For New Haven, new colleges bring opportunity for growth
One morning in 2015, Kwamaine McCarter, who lives in the Dixwell neighborhood, went through his morning routine. He showered, ate breakfast and brushed his teeth. But the moment he stepped out of his house a block from Ingalls Rink, he noticed something unusual: Construction trucks were moving in the empty city lot just steps away.
“I was like, what is Yale about to do now?” he said.
He didn’t find out until a year later, and by that point, his emotions had shifted from indifference to eagerness. In the past, Yale had built in his neighborhood a clinic for its students and employees, a station for its police force. But this time, the construction was not another phase of commercial development for University affiliates. Instead, Yale was building two new residential colleges, which meant more people were coming to live in Dixwell.
“There’s gonna be good traffic, good vibes. Now, I’ll at least be able to say ‘Hi’ to somebody on the street,” McCarter said, gesturing to the empty sidewalk that connects Yale’s campus to Science Park. “Right now, it’s slow and nothing’s going on. Those new dorms give me the option to interact with more people.”
This fall, several hundred students will move into the new colleges as the undergraduate population begins to expand by 15 percent — a significant milestone for Yale as it attempts to increase its accessibility. And for the city of New Haven, the construction project will breathe new life into the area around the Prospect Street facilities.
Yale has been grooming the area surrounding Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for more than two decades, and much of the development has already been completed. Many of the infrastructural changes to the community are already done. But as the $500 million project nears completion, residents, retailers and real estate investors in the area await the uptick in population and the economic boost it will bring the neighborhood.
A NEW NEIGHBORHOOD
For more than half a century — and through the administrations of several Yale presidents and New Haven mayors — Joe Paolillo has worked a one-man automobile repair shop on Ashmun Street.
But now, students walking from the new colleges to Payne Whitney Gymnasium past Yale Health will spot a note taped inside Paolillo’s glass door.
“Thank you for 58 years in business,” it reads.
The University purchased the property from Paolillo in June 2016 for $400,000, and another note taped on the window announces an upcoming construction project.
Yale has been acquiring properties in the area in preparation for the new residential colleges: The University also purchased 100 Ashmun St. on the neighboring block in 2014. Since then, the site has been used to treat and drug test University-contracted construction workers. But rumors have circulated among those University contractors that the site will be converted into a convenience store once the nearby colleges are completed, someone familiar with the matter said.
According to Head of Pauli Murray College Tina Lu, University administrators have discussed bringing retail to the area. One immediate need the University has been seriously discussing is a convenience store similar to Durfee’s Sweet Shoppe, but with more toiletries such as contact lens solution and shampoo. In terms of long-term plans, Lu said the University’s strategic vision includes increasing foot traffic and bringing retail space to Ashmun Street.
But the specific details of that vision are still up in the air. Yale continues to explore various uses for the property and no plans are final, according to University Properties Director Lauren Zucker. And John Pollard, Yale’s contracted retail broker, did not know what vendors Yale was considering to bring to the area.
Whatever business the potential space draws, Lu said she wants the people living around the development to have a voice in the decision. Lu added that she hopes that she, Head of Benjamin Franklin College Charles Bailyn, student representatives from the new colleges and neighborhood residents will be able to voice their opinions when the University is close to deciding on tenants.
“It shouldn’t simply be about bringing in folks who are interested in doing some business in New Haven,” Lu said. “It should really be about serving the neighborhood’s needs and being receptive to what people in the neighborhood have to say about what they’d like to see there.”
Along with potential for retail development on Ashmun Street, the neighborhood has seen some redevelopment on Dixwell Avenue independent of the University’s efforts to prepare for the new wave of students. The community has been trying to revamp its commercial district, said Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison, who will also represent residents of the two new colleges in New Haven’s Board of Alders. Since much of the infrastructure already exists, it is just a matter of renovating old buildings and ultimately bringing in affordable tenants, Morrison said. With Stop and Shop, a 20-minute walk for some, currently the neighborhood’s closest food shop, Morrison said the community hopes one of those tenants is a grocery store.
