Hamera Shabbir, Contributing Photographer

What was once a deteriorating tennis facility among the Yale University Athletic Fields reopened on Thursday afternoon as the Westville Music Bowl — a new seasonal performing arts venue set to kick off its first season of programming on Friday evening.

The Music Bowl is the product of a fall 2019 arrangement between the Elm City, the New Haven Center for the Performing Arts and Yale University to convert the tennis stadium into a concert venue. At its opening, the bowl will operate under social distancing protocols with a reduced capacity of 2,000 for the first season. The bowl’s first two shows — two concerts by Southern rock band Gov’t Mule set for Friday and Saturday — are sold out, and they require audience members to arrive in “pods” of two to four people who will be distanced from other pods. At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, city officials expressed enthusiasm at the bowl’s opening.

“A year ago, we’d been battling the pandemic,” New Haven Director of Public Health Maritza Bond said at the press conference. “Now, a year later, we have been leading as a state [with] our vaccination efforts and have been able to open now large events such as this one so that we can go back to what we do best, which is entertaining and having a community come together.”

The facility was built in 1991 and was paid for by the state. For 31 years, the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut operated on a lease with Yale to host tournaments. For 20 years, until 2018, the TFC used the stadium to host the Connecticut Open. The Connecticut Open eventually left New Haven for reasons that then-tournament director Anne Worcester told the News were “100 percent economic.” That same year, the City Plan Commission and Westville residents voted in favor of repurposing the property and signing a lease with the NHCPA.

The bowl is situated in Ward 26, represented by Alder Darryl Brackeen. At Thursday’s event, Brackeen stressed the level of partnership between the city planners and neighborhood residents.

Brackeen called the project “neighborhood-approved” and lauded all the individuals who have helped Westville thrive over the years.

“New Haven is a city that makes dreams come true,” he said. “I grew up in this neighborhood most of my life, and of those 32 years there have been certain individuals who have contributed to this neighborhood in bringing the heart and soul of Westville back. This is a dream come true.”

Also present at the press conference was Lizzy Donius, who runs the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance, an organization set “to foster and sustain economic revitalization, community engagement and cultural vitality in Westville Village.”

According to Donius, the bowl is exciting as it is a means of helping the WVRA’s goal of promoting Westville as a cultural hub of the city and the state.

“This is so thrilling,” she said. “I’m so particularly excited that this is being called the Westville Music Bowl, because it puts this particular neighborhood on the map for us statewide and region-wide. We love what’s happening in this space, which is cultural vibrancy, an economic engine for this city.”

At the press conference, Mayor Justin Elicker noted New Haven’s vigilant vaccination efforts as key to the city’s reopening.

Overall, Elicker said the Westville Music Bowl is an example of how intra-city cooperation during his term has led to success.

“Over and over as mayor, I’ve realized just how important the team that we have is to getting things done,” he said. “That’s getting things done to keep people safe, it’s getting things done for supporting businesses, and all of it comes along with a venue like this that will give New Haven even more of a name.”

The bowl currently enforces a set of COVID-19 safety guidelines. There must be 6 feet between each two-to-four-person pod, each guest and staff member must pass a health check consisting of a questionnaire and a temperature reading and guests are only allowed to remove masks when they have reached their seating.

The Westville Music Bowl is located at 45 Yale Ave.

Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.