The man who figured out that thousands of people would love to live in the center of New Haven — then made it possible — is now battling to remain a part of it.
His name is Joel Schiavone. He is 80 years old. Back in the 1980s, the banjo-playing, sock-eschewing businessman developed a ghost town known as downtown New Haven into a hopping, fun, walkable, historically restored residential center that defined “new urbanism” before politicians, image-makers and a new generation of Jane Jacobses came up with and promoted the term. Empty-nesters and childless young adults have filled the apartments Schiavone, then other developers, created amid colorful restaurants, nightclubs, galleries, and shops that have become the envy of Connecticut’s other cities.
Schiavone earned a local nickname: Mr. Downtown.
These days Schiavone lives that urban dream on half of the the second floor of a 2,551-square-foot circa-1885 Victorian multifamily home on the downtown edge of the Dwight neighborhood. He raised the money to rescue and restore the building on behalf of a Yale secret society he helped revive.
Now that society has served him with eviction papers. He has until May 1 to leave.
He said he’s not going anywhere.
“Why should I leave?” he asked. “All my stuff is here. I like being downtown.”
His landlord, the Lincoln Society, has served him with a notice to quit. It states he hasn’t paid rent. Schiavone insists he has.
It’s a long story. One that properly begins in 1958.
Schiavone was a senior at Yale in 1958. Desmos (Greek for “bond” or friendship), one of Yale’s elite undergraduate clubs, tapped him as a member.
Alumni keep in touch with their old secret society mates. That’s kind of the point.
But Desmos petered out. “It was so secret,” Schiavone quipped, “that it went away.” For four decades it had no new student members. “Gradually, some of the alumni said, ‘Whatever happened to Desmos?’”
It was a new century by then. Schiavone had stayed in town and established himself as a leading businessman. He owned a chain of nightclubs called Your Father’s Moustache. He owned New Haven’s hockey team for a while. He invested in real estate. He performed on banjo at regular nightclub jazz sessions.
In 1982, he got the city to support his idea of turning the bombed-out College/Chapel Street area into an urban hub — by fixing up old buildings like the old Taft Hotel, rather than tearing them down as in urban renewal; by thinking of downtown as a neighborhood where people live and fill sidewalks at all hours, not a 9-to-5 pass-through for suburban commuters; by emphasizing distinctive local businesses like the Anchor Bar and Claire’s Corner Copia rather than generic strip-mall chain outlets; and by restoring and reopening the old Shubert Theater (in conjunction with the Fusco Corporation) and old Roger Sherman Theater, reborn as the Palace and now the College Street Music Hall.
It worked. The district got built. People came to live and play in it. A new generation of restaurants became a regional magnet for diners. Now newer builders have rented out market-rate complexes from 360 State to Church and Chapel to Crown Street to Chapel and Howe, which was once a red-light district before Schiavone got to work.
Along the way, Schiavone lost his downtown properties to bankruptcy. Yale picked them up and has run them ever since. Schiavone remained in real estate, moved on to other projects.
Schiavone spoke with his old Desmos buddies. In 2009, they revived the organization. Schiavone said he took charge. He legally established a corporation to operate it, called the Lincoln Society, and raised money. They recruited students to start tapping new members, which the students did.
At first the revived society rented quarters on Park Street. Then Schiavone located a promising potential permanent home: the two-story Victorian that at the time stood at 1249 Chapel St., near the corner of Chapel and Howe at the gateway to the Dwight neighborhood. Schiavone had owned the house but didn’t live there.
Chapel and Howe was in the process of gentrifying. A Stamford developer named Randy Salvatore purchased a lot at the corner to build a $40 million, 136-unit upscale apartment building called the Novella. The land included surface parking lots and several houses, including Schiavone’s former building at 1249.
Schiavone, who always saw New Haven’s architectural history as one of its greatest strengths, prevailed on Salvatore to pay to move the house to a vacant lot next door (where the Schatz Furrier building once stood until the city demolished it in 2009 following a fire) at 1255 Chapel rather than tear it down. That way an historic treasure would be saved, a bargaining chip with skeptical neighbors Salvatore needed to win over to gain zoning approval for his project.
Salvatore agreed. Schiavone raised over $800,000, he said, for the Lincoln Society/Desmos to restore the house to its former glory. The Lincoln Society (with Schiavone acting as registered agent) arranged to purchase it from Salvatore’s company for $352,700 in July 2014.
The plan was for Desmos to occupy part of the building as a society gathering space. Schiavone prepared four other apartments to rent out to help pay the bills.
Schiavone moved into one of those apartments. Which is how, today, matters have gotten messy.
A vintage late-1940s Schwinn bicycle with fuzzy dice attached greets visitors on the stairway up to Schiavone’s second-floor apartment, a symbol of the new-urbanist vibe Schiavone has always celebrated as well as his whimsical fondness for historic artifacts.
The vibe continues as you walk into the sunny, clean two-bedroom apartment. There’s a 1920s jukebox (“before they invented plastic”) in the living room, old New Haven photos, a Vega banjo from the instrument’s “golden age.” (Click on the video to watch him play a vaudeville number on it.) A framed Sept. 2003 New Haven Preservation Trust citation with a picture of the restored Taft Hotel has the following inscription:
Joel Schiavone transformed the face of New Haven with his high hope for our quality of life.
