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Lower Chapel SOS
by Robert & Carol Orr | Feb 4, 2013 2:23 pm
Posted to: Opinion, Downtown, Ninth Square
After the man who runs a next-door jewelry store survived an assault and attempted robbery (depicted in this surveillance video), Robert and Carol Orr issued a warning about all-too-frequent theft—and a call for help to deliver Lower Chapel Street from a “desperate 1980s style dystopia.”
The Orrs, who own The English Building, sent in the following opinion piece:
Late Monday afternoon, Jan. 21, 2013, one half block from the New Haven Green, Nim’s Jewelry Store was robbed and the owner assaulted. Unfortunately, these kinds of encounters on Chapel Street between Church and State are not uncommon. Nim’s, which sits below The Institute Library at 845 Chapel St., was robbed successfully three times during 2012 alone. Already 2013 looks like more of the same.
Two doors down from Nim’s, we run a vintage store said to be raising the perception of the street. We’re glad for the recognition, and we get a lot of terrific customers. We enjoy the business. But like Nim’s, we face a daily threat of robbery. With goods not protected under glass case, a good part of every day gets spent bird-dogging would-be robbers, some recognized from previous encounters, others recognized for their style of working in pairs to draw attention away from the cash drawer while accomplices dig in, others where one just feels a robbery coming on, and many unsuspected until one happens on telltale tags on floors in dressing rooms from “walk outs.”
Most of the thefts are petty, but over time they add up. We’ve lost six personal cell phones, plenty of cash, and merchandise small enough to fit in pockets. But large thefts too. This weekend we watched a pair on video make off with a 6’ high $1,200 piece of art during one unattended moment. Every day we have two or three stories. Other merchants on the street confirm similar tales.
Billboards on the interstates celebrate events at the Shubert and Long Wharf, at The Shops at Yale, at Restaurant Week, and at Project Storefront in the 9th Square. People respond coming daily into New Haven to enjoy the offerings, peaking in the afterhours at New Haven’s notorious nightclubs. Traffic is up.
But Lower Chapel Street hangs on to a desperate 1980s style dystopia. When the city awarded its big development project on Lower Chapel, the developer immediately changed the site’s name and orientation from 740 Chapel Street to 360 State Street. In fact, just about everywhere one turns one senses that Lower Chapel Street is the unwanted ugly child of New Haven, the perception of a danger zone.
Not long after we set up shop in our building we approached then-director of economic development, Henry Fernandez, to raise the issue about Lower Chapel Street. His response was that these were “market conditions” and we just had to live with them. When we reached out to Yale Properties, they expressed concern for any potential to draw business away from areas where they are heavily invested. Six consecutive leasing agents engaged over the next ten years have yet to attract any tenants to our building. And the emerging attention by local marketing agencies may add to the buzz of adjacent 9th Square, but skirt Lower Chapel. Everyone dodges Lower Chapel Street.
To be sure the Town Green instituted attractive summertime planters hanging from light posts on Lower Chapel and drew some attention in promotion of the Yuppie Boutique where the storeowner was gunned down a few years back. But these efforts are tentative and non-game changing. There’s too deeply engrained a general acceptance that the “market conditions” are intractable and one just has to live with them. Nowhere does motivation stir anyone to mount a comprehensive and effective effort to tackle the “market conditions” of Lower Chapel.
Looking back, every single street now touted for its safe and vibrant culture began just as unpromising as Lower Chapel. Under separate initiatives Upper Chapel, College, Broadway, Whitney, Audubon, and Orange streets all required full-Monty comprehensive makeovers with the vision, the will and the perseverance of someone knowledgeable about and capable of changing dystopia into success. Their successes are confirmed by thousands of similar success cases nationwide, so many that there are now clear predictable prescriptions available to anyone with the will and capability to get it done, even on a citywide basis.
The same honed prescriptions also single out conditions that attract unwanted activities like those at Nim’s, and Lower Chapel has them all.
It may seem that the “market conditions” for Lower Chapel are problems limited to the chumps who drain personal fortunes and stand point on their walls every day. But what those who dismiss Lower Chapel don’t seem to grasp is that the “market conditions” that distinguish it from upscale parts of downtown are so nuanced that no one from distant realms, say from Branford or Bethany, even gets it.
From afar the bad and the good of downtown New Haven tend to lump together. Talk to anyone. As small as the danger zone’s deserved reputation for crime and lack of safety may be, every downtown business stews in the same juice, maybe not in thefts but in uncaptured sales, in uncaptured industry and in uncaptured applications. How many excellent prospects pass on New Haven? By all accounts, quite a few.
