Worcester, Massachusetts is home to nine college campuses that, according to a Jan. 6 New York Times article, have drastically changed the town square’s image. The city of 180,000 residents has recently opened its latest revitalization project, CitySquare, a 12-acre development with a shopping mall and bus station. Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Quinsigamond Community College helped pave the way for the $565 million project by expanding the bounds of campus. Worcester has gained 6,000 new jobs and average wages have increased by five percent.
Here in New Haven, the upscale transformation of Broadway may indicate that our city is adopting a Worcester-like approach to business development. Fifty years ago, the University kept its nose in the academic world. But today Yale is concerned with its aesthetic image, along with its academic standards. Sprucing up the appearance of New Haven may be a gradual development, rather than a transformation that the University can directly engender, as was the case in Worcester.
University Properties, part of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, is the Yale appendage responsible for managing University-owned commercial properties. Since 1996, UP has overseen commercial ventures on Broadway, Audubon Avenue and Chapel Street. Today, it plays the role of landlord to 85 retail tenants.
UP provides guidelines on certain aspects of store ownership, such as daily hours and storefront layout. But enforcement of these guidelines results in UP making many decisions for shopkeepers. UP also threatens the sovereignty of local businesses by setting arbitrarily high rents and misleading inexperienced entrepreneurs.
Contention between UP and local entrepreneurs surfaced in the Audubon district in 2011. Matt Feiner, who relocated his bicycle shop, The Devil’s Gear, from Audubon to Orange Street, told me about his difficulties with UP. The investment team coaxed Feiner into renting on Audubon, ensuring him that his shop would receive signage and promotion.
But Feiner soon discovered that these were empty promises. The lack of signage and promotion cost him business and, without sufficient revenue to pay UP’s high rent, Feiner was forced to seek an independent landlord. Feiner’s predicament indicates that University Properties may aim to sculpt the neighborhood around campus into a pristine college environment rather than assist aspiring retailers.
Audubon lacks sufficient commercial oversight to assist shop owners, as do business districts in other parts of the city. Instead, UP seized this role. On Broadway, UP is forced to work with another organization composed of local businesspeople, the Broadway at York Square Merchants’ Association.
UP has a large stake in Broadway, the home of its Shops at Yale. As a result, UP activity on Broadway usurps the role of the merchants’ association by controlling the aesthetic of storefronts and charging high rents. Commercial associations, like special services districts and merchants’ associations, exist for the purpose of aestheticizing New Haven, independent of the University. UP makes it difficult for these organizations to fulfill this function.
On Chapel Street, UP has a more hands-off relationship with the Chapel West Special Services District. Chapel West supervises business-related affairs on Chapel north of York Street, where Yale only owns 10 percent of the property. According to Brian McGrath, the business manager of Chapel West, the University donates a lump sum annually to his organization. Chapel West has induced economic revitalization in the area between campus and the Saint Raphael Campus of the Yale-New Haven Hospital.
UP’s inability to strongly influence shops on Chapel Street has allowed the area to develop freely, according to the local market and not the University’s standards for suitable commerce. Chapel West has flourished in the area west of campus, and works with local lawmakers as an advocacy organization. A similar organization exists on Whalley Avenue. These special services districts, no doubt, provide all the supervision necessary for local businesses to stay afloat. The best direction for UP would be to surrender its business investments, recognizing the competence of special services districts and merchants’ associations and instead focus on consulting and donations.
UP’s mission statement of “enhancing the quality of life in New Haven through the development of high quality retail and office environments and the revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods” is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But University Properties could do a better job of enhancing existing infrastructure for shopkeepers who may lack some of the entrepreneurial skills to establish a small business. Offering annual donations, such as that given to Chapel West, is a proper commercial stimulus that indicates that Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs does, in fact, address the needs of local enterprise. University Properties should take the backseat when other commercial groups or merchants’ associations are present in order to keep the business gears grinding.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.