Beta

The mall next door

rsz_monopoly-819x1024

If you stand on the concrete island between Elm Street and Broadway, near the intersection with York Street, you can see a row of two-story facades. On the left, the Philadelphia-based chain Urban Outfitters sits behind a sheet of glass bounded with gray stone. In the middle, a quaint brick building with limestone accents houses women’s clothing store Laila Rowe and shoe boutique Thom Brown. On the right, beneath a sandstone facade, a trio of black metal arches opens onto J. Crew.

It looks like three different buildings, but if you walk around to the open space behind these stores, at the gates of Morse College, you can see that those three facades are part of one building whose pale, uniform backside gives the illusion away.

The three fronts are supposed to imitate the organic architectural diversity of a city street. The building was constructed by Yale a dozen years ago as part of the redevelopment of Broadway, the most ambitious project of the university’s commercial property division.

Fifteen years is a blip in the lifespan of a city, but it would take four generations of undergraduates to recount the changes that have taken place on Broadway since Yale got into the commercial real estate game. Since 1997, Yale’s UP has welcomed J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Gant, American Apparel, Barnes & Noble College Bookstore, Origins, Denali, Trailblazer, and finally, last year, the holy grail of retail, an Apple Store, to its commercial strip on Broadway. No Apple store has ever closed, and the New Haven location lends an air of permanence to the Broadway project—a stamp of legitimacy as an urban shopping destination.

But there is another side to this story of economic success, for Yale has not built this city in the desert. In the past 15 years, the area has lost a number of locally-owned businesses, including the Yale Co-op, Demery’s, Quality Wine, Merwin’s, Barrie’s Boots, the Daily Caffe, and Broadway Pizza, among others. Fifteen years of disputes with  University Properties (UP) have sent a number of old, family-run businesses packing to make way for a thriving commercial strip. “The big picture looks great,” a former tenant told me. “It’s when you look at the details that things go off the rails.”

No university has attempted anything quite like this, in New Haven or elsewhere. In the last quarter-century, Yale has gone from being an embattled, non-profit resident of an ailing city to New Haven’s biggest taxpayer, paying over four million dollars in commercial property taxes, and managing over 85 tenants—a veritable commercial empire.

***

To understand the roots of this unusual relationship, you must go back to the 1980s and ’90s, when the state of the city had become Yale’s greatest flaw. Beginning in 1993, the new university president, Richard Levin, GRD ’73, an economist and longtime New Haven resident, instituted a number of reforms aimed at bolstering the town-gown relationship, including a fund to help employees buy homes in New Haven.
“The big misconception we had to counter was that [New Haven] was a complete wasteland,” Levin told the Christian Science Monitor in 2004. “It hurt our ability to attract new members of the community.” Students and professors alike were being lured away by the vibrancy and security of Nassau Street, Amsterdam Ave., and Harvard Square.

To fix up the surrounding area, Yale did something unprecedented: They started buying commercial real estate. President  A. Bartlett Giamatti, YC ’60, didn’t want to do it. “He didn’t think that was what a University did,” said Paul Bass, JE ’82, editor of the New Haven Independent. What business did the nation’s third-oldest university have collecting rent from bars, restaurants and boutiques? But under Giamatti’s successor Benno Schmidt, YC ’63, who lived in New York City, Yale realized that it was only as strong as its host city, and in 1987, the university pledged to invest 50 million dollars in the Elm City. “New Haven is our home,” Schmidt said at the time. “We exist in the center of this magnificent city. Yale has a tremendous amount to gain through a more active and systematic role in New Haven.”

That’s when Bruce Alexander, BK ’65, got involved. He had been working for the Rouse Company, a real estate developer famous for revitalizing downtown retail districts like Boston’s Quincy Market and Baltimore’s Harborplace, projects that combined big-picture planning and coordination with the nostalgic charm of city life.

When Alexander arrived at his alma mater to serve on an advisory committee for the 50 million dollar investment, he was struck by the deterioration of the streets around Yale. “I walked down the first block of York Street, by Mory’s, and there were beer bottles on the ground outside Toad’s Place and trash on the sidewalk on the corner. Broadway was setting the image for the University, and it was a terrible image. So, I said, ‘The first thing you should do is buy Broadway.’”

And that’s exactly what Yale did: Building by building, the University bought most of Broadway, and most of Chapel Street, and various other commercial properties around campus. That meant, in some cases, that Yale also owned the apartments where, by the mid-’90s, about 20 percent of upperclassmen lived. But this was a side effect of a larger effort that Alexander undertook to manage and revitalize the retail district around campus, beginning in 1998 when he became Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs; an effort to make Broadway into an asset for the University.