“A grocery store would be very much welcome,” she said.
With the new colleges less than a quarter of a mile away, retailers on nearby Whitney Avenue hope the rise in residents will bring increased business to their locations.
Katalina’s Bakery, located just south of the intersection of Whitney and Trumbull, currently sees little traffic from undergraduates. Owner Kathy Riegelmann said she hopes these consumer patterns can change and that she can draw undergraduate students into her bakery. But she knows that change is not guaranteed, and that the new students might follow convention, frequenting coffee shops such as Starbucks and Blue State Coffee instead.
“I hope that once they are closer to me, they will come this way,” Riegelmann said. “But once they have made their circle of movement freshman year, it seems like they don’t venture off their path.”
This was true for Thomas Stiles ’63, who entered Ezra Stiles College as a senior when Stiles and Morse College opened in 1962. He transferred from Silliman College to take advantage of the single-room living arrangements and because he and his father were distant relatives of the college’s namesake.
During his senior year, Stiles continued to occasionally eat at Yankee Doodle Coffee and Sandwich Shop — a downtown diner located until 2008 in the complex Tyco Printing now occupies at 258 Elm St.
The college switch made his walk to The Doodle slightly shorter. But even though he lived closer to his favorite restaurant, his trips to the joint did not increase. He said he did not notice any changes in other students’ interactions with off-campus establishments, either.
William Bidwell ’63, who transferred from Jonathan Edwards College to Morse for its inaugural opening, had the same experience: His off-campus patterns went unchanged.
After graduating from Yale College, Bidwell returned in 1972 to live in New Haven and to work for the University, though he has since retired. During the 54 years since his graduation, Bidwell noticed a transformation between off-campus life then and now. Though development was not perfectly linear, now, relations between New Haven and Yale are improved, he said.
As Yale’s campus has expanded, weaving itself into the fabric of the city, town-gown relations have improved. With undergraduates feeling more comfortable venturing to different parts of New Haven, and with additional students entering a new area next fall, retailers await what that could mean for their business.
One such retailer is Sun Yup Kim, the owner of Good Nature Market. Since Good Nature Market’s locations opened two years ago, taking over for Gourmet Heaven after charges of wage theft, its stores have had different experiences. According to the stores’ manager Tatae Park, business at the Whitney grocery has been steady, while at the retailer’s Broadway location, though still profitable, sales have decreased.
“Honestly, the whole Broadway market is going down,” Park said.
Park mainly attributes the decrease in foot traffic entering Broadway’s Good Nature Market to technology: Food delivery services and interfaces like UberEats, Yelp Eat24 and GrubHub are lowering the importance and relevance of retailers’ locations.
Park, however, sees promise in the Whitney location. Right now, both retail shops largely function as convenience stores, but he said he wants the Whitney location to add classical grocery shopping to its repertoire, given the amount of housing in the surrounding area. Because of nearby business offices, Park will continue serving buffet food out of the Whitney venue, but he hopes to start grocery and hot food delivery as well.
On top of the already-planned changes to the Good Nature Market on Whitney Avenue, Park thinks the location will reap increased sales when the new residential colleges open in the fall. Though the Broadway location currently brings in more customers, the Whitney store is half the distance for Murray and Benjamin Franklin students than its counterpart.
Coincidentally, if Yale’s original undergraduate expansion plan had gone the University’s way, the Good Nature Market on Whitney would be right next door to undergraduate residences.
John Hay Whitney ’26 donated $15 million to Yale in 1970 to develop two new residential colleges. The University commissioned architectural plans, but met city resistance due to Yale’s property tax-exempt status.
In 1973, the Board of Alders voted against zoning changes that would have allowed the construction. Instead, the city later approved the Whitney Grove Square development for that lot, which currently hosts as eight floors of offices for Yale as well as housing and retail locations.
