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Fixing Up the Neighborhood
Like most New England cities, New Haven has suffered for decades from the loss of its manufacturing base. The familiar ills of modern urban America have compounded that loss, but now the University is joining the city and the state in some ambitious attempts to restore the Elm City to its former self.

In 1934, when Harry Isaacs opened Barrie Ltd. Booters on York Street, he acquired some pretty spiffy neighbors, including half a dozen of the country’s most fashionable men’s clothiers.

His shop was sandwiched between J. Press on one side and Fenn-Feinstein’s on the other. At the corner was the massive Langrock's, which later became Rosenberg's, while across the street, Broadway was sprinkled with still more shops catering to the upscale needs of Yale swells. On any given day, New Haven’s version of Savile Row was aswarm with well-heeled shoppers buying all manner of men’s wear, from blue blazers and Oxford shirts to McKenzie bow ties and V-neck sweaters.

Today, Barrie’s and J. Press are holding their own on York Street, but Fenn-Feinstein’s is long gone, replaced by a Wawa’s convenience store. The three-story Tudor edifice that once housed Rosenberg’s has been vacant for nearly five years, and several other stores in the area now stand empty, abandoned by customers who prefer to do business at suburban malls that offer ample parking and no panhandlers.

After years of neglect and hand-wringing over why its major commercial thoroughfare can’t be more like Harvard Square in Cambridge or Nassau Street in Princeton, Yale-the district’s principal landlord-is finally taking action to turn the area around. Joining forces with city and state officials, the University has launched an ambitious revitalization plan designed to stem Broadway’s decline and restore the sense of vitality and prosperity that characterized it during its heyday. The $6-million Broadway District Project, which makes use of $4 million in federal highway funds and $2 million from Yale, is now under way and is expected to be completed in the fall of 1994. The Broadway project is only one of several that Yale is undertaking in collaboration with its host city.

But because the district abuts the campus and serves as the primary shopping area for students, it is the project that should most directly benefit the University. And with undergraduate applications down 5 percent last year and faculty recruitment becoming a growing challenge, the consensus is that such an initiative doesn’t come a moment too soon.

It’s absolutely long overdue, says Harry Berkowitz, president of the Yale Co-op Corp., which is located on Broadway. “If image, ambience, and comfort level go into making the decision about what college or university to attend, then I’m not sure that the Broadway-York Street area is really helping Yale or New Haven to put its best foot forward.” Berkowitz calls the Broadway renovation project one of the most significant initiatives the University and the city have undertaken in quite some time, adding that he’s planning a major upgrade of the Co-op to coincide with it.

The other major initiative that Yale is currently backing is the Ninth Square project, which will include a $130.6-million housing and retail complex intended to revitalize the blighted downtown area bounded by Chapel, Church, George, and State streets.

The plan, which calls for Yale to provide $10 million of financing, was all but dead in 1991 when Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr. '53 refused to approve the necessary state bonds. But it was later resurrected when then-President Benno C. Schmidt teamed up with New Haven mayor John Daniels to fine-tune the proposal and sell Weicker on it. “It’s in our enlightened self-interest to be part of a vibrant, attractive urban setting,” says David Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer. “To the extent that the Ninth Square can make the fabric of New Haven more desirable for everyone, then it’s the sort of project we feel we should be supporting.”

In addition to the Broadway and Ninth Square projects, Yale has committed money to low income housing projects, restructuring the debt of the Chapel Square Mall, and helping high technology companies establish themselves and expand in Connecticut. Not the least of the efforts to revitalize Yale’s neighborhood is the addition of pedestrian walkways at the heart of the campus. The new walks are the result of an agreement struck with the city in 1990 in which Yale paid New Haven $1.1 million to close portions of High and Wall streets where they pass through the campus. Acting with city approval, Yale has developed a two-phase plan to upgrade the streets with new lighting, trees, and paving. The first phase, which involves Wall Street between College and High, and High between Elm and Wall, is now complete. The focal point of the High Street portion (known as Rose Walk in honor of its principal financial supporters, Daniel Rose '51, Elihu Rose '54E, and Frederick P. Rose '44E) is the “Women’s Table,” a monument honoring Yale’s female students and designed by Maya Lin '81, ’86MArch, the creator of the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington.