Low capture rates are exacerbated by the fact that nodes, which have reached success like Upper Chapel and Orange, are separated from each other by the danger zone. Prospects who make it to one node rarely venture to the other since it would require hazarding the dangerous area. Also, Lower Chapel dampens evidence of increased traffic from shoreline rail since riders’ first taste of New Haven is soured by greetings of danger. Rich or poor, city or country, nobody likes danger.
Think of the boost in prospects who would overcome any reluctance to consider New Haven if the scourge of danger were entirely removed. Double? Triple? Hard to say. But one thing’s for sure, it’s a boost that benefits everyone who depends on an appealing perception of New Haven. Those of us up to our eyeballs in the muddle of unwanted perception sure could use some help.
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Lower Chapel Street is unpleasant to walk on because of the howling traffic, which speeds along just inches from your head.
Adding a couple parking spaces next to the Citibank last year helped - more of that could be done to “buffer” the space between pedestrians and vehicles, or between bicycles and speeding buses.
Also, our merchants need to be educated that congestion is good, not something that should be “solved.” The highest rents, safest streets, and most activity are always in places with the highest degree of congestion.
When you try to “solve” congestion (for instance by widening the street, which is what the City did with Chapel from State to Orange in the 1960s), you kill the city.
Narrow the streets down, add a few crosswalks, tree buffers, median islands, and bike lanes, and Chapel will be a place that everyone can enjoy. Traffic will wait its turn to use the street, or take an alternative route.
These types of proposals have been floated to the Mayor and Town Green leaders for decades, but have fallen on deaf ears.
The situation is very similar on Dixwell and Whalley - blighted main streets that are even more important than Chapel.
Until we have a few visionary leaders, joblessness, environmental degradation, and crime will reign supreme in much of New Haven.
It’s terrible to hear about the robberies and it’s very clear that we need to so do something about it. However, I reject the idea that we need to remake this street—one of the few where the majority of New Haven residents can still afford to shop—into a center for high-end boutiques like upper Chapel, Broadway, etc. Why does the answer always have to be increasing the divide between New Haven’s neighborhoods and our downtown? I have a lot of trouble believing that the only way to end crime is through gentrification.
There seems to be a bunch of issues with the area. There are too many bus stops and people lingering, waiting for the bus (or just lingering). The sidewalk landscape isn’t visually appealing. The street feels wide and difficult to cross. There isn’t an “anchor” tenant to draw in people and other retailers that would make the area a “shopping destination.” I don’t know how feasible it is to move the bus stops, to draw in restaurants or a chain retailer or two, to improve the street-level appeal of the street, but it does seem to be a desirable goal!
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 4, 2013 2:54pm
Upper Chapel, Ninth Square, Broadway, Whitney and Audubon all have on-street parking whereas Lower Chapel merely acts as a car sewer. Unfortunately the 360 State project widened Chapel Street - making any successful conversion of the north side of Chapel for on-street parking unnecessarily complicated and difficult. Furthermore, on-street parking likely isn’t a cure-all but it would be a logical place to start. Perhaps converting Elm Street to two-ways and moving some, if not all, of the bus activity at the Chapel Street pocket park to Elm, State or back to the Green would aid in these efforts and open the pocket park up for redevelopment.
This area is definitely sketchy, and more of a police presence there would be welcome.
I hope this gets addressed, since if Lower Chapel were cleaned up, it would knit 360 State and the Smoothie Building more tightly with the Green, and provide a safe corridor from Upper Chapel all the way to Wooster Square.
The bus stops on Lower Chapel need to be cleaned up. What happened to the “pocket park” that was there? There were planters and pieces of art that went in, but they are gone now.
Actually, maybe Chipotle will help.
New undergrads will be drawn to Chipotle, then wander down to the Lower Chapel Starbucks, then hit Elm City Market, and get jacked up somewhere along the way.
Once enough kids get knocked down and lose their iPhones, we might see more cops down there.
“so, they hang colorful banners
off all the street lamps
just to prove they’ve got no manners,
no mercy, and no sense.”
I just love those people who park in the street put there 4 ways on and go shopping. I blow my horn and they give me the finger. So much for life in New Haven.
To all the shop owners on lower chapel, i feel your pain, i am aware of the problems that are prevalent in new haven.
I am the chapter leader of the guardian-angels, new haven.
We are a non profit volunteer group that fights crime, with a emphasis on being a physical deterrent to crime.