Most other retailers on Whitney Avenue interviewed also expressed optimism about the potential for new customers from Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges.
Yet other retailers’ reactions ranged from ambivalence to doubtful with regard to the possibility of students from the new colleges visiting their businesses, arguing that the colleges are still too far from Whitney Avenue for students to travel.
But Pollard, who brokers retail space for University Properties, said the colleges are physically closer to shops than some students and businesspeople think. Pollard imagines students will head to Whitney Avenue and Broadway, as well as downtown New Haven, to purchase food and other products.
“They really aren’t far from the other areas,” Pollard said. “I think when they open, everyone will get really comfortable really quickly. You look at [Timothy Dwight College], and some people think that that’s out of the way, but it really isn’t.”
ELM CITY SAFETY
Yale did not always have the freedom to expand wherever in the city it wanted: The neighborhoods surrounding central campus were once home to violent crime that in some cases involved students. The neighborhoods around Yale evolved gradually, eventually making such an expansion into Dixwell possible.
At 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1991, Yale professor Douglas Rae’s telephone rang. A Yale student had just been murdered. Christian Prince ’93, a varsity lacrosse player and fourth-generation Yale student from Chevy Chase, Maryland, had been walking to his apartment on Whitney Avenue when a teenage male from New Haven tried to rob Prince. A gun was fired, a bullet entered Prince’s heart, and the 19-year-old was pronounced dead minutes later. No one was ever convicted of the murder.
The incident provoked a sense of crisis in Yale affiliates throughout the campus and in the parents of potential students throughout the country, Rae said. He had joined Yale’s faculty in 1967, and over the course of two decades, he saw the city lose jobs in the manufacturing sector and climb the ranks of the United States’ most dangerous cities. Rae said New Haven had reached its worst-ever period in 1990, when he joined the city government for a two-year stint as its chief administrative officer — City Hall’s second-hand man.
To slow the disintegration of town-gown relations, swift action was needed. Prince’s death set the University in motion, and it began to aid New Haven development. Over a 25-year time frame, the University helped develop the area where it believed Prince’s killer stemmed from.
Former University President Richard Levin assumed the role the year Prince would have graduated, 1993. At the start of his 20-year tenure, Levin instituted measures to help improve campus, and consequently, New Haven’s safety. The Yale Police force expanded, hundreds of emergency blue light phones began to dot campus and streets became better lit.
“By far the most important topic was how do we improve the urban environment,” Rae said. “How do we create a more constructive environment between the University and the city?”
Within the first year of his presidency, Levin launched the Yale Homebuyer Program, which incentivizes University employees to own homes and live in New Haven. The University also looked to hire more local workers.
Since 1994, the Yale Homebuyer Program has evolved to focus on select neighborhoods in New Haven, such as Dixwell, Wooster Square and Dwight — areas that border Yale’s campus. And now, if Yale employees purchase a house in Dixwell specifically, they receive $35,000, which represents $5,000 more in incentive payments than homebuyers in other neighborhoods receive.
In addition to drawing employees to purchase homes in town, the University was also buying some of its own Elm City property, including residential buildings near Dixwell for its own portfolio.
“Yale started to focus on acquiring property near [the new residential colleges] so they could put their footprint and stamp there to control the area,” said Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, the president of the New Haven Urban Design League.
In 2001, the University administration acquired the former site of American Linen Supply Company on 101 Ashmun St. to bring Yale-owned commercial development into Dixwell. Five years later, the lot became the Yale Police Department station, within which is contained a community learning center that forms a partnership between Yale and the neighborhood.
Around the same time of that acquisition, local resident Christine Alexander founded New Haven Reads, a project that created a book bank for the community to improve local literacy. Soon after, Yale purchased 45 Bristol St. and allowed New Haven Reads to house its book bank right on the border of Yale’s campus with the Dixwell neighborhood.
