From the Editor

The art of the business district

Painters think in colors, architects think in spaces. Bruce D. Alexander ’65 thinks in storefronts. "Here I want to have a sports-themed restaurant, upscale -- burgers, late-night food," he said, waving at a stretch of Elm Street during a tour of the Broadway retail district. "And for that corner" -- gesturing at Au Bon Pain, the most prominent building in the area -- "I'd love to see high-quality housewares. Or apparel. We'd take it up two stories -- glass fronted. It would be the key entry to the district." Au Bon Pain would move to another space.

Alexander is the university's impresario of all things real estate (officially, Yale's vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development). Arguably, he has had more hands-on influence on the downtown streetscape than anyone else in the city. It's because of Alexander that today on Yale's stretch of Chapel, across from Old Campus, you can buy Skagen watches and artichoke tapenade but you can't get a Subway sandwich or a tattoo.

In his 26 years at the real estate development firm Rouse, Alexander shaped such tourist magnets as New York City's South Street Seaport and Boston's Faneuil Hall Market Place. In the early ’90s, he joined a group advising then-Yale president Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB, on New Haven development. In that era, New Haven was infamous as an urban failure: in a 1993 article, the New York Times called it "a city of disappointments and diminished hopes."

He remembers walking down York Street to a meeting of the group. "It was dirty, and Toad's had beer cans out on the sidewalk. I got to the meeting and said, 'We've got a world-class university and we're surrounded by a second-rate retail district. We have to start buying the retail properties.'" They did. Then, in 1997, Schmidt's successor, Richard C. Levin ’74PhD, brought Alexander on staff. Today Yale owns about two-thirds of the properties in the Broadway district. The majority of the shops are no longer barbershops and dry cleaners and boarded-up vacancies, but the likes of J. Crew and the Paul Richards shoe store and Ashley's ice cream.

Alexander is a tough landlord. Tenants in the Broadway district's main area have to stay open until at least 9 p.m. (except Sundays), to attract evening shoppers and make the streets safer. Safety is an unimpeachable goal in New Haven; but the hours can be hard on a small staff, and some merchants resent the restrictions written into their leases. Shops must stay open during business hours on all business days -- no European-style breaks during August.

Alexander is also a perfectionist about the look of the streets. He never boards up an empty property, but has its windows whitewashed and filled with outsized posters, or lets other stores display their merchandise there. Yale and tenants contribute toward street cleaning and sidewalk flower planters. And all the picturesque signs hanging from storefronts on Chapel Street are subject to lease restrictions -- no plastic, no backlighting -- as well as to Yale's review and possible amendment.

Occasionally, Yale draws fire for micromanaging. In 2005, the New York Times said the Broadway district "looks like something Disney might have conjured up for a college town."

How do you feel about that? I asked Alexander.

He laughed. "In view of what would have been said about Broadway ten years ago," he said, "I'll take it."  

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