***

With regards to downtown shopping, New Haven had been a textbook case of a city that failed to adapt to the changes of the post-war era. Many of the urban renewal policies of New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee (who served from 1954-1970)—the now-defunct Chapel Street Mall, the soon-to-be-defunct Oak Street Connector—were built around the idea that the growing suburban population would continue to come downtown to shop for decades to come.

But they didn’t—until Yale got involved. Between 1996 and 2002, city retail sales jumped from $577 million to more than $2 billion, according to the Associated Press. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of vacant properties in New Haven dropped from 1,400 to 550. The New York Times, CBS News, and the Christian Science Monitor praised Yale’s renovation of Broadway as a remarkable case of clever planning.

Unlike Lee’s downtown projects, Broadway had never been designed to appeal to suburban commuters—it had never been designed at all. The street had always been home to a hodgepodge of small stores and restaurants that catered to Yalies and people from the surrounding community. Once Yale had bought a significant portion of the block, the University set out to make it
into something bigger.

The first of the old guard to go was the Yale Co-op, which lost its lease in 1997. Founded in 1885, the Co-op was the second-oldest university store in the country, a non-profit with over 15,000 members that provided not only books but a sense of identity to the Broadway strip, where it had been located in the flagstone building adjacent to Ezra Stiles College for 35 years.

In its place arrived a Barnes & Noble College Bookstore, and students were not pleased. The New Journal wrote that Yale “had adopted the reductive view that corporate equals collegiate.” And in this paper, Ben McGrath YC ’99, wrote, “That Yale’s development strategy has ignored the interests of students and local residents alike, seems to represent the prevailing student opinion.”

“Our friends at Yale lied to us by indicating we could renegotiate our lease, but it was a foregone conclusion that Barnes & Noble was coming in,” Harry Berkowitz, the Co-op manager at the time, told the Herald last year.

It wasn’t the only local store that didn’t fit into Yale’s vision of Broadway. Quality Wine, a 65-year veteran of Broadway, closed in 1999, after UP tried to relocate the business to a smaller space in York Street. To Elliot Brause (who, it must be said, owed Yale a significant amount of money in back rent), it wasn’t worth it.
Barrie’s Ltd. Booters followed suit in 2003, after 70 years of providing shoes for Yalies and New Haveners. Owner John Isaacs who like Brause was a third-generation purveyor, said he feared the store’s trademark customer service, which included free shoeshines, would suffer from Yale’s insistence that the store remain open until 9 p.m. UP director David Newton told the Yale Alumni Magazine that it made “no sense” for a shop in such a good location not to stay open after dark.

The idea behind Alexander’s plan was for national chains to bolster the chances of small businesses. Consumers drawn in by the lure of big-name retail would trickle into nearby local establishments. According to Ali Yagliadere, who works at A1 Pizza, that has been the case. Anthony Koutroumanis, the co-owner of Yorkside Pizza, agreed. (Neither of those restaurants rent from UP.)

But, Koutroumanis said, there aren’t that many local businesses left. “Yale spent tons of money and they redid the whole neighborhood. Is it better than ’69? Yes, a hundred percent yes. Did they clean the place out? Yes. They run everything. You wanna be here, my friend? That’s the apple you’re gonna eat.”

***

The changes on Broadway reflect the story of 20th-century America. National chains have replaced small businesses across the country, offering a larger selection of goods at lower prices. The unusual thing about Broadway is that Yale made this process happen.

One of the advantages of being a large landlord is that you can implement policies that affect the whole neighborhood, explained Brian McGrath, the business manager of Chapel West Special Services District, a local business improvement district.

“The alternative model to the downtown became the mall,” he said. “If, like Yale, you’re trying to run a successful urban retail district, you need to learn from that. If you want synergy, and you want the maximum number of customers, you need to run it like a mall. You need everyone opening and closing at the same time. You have some stores that close early? That’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer leaving trash on the sidewalk—that’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer attracting bums—that’s going to ruin your mall.”

That sort of top-down operating was and is Alexander’s strategy for Yale UP, the division that manages Yale’s tenants. “We’re competing with shopping malls,” Alexander told me. He envisioned the bookstore as the anchor to the new development, the main draw. He needed a bookstore that could afford to stay open until 9 p.m. and attract people to the surrounding shops. He needed a Barnes & Noble.

