Neighborhood Fact-Finding Mission Begins

Paul Bass Photo“This area have a name?” John Simone asked from the second of four rows of seats in a van cruising up Kimberly Avenue.

“Kimberly Square,” Jackie James responded from the front passenger seat.

“Kimberly Square,” Lee Cruz added from the way back, “is actually a triangle.”

Call it a triangle or call it a square. Either way it has a past—and a future—as a thriving neighborhood commercial strip.

The dozen occupants squooshed inside the Ford Van were scouting out that future Monday morning, in Kimberly Square, and throughout New Haven’s neighborhoods.

The van ride kicked off a week-long mission to map out a revival of four of New Haven’s neighborhood commercial corridors: Dixwell Avenue, Whalley Avenue, Congress Avenue (plus perhaps Kimberly Avenue), and Grand Avenue.

Toni Harp promised to revive those corridors during her campaign to become New Haven’s 50th mayor. Now, as Mayor Harp, she has hired a not-for-profit Simone runs, called Connecticut Main Street Center, to help her plan that revival.

For $10,000 (courtesy of the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation), Simone will spend the week touring city neighborhoods—first by van Monday morning, then on foot—and meeting with neighbors and merchants; and then, within 30 days, submit a detailed plan for how the city can help people in those neighborhoods build up their retail districts. The idea is both to sell more stuff to people already living here as well as to attract people from outside the city.

Simone’s not-for-profit has performed similar “assessments” for communities throughout the state. Simone (pictured) seeks to build on an already existing neighborhood commercial identity, help merchants work together to promote each other’s businesses, obtain grants and other assistance to develop “human scale, walkable” retail areas that “don’t accommodate the car at the expense of pedestrians.”

Mayor Harp noted at a pre-van-tour City Hall press conference Monday morning that Westville Village has already put the “Main Street” approach into practice. She said she’d like to connect the rest of Whalley Avenue to the Village; connect the Broadway shopping district to Dixwell Avenue (“In any other city it would be the same street”); build on the successes of Grand Avenue merchants, who organized a taxing and improvement district a decade ago with City Hall’s help; and “re-seed” commerce on Congress Avenue. Harp said she hopes to qualify city neighborhoods for state government “Main Street” grant money that usually goes to smaller towns.

Simone, who lives in West Hartford, got his first look at Congress Avenue from his second-row window seat in the Ford van that city development official Steve Fontana piloted down neighborhood corridors after the press conference.

Simone brought with him a retail consultant named Kent Burnes (pictured), who runs a resort on the Caribbean Island of Roatan when he’s not dispensing economic development advice.  As the van passed through Kimberly Square, Burnes spoke of the potential of grooming local entrepreneurs to sell health foods and similar products. “People are shocked to discover the largest consumer of health products is the African-American consumer,” he said. Simone declared Walmart-style big-box retail dead and locally owned small retail shops back in vogue.

James, a former Hill alderwoman and current city official, narrated from the passenger seat, with back-row help from Cruz of Fair Haven and George Carter of Dixwell. “This is the beginning of Dixwell Avenue,” James narrated.

“This is Daddy Grace’s church,” Carter cut in as the van approached the United House of Prayer and its apartments across the street. “All of this is the church. On Wednesday, this is where we’re having lunch.”

“At a church?” Simone asked.

“This is Dixwell Plaza,” Carter continued as the van passed the Urban Renewal-era commercial strip about to embark on its latest renovation campaign.

“Seems like there are more churches than there are souls,” Simone remarked as Carter continued narrating.

“They turned a funeral home into a church,” Carter informed the consultants.

The van continued in the direction of Newhallville, then back downtown. The plan was to leave the van for lunch, and then get to know the city’s commercial neighborhoods closer up, on foot. First stop: Fair Haven.

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posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 10, 2014  4:18pm

This sounds promising, though I wonder if it’s necessary to approach from this direction.

It seems like Westville Village, Grand Avenue and Upper State Street already serve as good examples of how to revive neighborhood Main Streets. It seems like recreating the conditions that allowed those places to thrive simply need to be duplicated throughout the rest of the city.

