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The City’s Turn
Every spring, the President of Yale and the mayor of New Haven observe something called Communiversity Day, a festival promoting town-gown relations. For years, the day’s main symbolic event was a human chess game on Cross Campus that pitted the two chief executives against each other on a giant game board. It was all in fun, but the image of these two leaders battling for territory and exploiting pawns in a zero-sum game carried an underlying message about the traditionally competing interests of their employers.
The chess game has been dropped from the Communiversity Day schedule, but Mayor John De Stefano Jr. and President Richard C. Levin ’74PhD will inaugurate a new contest this summer. The Mayor has invited the
President to suit up for a game of softball—with both teams to made up equally of city and Yale officials.
If a medieval contest based on crossing swords and storming castles seemed appropriate to years past, a sport evoking a “field of dreams” provides a more accurate image for current relations between the city and the University. “There’s never been so close a relationship between Yale as an institution and New Haven,” says Matthew Nemerson '81MPPM, president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Vice President Linda Koch Lorimer '77JD, who serves as University Secretary and created Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs, agrees. “There is a growing sense across the Yale community from deans and faculty to staff and students that Yale should be involved in New Haven.”
That sentiment has its origins in the efforts of former President Benno C. Schmidt Jr. '63, '66LLB in the 1980s to redefine the way Yale and its host city did business together. Having committed himself in his first news conference to further Schmidt’s efforts in that area, Levin in 1993 recruited Lorimer from the presidency of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College to take on the “New Haven Initiative” as her primary portfolio. Then, last summer, Levin made a further commitment to the city by hiring Bruce D. Alexander '65, a Baltimore-based real estate development executive, to the newly created post of vice president and director of New Haven and state affairs. The position is the first at the officer level devoted exclusively to the University’s dealings with New Haven and Connecticut.
Alexander, who took up his official duties on May 1, notes that at Yale, top administrators are not added indiscriminately. His appointment brings the total number of officers to a mere seven—the President, the Provost, the Secretary, the General Counsel (who is also a vice president) and vice presidents for development, finance and administration, and, now, New Haven and state affairs. A subdued dresser who measures his words carefully and can seem almost painfully shy, Alexander exudes a steely determination about his new assignment. “This is an institutional commitment on the part of the University to aggressively support the agenda of the elected officials of New Haven,” he says.
The job, Alexander is quick to explain, is not about Yale remaking New Haven for Yale’s benefit. “Any agenda for strengthening the city needs to be a community agenda,” he says. Or, as Linda Lorimer puts it, “We’re not doing this for New Haven or to New Haven, but with New Haven.”
Both Yale and city officials have recognized the need for better relations since the 1970s, when New Haven battled Yale over its expansion into the city and launched a campaign to tax Yale property. The city vetoed a plan to build two new residential colleges at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Grove Street, and later compelled the University to include tax-generating shops in the design for the Center for British Art. An uneasy truce descended in 1990 after Yale agreed to a complex formula of payments for city services in exchange for the right to close Wall and High streets to automobile traffic.
But the 1991 murder of Yale undergraduate Christian Prince on Hillhouse Avenue, just a block from the President’s house, marked the moment when Yale recognized that its future and New Haven’s were inextricably linked. The immediate response to that tragedy was a campuswide improvement in security, including an expansion of the Yale police force, improved lighting, and the installation of dozens of emergency telephones around the campus. But it soon became apparent that defending the borders was not enough: To remain attractive to potential students and faculty, Yale would need to help the entire New Haven region address the nationwide urban problems of crime, a shrinking job base, and a moribund downtown. President Levin came into office in 1993 calling upon the University to “look for opportunities to make constructive changes instead of just reacting.”
In assessing her five years at the helm of the New Haven Initiative, Linda Lorimer brings out a series of maps that illustrate in striking fashion Yale’s involvement in the redevelopment of the city. Blue dots identify the 294 houses purchased by faculty and staff under the Yale Homebuyer Program, which provides cash incentives of up to $25,000 for buying in selected New Haven neighborhoods. Blocks of red, orange, yellow, and purple adjacent to the campus denote buildings and businesses the University has acquired, renovated, helped refinance, or otherwise supported. And entire neighborhoods ringed in various colors show Yale’s role in other revitalization programs, including assistance in obtaining Federal HUD grants.