UP dictates strict terms, including operating hours, disclosure of profits, price ceilings, and other restrictions. In exchange, tenants have the benefit of a private security force (Yale Police Department), merchandizing associations that coordinate special events like College Night on Broadway, and a non-competition guarantee. In other words, Yale wouldn’t let a coffee shop open up right next to yours. By all accounts, for those businesses who can conform to the lease, Yale is a great landlord.

But some of the area’s older shops did not like the new deal. When the push to institute uniform lease agreements ran up against the particularities of local businesses, Yale did not yield. Some small business owners thought, and think, that this lack of flexibility inherently favors national retail chains, with their large staffs and high ceilings.

“Yale seems to want to rent to corporations instead of ‘mom and pop’ businesses,” Matt Feiner, the owner of Devil’s Gear bike shop, told the Yale Daily News in 2010.

“Conditions are crazier and crazier. We’re just a little shop. We’re not J. Crew or Target,” a former tenant told me, who wishes to remain anonymous because he still operates in the area. “You can’t just make everyone march in lock-step. This is a street; it has character. We’re not a mall.”

***

In 2000, Elena Oxman, MC ’99, and Elihu Rubin, SY ’99 ARC ’09, made a documentary called On Broadway, in which they filmed store owners, professors, and developers talking about the street’s evolution.

Many felt that the old Broadway, though gritty, had real character. The team interviewed various local businessmen—Lou Beckwith of the Yankee Doodle, Rob Muller of Merwin’s, Elliot Brause of Quality Wine—each of whom made the case for the value of small business.

Their sentiments were echoed by dozens of community residents and alumni who were sorry to see the departure of the Co-op along with old hands who could not find a common understanding with their new landlord, or others who were chased out by rising rents. The Yale Alumni Magazine offered a series of eulogies as Broadway turned over.

I asked Rubin if he thought that students cared. “That’s what’s so tricky,” he said. “Memories are short, so the sense of loss is very different for the Yale community, especially for students. For every thing we lose, there are new memories being created. That’s the nature of urban memory. People form new attachments.”

For students, especially those who never saw the composition of Broadway before Yale’s renovations, it’s hard to imagine things otherwise. And, simply put, Yalies like shopping on Broadway. Every student I spoke to was happy to have J. Crew, Apple and co. on Broadway. But most didn’t know what had been there before. Rubin stressed the difficulty of evaluating the trade-offs. “Some people want to have national chains there and it’s not our place to criticize that desire. Some people say ‘It’s totally bland, anyplace USA, and I’d rather shop at Salvation Army.’”

But how do you measure so subjective a concept as character? Tax revenue from sales at chain stores, as well as increased assessments on Broadway property, is a more tangible measure of success.

McGrath, who worked on the renovation of New Haven’s Ninth Square for the city, thinks Alexander’s work has been brilliant. “Bruce Alexander knows what he’s doing,” McGrath told me. “Everything here is at least twice as good as it used to be.” Others I spoke to echoed his thoughts. The dispersal of older shops unable to cooperate has made way for a clean and vibrant shopping district that actually does pull in suburban consumers.

I asked McGrath about local flavor, and a sense of place, and he mentioned the Copper Kitchen, a greasy-spoon diner on Chapel Street. popular with students that closed after a dispute with UP last year. “People thought it had character because it was the only dirty, filthy place on the block.”

From Yale’s perspective, McGrath said, admissions rates drive the University’s reputation. “Yale’s customer base is the parents of the students,” he said. “Who’s making these decisions? The mother and father. They looked at Broadway and they said, ‘This is not the town for my child to go
to school in.’”

Or as Michael Bingham wrote in a 2001 piece in Conntact, a Connecticut business news journal, “In remaking the Broadway retail district, Yale UP has replaced locally owned shops and eateries with chain stores, presumably affording familiarity and comfort to would-be students and their parents.”

Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon at Eugene, writing in the journal Political Geography, was less generous. “In some sense, New Haven serves as a living market brochure for the University,” he wrote in a 2003 essay. “The university attempted something akin to gentrification by central planning.”

***

In addition to creating a successful retail center in downtown New Haven, the commercial real estate boom has expanded the social boundaries of the University. Broadway today feels very much a part of Yale, but that wasn’t always the case.

“When I first came here,” Rubin said, “There was this place that served beer called Demery’s on the corner where ABP is, and it was a relatively rollicking place when it emptied out—loud, boisterous, sometimes a barfight would spill out into the street. Exactly like what happens on Crown Street now. Right in the middle of campus.”