Going after funding from the State’s Main Streets program sounds like an excellent idea, especially considering that New Haven’s neighborhoods function similarly to small towns. Creating special services districts, like what Grand Avenue has done, can be another important tool to reviving commercial corridors in the city. While these two approaches are important, the most significant change will come from attracting new, small scale investments in businesses through attracting more residents with purchasing power to lower-income neighborhoods.

The Westville Village’s revival (ongoing) benefited from being adjacent to several middle and upper middle class areas, Grand Avenue benefited from an enormous influx of new residents, which through sheer population density has driven demand for small businesses up, and State Street, like Westville and Grand Avenue, has benefited from a nearby wealthy population and an influx of young people.

The best thing to be done for other neighborhood Main Streets is to attract new middle and upper income residents, and attract businesses that serve existing working class residents who in many cases currently shop in suburban shopping centers. State Main Street grants and special service districts are not a means to acheiving a revived thoroughfare - though they can be a part - the biggest factor is an increase in new residents and middle class resident purchasing power (in the neighborhood, not commuting in from outside).

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 10, 2014  4:21pm

Also, it’d be interesting if this effort could also focus on turning Legion Avenue back into a neighborhood Main Street, rather than turning it into an extension of the Medical District Edge City to the south. There’s no reason why medical buildings, doctor’s offices and non-profit organizations can’t fit into the fabric of a Main Street next to houses, shops, small businesses, parks and apartments.

posted by: joy darby on March 10, 2014  4:58pm

1. ‘Westville Village’is primarily a strip of antique stores, art galleries, boutiques, up-scale stores, Whalley closer to downtown, is…not.

AND the commercial areas have a very very long stretch of residential and open land [i.e. cemeteries & parks] between them. They might seem close together if you are driving, but walkers would never consider the several ‘clusters’ of stores a unified shopping experience.

2. Dixwell Avenue is an extension of Broadway? In what universe? Broadway is Yale Land, Dixwell, is…not.

3. The plethora of little community churches in the city are not a joking matter. They are the heart and soul of their neighborhood(s) and are the one place safe for elders & small children to congregate. They are the spiritual source of calm and reason & I hope each group is contacted for their most valuable input (I am not a member of any of the congregations. I simply know as an observant ‘outsider’ what an important role they play in containing-and observing- urban chaos).

4. Choosing someone from West Hartford to come in and solve New Haven’s retail problems? Our city has a vibrant STRONG personality that would be best assessed by those familiar with us. Seems a shame a local group was not enlisted ...

posted by: heightster70 on March 10, 2014  6:00pm

All those phony churches equal NO taxes. Why do you think the pastors all got new cars?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 10, 2014  8:34pm

This is the start of Land grabbing Gentrification.Bewere what you ask for.

Gentrification animated.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 10, 2014  8:58pm

How does retail development of the Route 34 West strip help/hurt Whalley Ave, Kimberly Ave, & Congress Ave? What do merchants and landlords from those struggling districts think of new retail outlets going in to that vast undeveloped tract?

It would be great if City Plan & Mayor Harp could answer that question before they sell off 5.5 acres of prime real estate to Centerplan for retail development. (note that only 1/2 an acre will be going to the non-profit Continuum of Care.)

posted by: HewNaven on March 11, 2014  7:14am

The over-saturation of churches definitely needs to be addressed in this study. How can we get them to pony up? Perhaps, encourage churches to seed entrepreneurs in their own neighborhood/congregation?

What good will come when a neighborhood like Dixwell has nothing but churches lining the commercial corridor? It may seem nice on a Sunday, but it’s economically unsustainable 7 days a week.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on March 12, 2014  9:00am

Churches, churches and more churches. Pretty difficult to develop a vibrant area of commercial property when there are CHURCHES AFTER CHURCHES. Maybe it is time they divvy up and start paying the city something. At this point being persons of the clothe you would imagine that they would think of helping out the taxpayers a little and stop taking up space with no worries for the community at large in this city. Honestly, I have never seen so many churches.