Yale’s purchase of adjacent properties—once seen by the city as a threat—has been more or less welcomed in recent years, largely because the properties the University is buying are most often vacant or financially troubled. Lorimer cites the purchase of the Three Chimneys Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on upper Chapel Street that had gone out of business, as part of the policy of strategic acquisition. “Obviously, we don’t want to be in the bed-and-breakfast business for the long term,” she says. “But we wanted to keep Three Chimneys open, because we knew that if that key property were to go dark, it could retard the growth of Upper Chapel Street.” Similarly, the purchase last fall of the largely vacant office building across from Timothy Dwight at 2 Whitney Avenue (site of the ill-fated residential colleges) for University offices helped lower the city’s office vacancy rate and improve business for the nearby stores and restaurants.
Yale participated in a different way in the effort to bring a luxury hotel to the city. In exchange for letting the Omni Hotel at Yale use the University name, Lorimer’s office pressed the developers to provide more conference space than originally planned. “Yale didn’t need conference space, but we felt that New Haven did,” says Lorimer. “All this suggests that the way we contribute to New Haven is multi-faceted; it’s not just writing checks.”
Indeed, some of the most important contributions to the city overseen by the Office of New Haven Affairs are those made by Yale students, faculty, and staff in the name of human development in New Haven. Yale faculty members lead seminars for local public school teachers in the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute (see “Teacher Power,” May), hundreds of students participate in teaching and mentoring programs for local youth, and the Department of Athletics hosts a summer sports camp that combines recreation and academics."We try to be a catalytic force to help our colleagues contribute,” Lorimer says.
The Secretary, who has taken on new responsibilities for alumni affairs since turning the Office of New Haven Affairs over to Alexander, will be a tough act to follow. Her energy and enthusiasm in pursuing what is good for Yale and New Haven have become well known around the campus and the city. During her previous tenure at Yale—in the general counsel’s and provost’s offices from 1978 to 1987—the late President A. Bartlett Giamatti called Lorimer “Yale’s top utility infielder.” Eleven years later, in presenting her with a special Elm-Ivy Award for strengthening the relationship between the city and the University, Levin and Mayor De Stefano said it would be appropriate to add “head coach, chief field scout, play-by-play announcer and color commentator, and, when necessary, designated hitter.”
For his part, Bruce Alexander might be described as a free agent with a record of home runs in urban revitalization. As senior vice president and director of new business for the Rouse Company, a Baltimore development firm founded by James Rouse, Alexander led the development of so-called “festival marketplaces” in Baltimore (Harborplace), Manhattan (South Street Seaport), and New Orleans (Riverwalk), among many others. Combining retail and entertainment, these projects remain remarkably successful—and widely imitated—models of how to bring people back into central cities that have fallen on hard times.
Although he has lived in suburban Baltimore for 26 years (in Columbia, a “new town” developed by Rouse in the 1960s), Alexander traces his roots to urban Connecticut. Born in Hartford, he has shown an interest in public service at least since his years at Yale, where he was a scoutmaster and a member of Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity. After he graduated, he and his wife Chris served as VISTA volunteers in Washington, D.C., working with youths accused of first-offense property crimes.
In 1969, Alexander joined Rouse, a company that had established a reputation for working to improve cities. “Jim Rouse believed the bottom line flowed from serving people well,” says Alexander. “He was a great urban visionary who synthesized capitalism and social good. The company was always on a mission.”
At Rouse, the idealistic Alexander learned the realities of urban politics, negotiating with city officials, businesspeople, and community groups to get projects built. “I can think of no better experience for someone coming into a position like this,” says Mayor De Stefano, who first met Alexander in 1987 when Rouse tried to revitalize the ailing Chapel Square Mall.
Alexander began contributing his expertise to Yale when President Schmidt appointed him chair of the new Urban Advisory Committee, which first began identifying urban problems and opportunities for the University. (He has also served on the Corporation’s Buildings and Grounds Committee since 1995.) When he left Rouse in January 1996, Alexander expected to devote himself to “pro bono work and managing my personal investments.” But Lorimer and Levin had other plans. Alerted by Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke '71, a member of the Yale Corporation, about Alexander’s retirement plans, Lorimer says she “immediately approached Rick Levin about asking Bruce if he wanted to come to Yale, since he’s much too young to retire. We flew down there within two weeks.”
Alexander, citing his strong ties to Baltimore, turned down the job offer, but said he would volunteer on a regular basis for six months. Starting in 1996, he began spending up to six days a month in New Haven working on revitalization efforts for the Park-Howe-Dwight residential neighborhood west of the campus, and the Broadway retail area.
Alexander’s work soon convinced Levin and Lorimer that Alexander would make a powerful full-time addition to their team, and they approached him again. This time, Alexander said yes. “It’s a big move for my wife,” says Alexander. “We have lots of friends in Baltimore, and she was very active in civic affairs. But she said this was important work, and we should do it.”