The University then broke ground on the Yale Health Center next door. Once that project was finished, all the major pieces had fallen in place. To complete the University’s plan to connect Payne Whitney Gymnasium to Science Hill, Yale only had one more project: a $500 million vision to construct two new residential colleges and expand the undergraduate population.
“The truth is that the neighborhood has already been impacted, positively, by developments around it. I think that the whole sweep from Dixwell [Avenue] to Prospect [Street] has seen a great deal of investment over 25 years that has been preparing the area for the arrival,” said Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81, City Hall’s economic development administrator. “The students entering the colleges won’t be a catalyst for change because the change has already come.”
A RACE FOR REAL ESTATE
Though the major changes to the area are already complete, it continues to draw investors’ attention.
Last summer, the Paris Realty Group and its partners invested in a property at 90 Bristol St. The 12-unit apartment complex cost them nearly $1.2 million — twice the price the property had sold for less than a year prior.
Paris Realty, Mendel Paris’s real estate group, gutted the outdated building. Now with renovations complete, everything is brand new. The conversion doubled rents for a two-bedroom apartment, which rose from $800 to $1,600. Come summer, Paris is confident the complex will be full.
“We look ahead of the curb and invest in areas where rents are going to go up and where people at Yale are going to be,” Paris said.
Paris envisions Bristol Street as Lake Place is now: a hotbed for off-campus housing.
Lake Place, where Yale students and city residents share a strip of street, has been the northwest edge of Yale’s territory for years. Nemerson, who has been involved in city planning for the past three decades, said Bristol Street might be the next line of Yale’s northwest edge expansion. Both are just north of Payne Whitney.
Farnam Realty Group Owner Carol Horsford, whose group also owns a property on Bristol Street, still thinks Lake Place is the more desirable of the two. Unlike Lake Place, which houses a variety of Yale-affiliated fraternities and sororities with multifamily housing, Bristol Street has a varied row of residential options. Accompanying 90 Bristol St. on the strip are single-, double- and triple-family homes — lots Paris and his partners have sought to purchase.
And right next door to 90 Bristol St. is Paris’ “dream” acquirement: Edith Johnson Towers — a 14-story, 117-unit senior living center that towers over all the residences in its immediate vicinity.
Nemerson said that transaction is a possibility. If it happened, he said the city would help ensure the conversion was done responsibly and without resident displacement.
Closer to the new colleges, developers wonder about Winchester Avenue and Mansfield Street, which are currently lined with multi-family housing units. Though graduate students are peppered throughout those homes, Horsford thinks some students are still afraid to live there. The construction of Yale Health, the Yale Police Department and the new colleges have eased some of these fears, she added.
Some Winchester Avenue residents — Morrison’s constituents — have told their alder they are going to relocate in anticipation of higher rents. Those who own their homes on the street do not share those worries, she added.
To political science professor Douglas Rae, Yale’s moves are in some ways a gentrification play, but in development, it is important to determine how such moves affect the municipality as a whole.
Nemerson said the city continues to make sure everyone has a place to live, whether it is through the Livable City Initiative, providing affordable and subsidized housing or keeping a constant dialogue between developers, residents and city government.
Both Rae and Nemerson, who combined have 80 years of thinking about New Haven, agree that, as a whole, the change is for the better.
“Ultimately, in the background, whenever you improve a portion of the city, you need to ask: are you really improving the city? Are you improving the net good or sweeping trouble to another place?” Rae said.
“For this, I think this is a net improvement,” he added.
To McCarter, the changes have been improvements too. He is excited for the new colleges to come to the neighborhood. He hopes their residents are excited, too.
Luckily for McCarter, at least one is.
“We’re the newbies in somebody else’s home, so I would love to be sponsoring cookouts where the neighborhood was invited,” Lu said. “I would love to make it known that we’re not like a kind of closed-off, elite portion, but that we see ourselves as part of Yale, but also as part of New Haven.”