But it is the promise of a Broadway transformation that has the Yale community most intrigued. And judging from the empty buildings, shabby storefronts, and the snarl of traffic that now chokes the district, nothing short of a total facelift is in order.

In the mid-1800s, Broadway boasted five grocers, two shoemakers, two blacksmiths, a tailor, a coachmaker, and a boarding house. The street and the area just behind the storefronts, known as York Square, were studded with homes built by New Haven’s wealthiest residents. But over the course of the next 50 years, immigration swelled New Haven’s population and those affluent families moved elsewhere, allowing Broadway to come into its own as a thriving commercial enclave that included food stores, auto dealers, billiard parlors, tailors, and hat stores. Most of the buildings that now line the street are 20th-century structures, owing in part to a fire in 1943 that destroyed many of the older buildings near the corner of Broadway and York Street. Reflecting today’s changed appetites, the most familiar landmarks now include Cutler’s Records & Tapes, the Yankee Doodle eatery, and the York Square Cinemas.

The current Broadway renovation project is an effort to recapture something of the flavor of the district’s past while creating a modern urban space to serve the needs of today’s shoppers. To that end, the planners intend to rearrange the traffic pattern, provide parking, to be concealed with rows of new trees (a blight-resistant variety of New Haven’s vanished elms), upgrade the lighting and “street furniture” with decorative fixtures reminiscent of the turn of the century, and bury the web of utility wires that now dangle over the intersections.

“We’re taking a long-range view, building on the area’s existing strengths, such as the diversity of architectural designs, to recreate its history as a vital merchandising center,” says Donna Dean, Yale’s associate director of investments and one of the project’s chief planners. Noting that many of the merchants in the area have been there for generations, she stresses that the plan includes encouraging them to stay. “Real New Haven businesses add to the flavor of the area and help avoid that cookie-cutter feeling of some shopping districts,” she says.

Over the course of the past year, Dean visited most of the colleges and universities in the Northeast to determine what ingredients go into creating a successful retail complex used primarily by students. “We incorporated bits from here and there,” she says, such as brick crosswalks and a “market island” similar to the kiosk at the center of Harvard Square.

“Broadway has all the elements of a wonderful urban space; the problem is that over the years, it’s been made usable and friendly to the commuting driver rather than the pedestrian,” says New Haven architect Herbert Newman '59MArch, whose firm is responsible for developing the renovation plan. In his view, the old Broadway layout that his plan will replace was the result of paying too much attention to utilitarian needs. “Fundamental patterns of human behavior too often get ignored in urban design,” he says.

Newman—who has been working with Yale since the mid-1970s on the Old Campus, the School of Organization and Management, the indoor tennis facility, and the golf course club house—believes that narrowing the Broadway roadbed, widening the sidewalks, and installing a place where people can gather, read the newspaper, and have a cup of coffee will go a long way toward satisfying shoppers’—and students’—aesthetic and emotional needs.

The project doesn’t attempt to upgrade the surrounding housing stock, nor does it directly tackle such deeper urban problems as the continuing presence of the homeless. However, Newman, a critic in architectural design at the School of Architecture, says he’s satisfied with the size and scope of the plan. “I feel very comfortable that the project will have enough resources to make a transformation possible,” he says. “The sum will be greater than the parts, resulting in a complete metamorphosis of the neighborhood.”

“It’s a well-chosen, modest project,” says Douglas Rae, the Richard Ely Professor of Public Management at the School of Organization and Management and a former New Haven chief administrative officer. “But you have to keep in mind that they’re working within certain profound limits. Broadway is up against one of the most distressed neighborhoods in New England, and Yale can’t be expected to alleviate the dynamic of poverty in New Haven. It’s a national problem.”

But there are others who say the Broadway project is merely cosmetic and that ignoring the fundamental problems which caused the area’s decline in the first place could doom it to failure. One such critic is Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public areas. Kent, who spent two days in New Haven consulting with Broadway planners, recalls that during his first visit, three preadolescent boys pulled a gun on him and demanded his money. “This is the type of thing that gives a clue to how unsettling this area is,” he says. Another major challenge, according to Kent, is the fact that the traffic is “way out of scale” with the activity for which the area is used. He fears that project planners have taken an aesthetic approach to the neighborhood, when they should be using more of a “use-functional” approach. “It’s too much of a design plan,” he says. “I’m worried that they’re not emphasizing a more comprehensive approach. You need to gradually grow an urban space, not design a finished one.”

