As Gateway Community College prepares to bring 11,000 students and faculty to a new downtown campus this fall, Sal Comunale is anticipating the crowd by rehabbing a century-old retail spot right across the street.
Comunale (at left in photo, with property manager Al Rich) is a partner in Greenwich-based Stapleton Management Company, which owns 27-33 Church St. The building faces Gateway’s $198 million downtown campus, which is marching towards an August opening.
As the opening approaches, Comunale is spending $275,000 to fix up two street-level retail spots, which he hopes to fill with tenants to serve the new student population. The city kicked in a $99,000 grant to help him fix up the storefronts, which were most recently occupied by an arts store and a check cashing joint.
Comunale vowed to create a “cutting-edge storefront” that will mirror the glass-filled design of Gateway—while retaining historic detail.
One detail he plans to keep (pictured above) is what could be called a cartouche—a shield atop the facade inscribed with the date the building was founded, 1907.
The building is best known as the longtime home of the Congress Pants men’s clothing store. The store is pictured in left of this photo from the 1980s. To the right is the old Macy’s store, which was torn down to make way for Gateway.
To the right of Congress Pants is One Church Street, which Stapleton also owns. The building was one of the first buildings erected part of a Church Street redevelopment project in the 1960s, according to Tony Bialecki, deputy economic development administrator for the city. One Church Street, now home to offices and the Ecuadorian consulate, was built in 1961—before Macy’s and the iconic “tootsie roll” Knights of Columbus headquarters, also pictured.
Bialecki said Congress Pants was around “for as long as I could remember as a kid.” As urban renewal fever swept through New Haven, several buildings between Congress Pants and One Church were razed and turned into a parking lot. “It’s actually a miracle that Congress Pants didn’t get torn down,” Bialecki reflected.
Before Congress Pants, the building was home to The McCusker Schroeder Co., which sold coal and wood, and to Charles Lunch. Anson B. Clinton, a successful piano and musical instrument dealer, occupied the second floor, according to local historian Colin Caplan.
Stapleton bought the building in 2000. He leased the ground floor to Kaye’s Art Center and a check-cashing place called X-Bankers; Fashionista, a vintage clothing shop (pictured), rented the second floor. When Kaye’s left about three years ago, Comunale said, his firm started thinking about renovating the building. Fashionista, whose lease had expired, relocated to Whitney Avenue. He bought the remaining tenant, X-Bankers, out of its lease.
“We paid them to leave the premises. We wanted the building empty so we could be ready for” Gateway, Comunale said.
Comunale said he was already thinking about rehabbing the storefronts but when he landed a $99,000 grant from the city’s Facade Improvement Program, he decided to “do a little extra” with the design. The grant requires the developer to spend two dollars on the facade for every dollar the city spends.
Comunale described the plans during a tour Thursday afternoon.
The renovation has peeled back the layers of history in the building. Rich, the property manager, pointed to original “subway tiles” that had been under some sheetrock at the entrance to the check cashing store. The wall also shows the traces of a long-gone staircase.
In the other half of the building, Comunale shined a flood light to reveal writing on the wall, “ICE CREAM SODA 5¢ ALL FLAVORS,” hinting at what predated Congress Pants.
The sign may be a remnant from the old Charles Lunch, which sold frankforts in the 30s. A sign in this 1938 photo sits in the same place, offering the same low price for juice.
Comunale plans to turn each street-level retail spot into a “vanilla box” so tenants can design the inside according to their needs.
Plans call for cleaning and repairing the second-floor facade, including the original masonry and stained glass windows.
The second floor is currently being rented by an electrical contractor working on Gateway. Comunale said it’s in good shape. He plans to rent it out as an office for an architect or lawyer—or perhaps as a restaurant with seating on a rear patio.
Comunale hired Studio ABK Architects in New Haven to come up with a new facade. Check out the renderings here.
Comunale said the city grant enables the company to do more serious structural repairs, such as removing a steel beam hanging over the entrance to make way for a taller glass facade. Rich said they’ll be using glass fiber reinforced concrete, or imitation limestone, to create a look of stone on the storefront.
Rehab is due to be finished by June 15.
White-painted plyboard now covers the facade. For the time being, “unfortunately it’s looking like an abandoned storefront,” Comunale said. But “when it’s done, it’s going to look great.”
The stores will be the first retail space students come across as they head into town on Church Street, Comunale pointed out.
Comunale said he doesn’t have any tenants lined up yet, but a bakery has expressed interest.
Meanwhile, Bialecki reported that the state is “very much” on track with the Gateway project. Construction crews are set to finish by April 1. Then all the tables, chairs, and equipment for classrooms should start to arrive in May or June. “They’ll be up and running sometime by early summer,” Bialecki said. The building should be ready in time to welcome students back in the last week of August.
Bialecki said he’s glad to see the development spurring activity on Church Street.
“For many years, there wasn’t a high demand for retail along Church Street,” especially on the block between Crown and George, he noted. “That’s why clubs and low-end cash-checking” moved in. Besides Comunale’s vacant storefront, the stretch holds a nail salon, a bodega, and a nightclub called Empire (formerly Gotham Citi).
On the next block of Church, Alex Marathas and Paul Denz of Mid Block Development are fixing up the former New Haven Variety Store, which was destroyed in a 2007 fire of historic proportions.
Bialecki said he looks forward to seeing the Congress Pants store of his youth in its next incarnation.
“I give them a lot of credit for holding on and reinvesting in the building,” he said. “I’m sure it will be a very popular spot, right across from the college.”