Over at Smooth’s, a barbershop on Whalley Avenue, Jules Barber explained how things had changed in quite simple terms. Today, Broadway is perceived as part of the Yale campus. But in the old days, Barber said, “It wasn’t like that. You had people playing the guitar, people playing drums, people on skateboards, it was like your Broadway in New York.”

At Patricia’s, a diner that’s now on the edge of UP’s commercial jurisdiction, John DeLuz, an accountant who lives in Westville, told me that he felt Yale’s strip didn’t reflect New Haven itself. “You have your J. Crew, your Apple, and a lot of people can’t afford Apple products. The city is being tailored for people who don’t live here—it’s just wall-papering over what the city really is. You start to look like you’re trying to push a certain element out.” That lack of diversity is the consequence of one landowner with a lot of power. “Yale used to be a seat at the table,” Deluz said. “Now they are the table.”

The unofficial line between Yale and New Haven is now at the end of Broadway, he said, where Whalley Avenue, Goffe Avenue, and Dixwell Avenue fan out into the city. Around here, tenants worry about being bought up by Yale; about being unable to meet UP’s demands. But Yale owns property here, too—at 34 Whalley Ave., an empty storefront sandwiched between an African hair-braiding salon and a Popeye’s, and now at 15 Dixwell Ave., the former home of Broadway Liquor.

Yale bought 15 Dixwell Ave. in November 2011, and UP decided not to renew the lease of the campus-favorite liquor store, though it’s a family business that’s been in New Haven for 30 years. I asked Alexander about that decision, and he said he felt little embarrassment about it. “That’s not one that enhances the appeal of the merchandizing mix,” he said.

Abigail Rider, the director of UP, who did not respond to an interview request, told the Yale Daily News at the time that “We do not feel that liquor stores are the best use of UP’s locations near campus.” It’s no surprise that Yale doesn’t want a liquor store on their property. Alexander banned the sale of tobacco in UP stores years ago. On that occasion, he recalled, a student—himself a smoker—accused him of being patronizing and paternalistic. “I said that while I tried not to be these things, in this case, because of the health issues, if I could make him walk 25 miles for cigarettes, I would.” The student, Alexander said, later quit smoking.

***

But Broadway Liquor was also one of a few places that catered both to Yalies and to residents of the Dixwell community, the largely African-American neighborhood northwest of Yale. “It’s very clear that Broadway Liquor is an edge,” Rubin said, “Between what’s within the Yale bubble and something that is less known. It represents in some ways for Yale planners an opportunity to extend their zone of influence.”

Neighborhood residents aren’t surprised to see Yale expanding. But Deluz, who went to Southern Connecticut State University, is worried that these vanishing meeting points between Yalies and New Haven residents are crucial to the school’s mission: “What happens when you have influential people interacting with people who barely make a living wage is a humanization of the latter.”

Not for everyone. Alexander Fischer, MC ’14, writing in the Yale Daily News, has called for the University to buy Toad’s and shut down the club, “a citadel of vulgarity” that “brings people devoid of class or morality into the heart of our campus.” He defended the gentrification of Broadway and called for businesses to set an “upmarket and civilized tone.”

The loss of diversity may be the greatest casualty of Broadway’s commercial success—a renewal of enormous proportions that has changed the way universities think about commercial property. “All these years,” McGrath said, “Yale didn’t have a Harvard Square. Now they do.”
Deluz thinks that’s exactly the point. “When you cut out the regular world, you lose a piece of what makes Yale students so different—different from Princeton, different from Harvard—so unique. It’s New Haven.”

But over at Smooth’s on Whalley, Barber thinks the situation marks an improvement over how things used to be. Barber thinks that now that Yalies feel comfortable on Broadway, they feel more comfortable on Whalley, too. And that diversity is good. He says that Smooth’s cuts the hair of half the football team, and that Yalies are always next door at Sushi Mizu, or across the street at Patricia’s. The day of the Harvard-Yale game, he almost felt like joining the parade of students streaming down Chapel St.

“They’re not even scared to come to the hood anymore! Ten years ago, that never would have happened.” He praised the University’s other efforts, undertaken under President Levin, to reconnect with the community.

“At the end of the day,” he said “I don’t mind Yale buying up things.” He checked with the room: “They haven’t bought this barbershop, have they?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that Yale pays four million dollars in city taxes. This is the amount Yale pays in commercial property taxes.