Joel Schiavone '58, a New Haven developer who presided over the renovation of the nearby downtown entertainment district during the early 1980s, agrees with Kent that Broadway is a “scary area” that requires tough policing if it’s going to change. But he also says that after the district is spruced-up, Yale must be willing to manage it on an ongoing basis, through marketing and other coordinated programs. “If we didn’t manage our area, it would have gone down the drain years ago,” he says of his own Chapel Street properties. “I’d say that fixing an area up is only 5 to 10 percent of it, and I question whether Yale is prepared to go that next step.”

However, for area merchants who have watched the neighborhood slowly decay, any effort to turn things around is welcome. “I think the beautification will make people return to the area,” says Isaacs. “It’s great that they’re doing what they’re doing,” adds Robert Muller, owner of Merwin’s Art Shop on York Street. Both merchants say that Yale and city officials have been conscientious about keeping store owners informed about all the plans and have been willing to incorporate their suggestions and ideas.

It is perhaps because Yale has worked closely with the community in the past that it has learned the importance of diplomacy and consensus building. In the early 1980s, Yale played a financial role in several projects, including the conversion of the Taft Hotel into market-rate apartments, the construction of the Whitney-Grove office complex, the establishment of Science Park (a high-tech business incubator), and the renovation of the Chapel Square Mall. In 1987, Yale’s development policy regarding New Haven became more formalized with what was called the New Haven Initiative, a public commitment to invest $50 million in the New Haven community over a ten-year period. In announcing it, then-President Schmidt declared that, “The future of New Haven and the future of Yale University are inextricably joined.”

While such sentiments clearly offer potential benefits to the city, as well as Yale, there are those who say that bricks and mortar are not enough. They believe that in addition to money, Yale should be providing leadership, expertise, and a vision for the future. One such effort is the Urban Advisory Committee, an ad hoc committee of the Yale Corporation charged with recommending solutions to the social and economic problems that plague New Haven. However, according to Susan Godshall, assistant secretary of the University, the panel has only met twice since September 1992, and its fate is likely to be reviewed now that Yale has a new President and a new secretary. A similar state of limbo exists for an informal plan to assist the blighted Dwight-Edgewood neighborhood, which houses many graduate students.

Matthew Nemerson '81MPPM, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, criticizes the University for being too “project oriented.” He would like to see it develop a long-range vision for the city that would transcend the whims of particular administrations and provide needed continuity. He also recommends that Yale officials conduct a major study to determine where graduate students, faculty, and staff employees live. “If there are major trends that are disturbing, then they should enact policies to change them,” he says. Lastly, he believes the influence of Yale’s powerful alumni, many of whom live in the suburbs of New Haven, should be marshaled to lobby on behalf of the city.

Such analysis has already begun. As an example, Godshall points to a recent study conducted by her office of Yale’s economic impact on New Haven. It found that Yale students, faculty, and staff spent a total of $131.’ million in New Haven in 1988-89; that Yale overnight visitors to the city spent more than $21.8 million; and that $1.65 million was spent by Yale in 1988-89 on crime fighting in New Haven, an amount that would otherwise have been borne by taxpayers.

Looking down the road, Professor Rae recommends that in addition to what’s already been done, Yale offer a mortgage program to encourage faculty and staff to invest in city homes. He also suggests that the University be an aggressive equal-opportunity employer, hiring city blacks and Hispanics whenever possible.

But while these recommendations may be a comfort to some city residents, the merchants on Broadway are more concerned about what they see when they peer out of their display windows. And by most accounts they are heartened. Isaacs says that as a result of the renovation project, merchants are working together as never before. He recalls a weekend in early summer when they sponsored a sidewalk festival to coincide with a convention of financial planners. “I was amazed by the number of people who came into my store and said that New Haven was a nice city and that they really liked it here. That hasn’t happened in years.”  the end


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