We patrol regularly in the downtown area, and will make efforts to sweep the lower chapel area on tuesday, my contact info is;
best regards rocky pratt
To PH… While lower Chapel may not be a shopping destination for you, it is very much a shopping destination. I have been shopping there my entire life and have developed relationships with the vendors there. I suggest you do the same. I love lower Chapel which reminds me of blocks you might commonly find in NYC as I did while in college. The very idea that people waiting at busstops is somehow disturbing is well… disturbing. That people call the area sketchy brings to mind the fact that the people who do shop there and wait for the bus there are primarily people of color. I challenge those who view the area as needless or simply a blight or sketchy to actually try shopping at some of these stores and supporting the neighborhood for what it has to offer (which in my estimation is a lot) rather than seeking to change it in ways like moving busstops. Vendors like Rendezvous,Blue Nile, Nims, 2 Brothers Beauty Supply, who have for decades helped to fill the needs of our community, would suffer loss of business if you moved the busstops, as the people waiting at them are often regular customers. You can buy 3 quality t shirts almost any color in the world at Blue Nile for $10. Lower Chapel is a destination that has developed over time and the stores that have survived and continue to thrive there have done so because they fill an actual need. For instance, commuting parents doing the entirety of their kids’ school shopping in one swoop from clothes to pens and notebooks. This area is primarily a commuter destination which to many is a lifesaver when you are dependent on public transportation. “Lower Chapel, Something for Everyone!”
This area does seem to be orphaned from efforts to boost Downtown. Occasionally I wait for a bus at the pocket park/bus stop area next to the Footlocker store and across from the dance studio. This spot is DARK, because most of the street lights are out. I don’t know who’s responsible, but the lack of attention is shameful. http://www.seeclickfix.com/issues/277559
Martha, the Chapel Street “arcade” from Temple to Church is also poorly lit and more often than not the lights are either burned out or turned off. When contacted the owners say this is because of “work on the building”, even though such “work” has been going on for years. The lack of any leadership attention to our streetscape is unacceptable and kills jobs, but when you have a city that is led by people who drive everywhere, (including the Chamber of Commerce which ironically is located in that building) what do you expect.
What’s the deal with the vacant lot right on Chapel and Orange? Right near 360 State & Pitkin plaza, it’s just fa fenced off gravel lot. Who owns it?
Abdelnoir, any section of any town wherein the merchants feel the need to put up signs that say “TAKE OFF ALL HATS OR MASKS OR SUNGLASSES BEFORE ENTERING THIS STORE” is sketchy. Sorry, but that is a fact. It has nothing to do with color or wardrobe.
“There are too many bus stops and people lingering, waiting for the bus (or just lingering).”
This comment rather blows my mind. People are not supposed to linger at bus stops? That would make it rather difficult to catch the bus, no? Popping into one of the local shops on the way to catch the bus is what generates revenue for small businesses. Eliminating the people from the equation is definitely not the answer, nor is relocating bus stops to some other location which you decide to abandon.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 5, 2013 2:16pm
Broadway has a bus stop as does Upper Chapel at the corner of York as well as on-street parking. If street parking can be figured out and the bus stops maintained, then great, but the Orange Street pocket park is busier than either of those other two stops, which may pose a problem with integrating parking and bike lanes, which are an integral part of buffering pedestrians, activating the sidewalks and increasing transportation options. The corner of Elm and Church has an enormous right-of-way of asphalt where the bus stops can be moved.
Is a bus stop really the best use for a downtown building lot? I’d like to see a study that does a cost benefit analysis of maintaining the current bus stop in that location versus having a building in that lot - will revenue from the adjacent stores really plummet or will having a better street with a new building offset any potential losses?
Jonathan Hopkins, the bus stop there is already surrounded by empty storefronts.
I do think that the bus stop doesn’t HAVE to be there…commuters can walk a block or two to get where they are going, it doesn’t need to be a drop-off right in the middle of downtown.
That said, there’s already a lot of real estate waiting to be filled. There’s a dead sopt right next to the Citibank, and a few along the stretch by the bus stop between Footlocker and Subway on the corner of State and Chapel.
If they had put a Trader Joe’s in the first floor of 360 State, it would have done a lot more to anchor that block to the Green and the rest of Chapel…more than the Elm City Market Coop, which is essentially a Whole Foods.
posted by: William Kurtz on February 5, 2013 5:23pm
The fixation on the bus stop is confusing and mildly offensive. So people who drive to the ‘community-owned’ grocery store in the middle of downtown can get validated parking in the garage, but someone who might take a bus downtown can ‘walk a block or two’? Why shouldn’t there be a bus stop in the middle of downtown?
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 5, 2013 5:44pm
“Why shouldn’t there be a bus stop in the middle of downtown?”
So long as a valuable building lot isn’t forced to remain vacant, bus stops downtown are a great thing, as evidenced by the numerous bus stops in downtown that don’t occupy a valuable building lot.
