A half-mile northwest of the construction site for Yale’s two new residential colleges, three empty buildings stand as a monument to Dixwell and Newhallville’s decline in the 1990s. A sign for the Red Café Ultra keeps alive the memory of an establishment that neighbors might want to forget, a bar that in 2012 hosted a birthday party that culminated in a non-fatal shooting just outside. A block east, the gleaming facades of Science Park buildings and the new Winchester Lofts are evidence of revitalization that has yet to affect the trio of structures at the intersection of Henry, Munson and Ashmun Streets.
Now, a New Haven developer wants to change that. Juan Salas-Romer of NHR Properties plans to construct eight apartments and an outpost of G Café, a bakery and coffee shop, at the vacant buildings. He has purchased two of the buildings and is in the final stages of buying the third — a vacant church — from the city, according to a Jan. 8 story in the New Haven Independent. In an interview with the News, he said he hopes to begin construction by the end of February and open the property by May.
He added that the buildings’ location adjacent to Science Park and the Farmington Canal Trail, within a neighborhood on the rise, made them an attractive project site.
“It’s close to an area that is developing,” Salas-Romer said. “It’s abandoned. It’s not new construction. In a six-month period of time we could really create a good impact in the community.”
Eventually, he hopes, the area could look something like Cambridge, Mass., where residents enjoy recreation along the Charles River and can stop at shops and restaurants nearby. Salas-Romer said the two and three-bedroom apartments, starting at $1,600 a month, will cater to middle-class families. Meanwhile, most existing two-bedroom apartments in Dixwell currently listed on the website RentJungle.com cost less than $1,000 a month.
The project is another sign of slow but steady change in the area. Renters are starting to occupy the 158 units in Winchester Lofts, a project that will transform a former gun factory in Science Park into an apartment complex with rents averaging $1,800 a month. In addition, in August 2017, Yale’s new colleges will fill with students who will find the G Café in Salas-Romer’s development just a bit farther from their dorm rooms than the Blue State on Wall Street.
Alexander Melton Jr., 67, spent most of his childhood in a home on Henry Street just across from the trio of abandoned buildings. After leaving New Haven in 1977, he returned to the home to care for his aging father in 2000. He has been there ever since, witnessing the neighborhood’s decline and recent renewal.
“I stood right here and watched someone get shot,” he said, gesturing towards his front door. “Now I can go outside at nine on a summer night and no one’s outside. It’s a lot calmer.”
When he learned of Salas-Romer’s plan, Melton said he was excited that the building would include a coffee shop instead of another club — he has called the police to report excessive noise at the Red Club Ultra several times. But he was less enthusiastic about the price of the new construction.
“That’s crazy for this neighborhood,” he said.
Though the apartments are less affordable than many existing residences in the neighborhood, Salas-Romer said he is conscious of the potential for gentrification. He hopes to employ neighborhood residents in the construction project and eventually in the coffee shop. And he worked closely with Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison throughout the planning process, which began in earnest about six months ago.
Morrison said she is excited about Salas-Romer’s plans and has found him respectful and genuinely interested in working with the existing community.
“He wanted to know how could we best have people in the community involved in the project’s anticipated development and going forward,” Morrison said. “He has been a very good potential neighbor in regards to his communication with me.”
Salas-Romer has discussed his plans with members of the Dixwell Community Management Team, a group of residents who gather monthly to discuss neighborhood concerns.
He developed his plans for revitalization in anticipation of further development of Science Park, which was first founded in 1982 as a collaboration between Yale and New Haven. Yale has invested millions of dollars in the area, which now houses research labs, technology start-ups and biotech companies.
According to Morrison, both Salas-Romer and Yale’s approach is not shared by all developers, some of whom have seemed exclusively interested in profit.
She praised the Office of New Haven and State Affairs for communicating with Dixwell residents and seeking ways to involve local construction workers in the building of the new colleges.
George Clarke, president of the Greater New Haven Business & Professional Association, Inc., a Dixwell-based nonprofit that works to empower minority business owners, said that over the course of his 30 years at the non-profit, Yale has become more conscientious about working with residents of the neighborhoods that surround it.
“Lately it seems that the change has escalated to the point where Yale is sitting down meeting with community leaders of all types and saying, ‘How can we help?’ and ‘How can we do things better?’” Clarke said.
As Yale has poured money into Science Park, Vincent Yik, who owns Vinnie’s Food Store on Winchester Avenue, about two blocks from Salas-Romer’s new development, has reaped the benefits.
Since 2000, when he opened his convenience store, the neighborhood has transformed and his business has improved.
“I’m here everyday,” he said. “I can see the change. More people come from the Science Park offices.”
Yik said he was happy to hear of Salas-Romer’s plans — competition could strengthen his business, and attract more people to the neighborhood.
Even so, Melton described an attitude of anxiety among residents regarding the possibility that they could be displaced through large development projects catering to wealthier people. As an example, Melton recalled that a few years ago, his neighbors whispered a rumor that Yale planned to buy up their homes on Henry Street.
Salas-Romer hopes his development will appeal both to members of the Yale community, including graduate students and researchers at Science Park and neighbors with no Yale affiliation.
“One of the things that we like about the project in Ashmun, Munson and Henry is that it kind of closes [the gap between Yale and neighbors],” Salas-Romer said. “It’s like the center of this whole community that is being revitalized.”
Salas-Romer is also known for developing the Palladium Building at 139 Orange St., where one of his tenants is a branch of the G Cafe.