Students at the School of Management are trying to revitalize New Haven’s Audubon district through dance — Dance-Dance Institution, that is.

Last month, first-year students at SOM completed the Audubon Street Project orientation program, in which students created niche shops for the arts district. As part of the program, student teams created financially viable and neighborhood-friendly business plans, and from those projects, faculty judges chose the Dance-Dance Institution, a retailer of dance clothes and shoes, as the winner.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”9913″ ]

Andrew Swick SOM ’11, a member of the Dance-Dance team, said that real-world Audubon developers are considering the concept. Dance-Dance team members said they believe that because it is a niche shop, it would survive the tough economic times — and the historically tough business environment of Audubon.

Over recent years, several stores have set up shop in the arts districts and quickly closed. Vacant lots are standard scenery in the Audubon District, an area mostly owned by University Properties. Four Audubon store owners interviewed this week said only stores with well-defined niche markets have a chance of succeeding. But in this economy, two Yale officials have said, it is unclear whether any store will survive.

A struggling Audubon

Since the 1960s, the Audubon district has been one of the main thoroughfares in and out of downtown. Just off Whitney Avenue, the neighborhood lacks for nothing in aesthetics: well-maintained sidewalks and roads, trees, and a unified red-brick motif. Currently, the street’s prominent buildings include the Neighborhood Music School and Creative Arts Workshop, non-profit centers that teach music and art to thousands of students, as well as the magnet school Education Center for the Arts.

But besides the school buildings, there are several retail businesses, one bank and four vacant lots. Proprietors say those lots have been empty for a long time.

The problem, they said, is that the neighborhood is not designed to be a shopping area. Although there are several parking garages in the area, casual customers have few options for on-street parking, they added.

“Parking certainly contributes to the problem,” said Jason Hernandez, manager of Yarn LLC, which sells yarn products.

Indeed, few pedestrians frequented the quiet district Wednesday. A slight bustle came from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., when parents swarmed the area to pick up students or drop them off for after-school activities. Over 20 cars filled up the few available on-street parking spots; they quickly blocked off the street. Most parents returned to their cars. A few of them entered Koffee on Audubon, the street’s main coffee shop, but no one entered the other stores. Some did not even leave their cars.

“We stop for coffee occasionally, but that’s it,” said Daniel Wong, whose daughter attends Neighborhood Music School. He added that he did not even know what else was on the block.

Associate Vice President and University Properties Director Abigail Rider did not return several requests for comment this week. She told the News in January that many tenants around campus are doing well despite the faltering economic times. But last year, she added, several tenants left the Audubon district because their leases were expiring and they felt it was too “difficult” to renew them. She said she expects it will be harder to find local retailers to fill the spots this year because of the economy.

A New model?

General foot traffic cannot be relied on to create business in the area, said Susan Smith, executive director of the Creative Arts Workshop. The stores that survive, she added, seem to be specialty shops.

For instance, at Audubon Strings LLC, the full-service violin shop next to the Education Center for the Arts, manager Nancy Matlack said that the business is tied to the nearby schools.

“With the school year starting, we’re doing great,” she said.

And Hernandez said a yarn store attracts the artsy clients that come to Audubon, as well as women, members of the Yale knitting clubs and even the occasional man.

SOM students used the niche-shop business strategy in their Audubon proposals.

“It’s a tight schedule,” said SOM Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, a judge for the Audubon project. “But the students are very savvy, they dig in and start finding things out pretty quickly.”

As part of the project, they break into groups, inspect the area for 24 hours, interview business owners and pedestrians and later brainstorm ideas for a viable business.

After a round of elimination, the finalists gave presentations to the entire SOM student body and faculty. Dance-Dance Institution prevailed.

“There’s not much foot traffic, the parking’s bad and the rent per square foot is high,” Swick said. “So we had to use our co-location with the dance schools to our advantage.”

But even specialization is not a guarantee of success. An attempt to establish a beads store failed last year.

Some owners, such as Merieta Bayati, owner of the Girlie Girl fashion shop, maintain hope in a shopping-centric Audubon district.

“We’re bringing a new concept to the district — a fun shopping environment,” she said. But she admitted that her business could pick up a little more.

The Audubon Street Project winner for the class of 2010 was the Hands-On Audubon Kitchen, which works with local farmers to promote sustainable agriculture and host workshops on healthy eating.