Lower Chapel Street is narrow - leaving little room for a bus stop that doesn’t occupy a vacant building lot, which brings up the issue of moving some or all of the bus stops to another location in order to address the issues presented in this article. Addressing these issues likely involved public improvements to the street infrastructure like on-street parking, lighting upgrades, bike lanes and Requests for Proposals to develop vacant lots in order to pay for the public investment through increased tax revenue.
I both live and work on lower Chapel, and I walk this section both day and night. There can be no doubt that the block between Orange and Church feels like someone changed the channel. An otherwise uneventful stroll is too often interrupted by aggressive panhandling, surly pedestrians making some kind of statement by shouldering passers-by out of the walkway, and people parking themselves on the sidewalk either to wait for the bus or to loiter, sometimes making it impossible to pass by. It appears particularly unpleasant for females, who often have to deal with lewd comments or worse. Little surprise that people avoid passing through there if they can. There are some days I walk on the other side of the street or even cut over a block even though it takes me out of my way (I prefer not to do this because I think abandoning the field only tends to encourage others to think they own it, but there are days I just don’t have the energy).
I don’t think bus stops themselves are inherently a problem. I walk by bus stops all over and never think twice about it. The lack of foot-traffic and merchants’ eyes watching the sidewalk on this section of Chapel, though, empowers some bad apples to feel they can play to an audience at the bus stops without supervision, and the lack of supervision, as the Orr’s article points out, also encourages crime. It seems to me, then, that development remains the key. (“Gentrification” arguments are frequently puzzling to me, but especially here where development would not uproot an established, thriving neighborhood community).
If Yale is truly backing away for fear of competition with “Yale” parts of town, that is incredibly short-sighted. If Yale wants its natural market (i.e., its students, employees and socially similar populations) who live at 360 State and the Wooster neighborhood to more readily access Yale’s core developments, then they will aid in creating an attractive pedestrian corridor between the two areas.
The Orrs’ “honed prescriptions” for neighborhood makeover call to mind the urban renewal of Dick Lee - or at least its arrogance. I lived in and still love this neighborhood and saw none of the dystopia the Orrs see, and I would guess I’ve spent a hundred-fold more time at the bus stop in question than they have. Sure, it gets seedy sometimes, but New Haven isn’t Greenwich and was never meant to be. Pushing the brokenness of our community out of sight or out of downtown does nothing to make us stronger as a city, and rather it makes us weaker. I like the words of Christopher Lasch on this point: “Civic life requires settings in which people meet as equals, without regard to race, class, or national origins. Thanks to the decay of…public parks and informal meeting places…Social classes speak to themselves in a dialect of their own, inaccessible to outsiders…” Downtown is increasingly becoming a place where civic life is given short shrift, where our chance of having a conversation with someone unlike ourselves is small, and where we are treated most of all as “prospects” to open our pocketbooks (if only the “capture rate” were high enough!). I say thanks-but-no-thanks to the Orrs and their efforts to “raise the perception of the street.”
This isn’t about the bus stop. And as others have pointed out moving that bus stop would be detrimental to the few remaining businesses on that block. I don’t think more empty storefronts on Chapel is the answer.
The problem is a lack of after-hours activities and an inhospitable physical environment. Almost no businesses between Church and State are open past 6pm except Elm City Market; no restaurants, bars, or night clubs. Just a lot of daytime operations and empty stores.
I would think that narrowing this block of Chapel to one lane each way, adding more street parking and bike lanes would help to attract restaurants and bars (which care deeply about an attractive and welcoming streetscape), which would in turn drive down crime on this stretch without the need to gentrify and drive out the few remaining businesses.
And as others (and the authors) observed, the condition of this block (both perceived and actual) are critically important to the rest of downtown particularly due to the large number of commuters that walk from State St Station, the 360 Garage, and yes the bus stop, to other points downtown. I work at 900 Chapel and my colleagues avoid that block, less than a minute from the office door, like the plague.
I agree with S Brown. Narrowing the street to create more space for plazas, trees, on-street parking, and a bike lane is a must. The block from Church to Orange could be made taxi/bus/bike-only during rush hours. During those hours, drivers would choose alternate routes like Crown and George and the effect on traffic would be almost unnoticeable, given that the street is already congested at that time. Meanwhile, businesses would take off. In NYC, the addition of plazas tripled retail sales overnight, according to a new report by the City government. Many other cities have taken this approach - it always works.
How does the following make any kind of sense?
“The block from Church to Orange could be made taxi/bus/bike-only during rush hours. During those hours, drivers would choose alternate routes like Crown and George and the effect on traffic would be almost unnoticeable, given that the street is already congested at that time. “
How would the traffic effect be unnoticeable if you shifted a ton of cars to the other streets? That’s completely illogical.