For years, the Residences at Ninth Square were the only apartments available in the area, 42 percent of which were under restricted rent control. Although the new CenterPointe apartments are now a viable competitor, the demand for housing is so high that the Residences have not experienced a lull in business, property manager Shiela Shien said.

“The Ninth Square is a great place to live because it is far enough removed to be its own community but still a city walk to anywhere downtown,” Shien said. “But we are definitely a destination and not a go-through area, which makes residents feel more comfortable but poses major problems for retailers.”

Both Shien and Alexander expressed hope that the completion of the Downtown Gateway Project, which will bring a world-class theater, a community college, and a hotel and convention center to the edges of the Ninth Square, might increase foot traffic and encourage more retailers to open in the Ninth Square. Gaudioso said he could not agree more.

“As soon as the downtown redevelopment project is finished, the Ninth Square will be the place to be, if it isn’t already,” Gaudisio said.

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