Late this summer, Yale University Properties broke ground on their newest project: transforming the parking lot between Tyco and Trailblazer into a new graduate student dormitory, with as many as six or seven retail shops at street level. It will be a new addition to Yale’s existing real estate portfolio, which includes hundreds of retail and residential units. If Yale wants to stay true to its promise of social responsibility, these storefronts offer University Properties a chance to break new ground in more ways than one.
In 1996, Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs created University Properties, which, among other things, bought and transformed much of the Broadway and Chapel Street shopping districts. At the time, downtown retail and dining offerings were far sparser — Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander is fond of saying that Broadway used to be little more than a liquor store and a record shop. Yale argues that its efforts catalyzed a necessary revitalization of downtown New Haven. University Properties’ efforts, the story goes, have created a more vibrant city center that attracts customers from all over the region, pumping money into the city’s economy, creating new jobs in its storefronts, filling the city’s coffers with property tax dollars and making New Haven a more exciting place to live in.
In contrast, detractors argue that this is a textbook case of gentrification. What else would you call it when the richest institution in the city buys large swaths of downtown property, refuses to renew the leases of certain businesses (i.e., the now-defunct Broadway Liquor) and brings in expensive retail stores like J.Crew and Emporium DNA that most New Haveners — and even most Yalies — wouldn’t dream of shopping at? The University’s case is flimsy, some argue, because most of the downtown shopping district’s profits flow to out-of-town business owners. Moreover, most of the new jobs created by UP’s retail and food offerings are low-wage service jobs, many of which don’t even go to New Haven residents.
Not surprisingly, both sides make valid points. Having a thriving shopping and dining district is better than having vacant storefronts — it generates millions of dollars in property taxes for the city, which benefits all Elm City residents. New Haven’s downtown renaissance has improved the city’s image, and Yale has been a good landlord to several locally owned small businesses like Claire’s Corner Copia and Yorkside Pizza. But the critics are also right: Many UP stores are owned by wealthy out-of-town businesspeople or corporations and few offer their employees a true living wage. While University Properties rents to several affordable restaurants, most of its retail offerings are far out of Yalies’ and New Haveners’ price range. This shouldn’t be the case.
University Properties’ goal was to create a vibrant downtown that attracted visitors, investment and consumer spending — and it has succeeded. But if University Properties is trying to create a downtown retail mix that is inclusive, socially responsible and strengthens the city by offering New Haven residents more opportunities to earn a living wage, there is still work to be done.
In this regard, the new storefronts offer a number of opportunities:
First, University Properties should commit to filling at least half of the new retail units with locally owned small businesses. When small business owners make a profit, that money stays in the Elm City and is used to benefit the community, rather than flowing outside New Haven to Cupertino or Kalamazoo. While these investments are riskier than big chain stores like Urban Outfitters or Barnes & Noble, the success of businesses like Brick Oven Pizza and Blue State Coffee shows that small and local storefronts are economically viable downtown, not to mention more affordable for Yalies and New Haveners alike.
Second, University Properties should require all new tenants to pay their workers a living wage of $15 an hour. University Properties places all sorts of regulations on its tenants — it even mandates that Good Nature Market keeps fresh fruit and flowers outside its store. Though negotiating existing leases would be challenging, there is no reason UP couldn’t require all of its stores to pay their workers well enough to make a decent living.
Third, University Properties should mandate that its tenants hire a certain proportion of their workforce locally. There are many New Haveners who are qualified to work but can’t find local jobs — a major reason why Yale has committed to hiring over 1,000 new local workers. By giving Elm City residents a better shot at downtown jobs — especially ones that pay living wages — Yale will contribute to the economic health of some of the city’s economically struggling neighborhoods.
Students and community members should encourage University Properties to be the socially responsible developer that our downtown deserves.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .