Then… and now

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

On a parking lot on the eastern edge of downtown, developer Bruce Becker ’85MArch, ’85MBA, is building 360 State Street, a 500-unit, 32-story luxury apartment tower. View full image

It’s hard to summarize Yale’s strategy for its engagement with New Haven, as it is less one big idea than a thousand small ones, incremental initiatives that are designed to promote economic development, social change, and general quality of life in the city. “You can try the grand-slam approach to urban revitalization—a megamall or a stadium—but if you can hit enough singles and a couple of doubles, you’ll get more runs on the board,” says Michael Morand.

Yale’s most visible hits have been in the area of real estate development. In the last 15 years, the university has helped convince the Omni hotel chain to take over a shuttered hotel on Temple Street, redeveloped the Broadway retail district with a mix of local stores and national chains such as Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, taken over Schiavone’s Chapel Street properties (after he lost them to the FDIC in bankruptcy), and invested in the Ninth Square housing and entertainment district. Despite the fact that its academic properties are tax-exempt, Yale’s commercial holdings are enough to make the university the city’s biggest taxpayer, paying $4.5 million in property taxes this year.

Through its University Properties arm, Yale runs its retail and residential holdings with an eye on more than the bottom line. Storefronts have on occasion left vacant for a year or more, waiting to land the right retailer to complement a location. Yale requires lessees in some areas to stay open in the evenings so as to keep the streets livelier and safer at night, and its lease with the Broadway grocery store Gourmet Heaven even requires the tenant to have fresh flowers for sale on the street. (University Properties is not universally admired: some former tenants have complained that the requirements are too onerous for small family-owned businesses. A six-year feud between the university and the owners of the restaurant Roomba over access to a Chapel Street alley resulted in a lawsuit.)

All this is in addition to the university’s own construction boom. Unlike in past decades, when New Haven was wary of Yale’s expansions into the city (which removed property from the tax rolls), the university’s latest construction efforts have been largely welcomed by city government. In part, this is because Yale has been more sensitive about where and what it proposes to build: many of its new buildings are on land the university already owned.

Yale has leveraged its academic building projects to help bolster the neighborhoods around the university. The most notable illustration is the area north and west of the Grove Street Cemetery. (“We try not to say ’behind the cemetery’ anymore,” says Alexander, urging a less Yale-centric frame of reference.) The area was once a sketchy no-man’s land of vacant lots, with Yale and the cemetery on one side and the Dixwell neighborhood’s Elm Haven public housing project on the other. Students used it, at their peril, as a shortcut to Science Hill.

In 2003, the blighted Elm Haven project was replaced with a lower-density, mixed-income HUD project called Monterey Place. (As a result, says Mayor John DeStefano Jr., “the biggest reduction in our calls for service in the police department has been from Dixwell.”) Meanwhile, Yale had acquired a former commercial laundry building in the area, at Lock and Canal streets, and held a series of meetings with local residents about the site. “I had a list of things Yale needed to build,” says Alexander, “and the one that sounded best to the neighbors was a headquarters for the Yale Police.” The Rose Center, which houses not only the university police but also a community center, opened in 2006. (See “The Anti-Ivory Tower Brigade.”) On the same block, Yale is now building a new headquarters for University Health Services. Like the Rose Center, the health services building will be active 24 hours a day, an improvement for a once-shadowy pocket of the city. (The two new residential colleges that Yale announced last year—but has since postponed—are also to be built in the area.)

Local journalist Paul Bass ’82, who has covered the city and the university since the 1980s in the New Haven Advocate and now the online New Haven Independent, cites Yale’s activity in the Dixwell area as the kind of cooperation he couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. “For a lot of years, Yale gave me more stories than I could cover about how they were screwing the city,” says Bass. “Suddenly, even though I try, it’s hard to trash someone who’s been doing everything I’ve been asking them to do for years.”

Another dependable source of criticism of the university—its labor unions—has gotten quieter lately, too. On April 14, the university and the unions announced with pride that they had arrived at a three-year contract (see “Yale and Unions Make a Deal—Nine Months Early”)—nine months before the old one expired, and without even the slightest public threat of a strike. (The relationship is as frosty as ever at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where management has bitterly fought unionization. The hospital is separate from the university, although Yale doctors practice there and Levin and other Yale officials sit on its board.)

Yale has also been active in pursuing new jobs and industry for the city. The most notable area is biotechnology, which dovetails with Yale’s strength in biomedical research. (See “Company Town.”) But Yale faculty, students, staff, and alumni have also developed other kinds of new businesses, many of them through the Yale Entrepreneurial Society and the related Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.

And just in case someone hasn’t gotten the word about New Haven, Yale helps pay for Market New Haven, a nonprofit public relations and advertising organization charged with improving public perception of the city. “I’ve never been in a city where the image so lagged the reality of the city,” says Alexander. “But if I can get someone to New Haven, the city is an asset in recruiting.”

Dean of undergraduate admissions Jeff Brenzel ’75 says that admissions surveys suggest that “New Haven is no longer a negative factor in the decision-making for the great majority.” Brenzel says that the city and students’ engagement is actually a draw for some applicants. “A significant number of students tell us that they choose Yale—and New Haven—specifically for this reason,” he says.

Not all of the change in the city has Yale’s name on it: New Haven has been pursuing a program of downtown redevelopment in the past few years with the aim of undoing much of what was done in the urban renewal years. Mayor DeStefano says the city first worked on filling up empty buildings downtown. Disused office buildings were turned into housing and lab space, and restaurants and clubs began to take former retail space. New downtown housing was built in the Ninth Square area southeast of the Green. The obsolete Veterans Memorial Coliseum was torn down in 2007; a mixed-use project with housing and a new home for the Long Wharf Theatre is slated for the site. On the site of the Chapel Square Mall’s two abandoned 1960s department stores, the state is relocating Gateway Community College. And with the completion of those projects, DeStefano says, “we will confront something I don’t think we would have imagined confronting 15 years ago: that the central business district is basically filled.”

That prospect has city planners looking for new building sites. A strip of land west of downtown that was cleared to make way for the Oak Street Connector—a freeway that was never completed—will be redeveloped with medical offices, housing, and retail. And the part of the freeway that was completed—carving a massive gash between downtown on one side and the medical center and train station on the other—may be replaced with surface streets, opening up ten acres for the development of new buildings to stitch the city back together.

Outside of downtown, the city and state have spent $1.5 billion renovating or replacing nearly every public school building in the city. Private dollars have spurred new interest in neighborhoods such as Westville, whose small retail district is acquiring an artsy feel, and the banks of the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven, where Joel Schiavone and others are reviving a scenic maritime village seldom seen by most Yalies.