Alexander says that his own decision to come was influenced by the words he had written for a brochure promoting scholarship gifts to Yale. Commenting on the scholarship he and his family established in 1988 for students active in public service, he wrote: “For me, one of the many great attributes of our University is that it not only imparts knowledge but also encourages values, and foremost amongst these are leadership and service.”
“What choice did I have,” says Alexander, laughing, “having said that.”
In addition to his other duties, Alexander recently began teaching real estate management at the School of Management, an assignment that suits his desire to blend business and benevolence. “SOM has the best of both worlds, in my view,” he says. “The people who come here are very capable and could do equally well in private business or nonprofits. The school is virtually unique in bringing such strong values to bear on the management of our economic system.”
Alexander’s appointment has been greeted as warmly by city officials as it has by their Yale counterparts. “Often universities try to put people who are known as scholars in positions where they need experience as well as intellect,” says Chamber of Commerce president Nemerson. “It’s a great sign of Levin’s leadership that he can take someone with this kind of experience and put him in an academic setting. Rouse is a company that has a mission to make money, but also to make the world a more interesting place.”
Alexander is quick to point out that the work for which he is best known—developments like Baltimore’s Harborplace—will not be his primary mission at Yale. “Physical development solutions are not the main agenda” for the University or the city, he says. “Human and economic development are key.”
Not that some of that development doesn’t have a physical component. Alexander cites New Haven Harbor, near which the city is planning a $431 million mall, as a strategic site for “waterfront recreation uses that create a positive image of the city from I-95 and that serve the community.”
New Haven’s downtown still needs attention, too. Alexander points out that the ambitious Ninth Square development adjacent to the Coliseum, while successful in attracting residential tenants, still has vacant retail storefronts, and that the Chapel Square Mall has floundered since Macy's, its anchor store, moved out in 1995. Alexander is among many who think it must be redesigned. “An internally oriented mall without an anchor will not succeed,” he explains. “We’ve got to turn it around with street-facing shops.”
The creation of a downtown special services district financed by property owners in 1996 (Yale contributes $100,000 a year) has made new money available to pay for a variety of improvements, including regular cleanup of the sidewalks by a crisply uniformed crew that operates during business hours. The efforts may be beginning to pay off: A number of new restaurants have opened recently in the Ninth Square and elsewhere downtown.
As Nemerson sees it, Alexander and others concerned with the welfare of New Haven need to concentrate their energies in two directions. “First of all, we have to fight for market share in the cultural and entertainment life of the region,” says Nemerson. “The other half of the equation is that, like most cities in America, New Haven has some of the oldest infrastructure and the poorest part of the population, people who need programs and special attention. Political leaders and the media often suggest that we have to choose between these priorities. But the answer is that we have to do both.”
New Haven continues to struggle with a declining population, an overconcentration of poverty, a diminished industrial base, the continuing loss of middle class families, and crime—problems that are well beyond the reach of even as wealthy an institution as Yale to fix by itself. “I think it’s unfair to say that there is a special burden on Yale to solve the fundamental problems of the American city,” says Nemerson. But virtually everyone acknowledges that Yale, like any major employer, should be part of the solution. “Without corporate and institutional support, the economics don’t work,” says Nemerson. “Bruce Alexander will be working to make things happen for the city and the region. There aren’t many senior vice-presidents of corporations who can spend their time doing that.”
One important asset Yale could bring to those efforts, Alexander suggests, is its alumni. He would like to see a small army of alums move to New Haven and join forces to help both Yale and the city. “It seems to me it’s a classic opportunity for successful alumni who want to give back and to bring some balance into their lives,” says Alexander. He cites as an example Jonathan Bush '53, who brought his investment management business to New Haven from New York in 1995, and Cesar Pelli, the former dean of the School of Architecture who maintains a global architecture firm in New Haven. “People like me in their 50s could make a difference here by bringing their businesses or entrepreneurial talents to New Haven. We need more of them.” Alexander notes that the manageable scale of New Haven is also likely to attract growing numbers of younger people and educated retirees interested in the city’s cultural and educational offerings.
Like every goal the city and Yale share, however, attracting youthful entrepreneurs or midlife alumni to New Haven depends heavily on changing the lingering negative perceptions of it. And that, Alexander says, starts with the people of New Haven. “New Haven needs to believe in itself first,” he says. “We need to remind people of the many strengths and assets of this community.” That said, he adds, quietly but firmly, “Lots of cities have risen above these problems. We will do it here. I assure you.”
Coming from yet another idealistic city planner, the promise might have a hollow ring. Coming from a veteran of Alexander’s caliber, it sounds more like a prediction.
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