His preservation and revitalization of the Chapel and College Street area has become a lasting tribute to his vision.
Joel’s continued love of our architectural heritage and devotion to our civic pride, spirit of perserverance and sheer joy of life is honored with the Preservation Hero Award.
Schiavone moved into the apartment two years ago. He had spent the previous decade-plus in Guilford — a concession to his wife’s wishes.
“I don’t know how the hell I lasted out in Guilford for 12 years. What a sacrifice that is! I spent all my time in the car going back and forth in New Haven,” recalled.
Then his wife went to jail for her part in a “gifting tables” case. Schiavone had no reason to remain moored in suburbia. He moved into one of the apartments he was creating in the new Desmos compound.
According to Schiavone, he and the organization agreed that for the first couple of years, his rent would be covered by a $35,000 loan he had given to complete the restoration and would forgive. The other apartments have been rented.
Schiavone settled in, returning to his active New Haven life. The mayor appointed him to the Redevelopment Authority. He shopped around ideas for extending downtown’s renaissance to the Dwight neighborhood. He clearly enjoys his daily life around town; after an interview this week, he planned to take an afternoon nap so he could stay awake for a show later that night at Pacific Standard Tavern on Crown Street, where his son Max was playing bass in a band beginning its set at 11:15.
In an email sent this Feb. 20, Schiavone learned that his pals in the society planned to end his daily routine, at least the part of living at 1255 Chapel. The organization’s executive committee wrote to Schiavone asking him to vacate the apartment by May 30. It had decided not to renew his lease.
Schiavone contacted his old pal Robert Olmstead, an executive committee member with whom he had revived the society in the aughts, to ask why he was being “berating.”
“Please believe me when I say I am not ‘berating’ you,” Olmstead wrote back at 1:01 a.m. on March 1. Olmstead wrote that Schiavone had failed to pay the $1,150 monthly rent on the apartment. “Rather each month we are repaying you for your claim for your out of pocket expenses in building the tomb [society building]. In return, you are living rent free.
“We are not deriving any income from that apartment. Paying back your expenses this way was a method you decided on unilaterally as was the amount. The lack of any income from the second floor apartment has created a serious financial crisis for Desmos.”
Olmstead stated that Desmos is running a $5,000 annual deficit and “cannot continue to do so.” He added that Schiavone has “declined to demonstrate” that he can pay the needed rent. The note states that the society plans to combine the two second-floor apartments into one that will rent at $1,950 a month.
“[T]here is no room for negotiation here,” Olmstead wrote. Then he concluded:
“You are one of the three Founding Fathers of the return of Desmos. I know that you would not do anything that might jeopardize its future.
“In the bond,
Schiavone heard from Desmos attorney Anne C. Leavitt on April 11 in the form of a notice to quit.
“PLEASE TAKE NOTICE,” the notice read, “that on or before MAY 1, 2017, you are to quit possession and occupancy of the FRONT UNIT on the SECOND FLOOR located at 1255 CHAPEL STREET, NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT now occupied by you for the following reasons:
“1) NON-PAYMENT OF RENT;
“2) LAPSE OF TIME;
“3) NO FURTHER RIGHT OR PRIVILEGE TO OCCUPY THE PREMISES.”
Looking For A Few Years
Olmstead was reached by phone Thursday. “We have no comment” about the dispute with Schiavone, he said. “Thanks for getting in touch with me.” Attorney Leavitt, also reached Thursday, said Schiavone was “served for valid legal reasons” and she can’t comment further on “pending litigation.”
Schiavone has hired attorney Norm Pattis to fight the eviction. He said the society has told him it needs to have three apartments, not five, to comply with zoning regulations. (City land records list the house as a three-family building.) He said the society had signed off on his original plans and shouldn’t change the arrangement now.
He said the group wanted him to rent both apartments on the second floor for the $1,950 or act as the landlord, with a promise to look the other way if he wanted to continue operating it as a five-unit building. He said he’s not interested in being the landlord.
Attorney Pattis said that he plans to argue that the society is violating Section 471-23c of the Connecticut General Statutes, which prohibits evicting tenants over 62 years old. That statute does allow for evictions based on nonpayment of rent. But Pattis said Schiavone has already given him money to put into escrow for future rent payment. He said the society knows Schiavone can and will pay his rent.
“There is no honor among the board of this secret society. I look forward to meeting them or their mouthpiece in court,” Pattis said.
“Why would anybody start a secret society is a question I have. Why anyone would join them is another question. Why you would expect them to act like anything other than low-rent thugs is another question. I have no idea what they’re smoking,” he continued.
Pattis predicted that if the society “persists” with the eviction, “maybe we’ll own the Lincoln Society and rename it the Schiavone Society.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Downtown said he plans to remain in his apartment at least a few more years.
“I’m 80 years old,” he said. “My wife is in prison. I can’t move any place until she gets out.” That should happen in more than three years, he said. He’s confident she wouldn’t want to live on Chapel Street. Until then, there’s no other place he’d rather be.