Nemerson: Starbucks & Atticus Can Coexist

Thomas MacMIllan PhotosAt a confirmation hearing for the city’s new development chief, one lawmaker posed a question: With more national chains setting up shop downtown, how can New Haven keep its unique local businesses?

The chief’s response: If people keep flocking to cities, New Haven will have enough customers to go around.

Matthew Nemerson, the city’s new economic development administrator, gave that answer to Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg at Monday night’s meeting of the now anachronistically named Aldermanic Affairs Committee. (The Board of Aldermen became the Board of Alders this year as a result of a city charter change.)

Nemerson appeared at the meeting as part of a brand new confirmation process created by last year’s revision of the city’s charter, which is like New Haven’s “constitution.” Under the revised charter, certain mayoral appointments require the approval of the Board of Alders.

Alders decided that that approval shall come by way of the Aldermanic Affairs Committee, which will interview new appointees and then recommend a approval or denial by the full Board of Alders.

The five-person committee voted unanimously Monday night to recommend approval of Nemerson, former head of the Chamber of Commerce and a one-time mayoral candidate.

The committee also voted unanimously to recommend renewing the appointment of Joe Clerkin as budget director. The committee voted as well unanimously to support a number of appointments to boards and commissions.

Monday’s confirmation hearing offered an opportunity to discuss Nemerson’s vision for New Haven’s economic development, and what kind of city the administration is hoping to create. Responding to questions about parking, bus service, and the city’s mix of shops and restaurants, Nemerson spoke about a global trend toward city living and the challenges and opportunities of being a mid-size city.


“People are moving back to cities all across the world,” Nemerson said. People want to drive less, to live close to where they work, and to have neighbors close by, he said. “Cities are where the action is.”

As this trend continues, “a certain number of medium-size cities will flourish,” Nemerson said. He said the administration’s goal is to make sure New Haven is one of them.

People gravitate to cities because of the unique character they offer, making them different from the suburbs, Nemerson said.

That may draw people to New Haven, said Alder Greenberg, but what about the fact that a number of chain operations have recently opened downtown? How do you retain the interesting shops and restaurants and not become just like the suburbs?

Nemerson said he discusses that question a lot in his office. “We always come back to Atticus.” The Chapel Street bookstore/cafe “tells the story of the 40 years of New Haven,” he said.

Atticus is a unique local business offering great food and interesting books, Nemerson said. Ten years ago, Starbucks opened up a coffee shop two doors down at Chapel and High. Everyone worried it would be curtains for Atticus. Atticus survived.

Then last year Panera bakery and cafe opened up next to Starbucks. Worries about Atticus fate have again proved unwarranted, Nemerson said.

All three businesses can survive because more people are eating out, working and studying at coffee shops, living in small urban apartments and using cafes as their offices and living rooms, Nemerson said.

Similarly, when the Shake Shack burger chain opened an outlet on Chapel Street, it didn’t push the venerable Louis’ Lunch out of business, Nemerson said.

When these kind of “specialty urban brands” come to town, it’s “a good sign,” Nemerson said. It demonstrates New Haven’s success. National corporations study markets very closely and choose to invest in winning locations, Nemerson said.

“We have to make sure we have enough customers for Atticus and Panera, Shake Shack and Louis,’” he said.

“it’s all part of the urban explosion of popularity. National brands want to be where the action is.”

Nemerson noted that Chipotle, the new chain burrito joint at the corner of Temple and Chapel, is always bustling, even at 11 p.m. “Do I wish it was ‘New Haven Burrito’” and not a national chain?” Nemerson asked. “Sure. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

After the meeting, Greenberg said he was “not totally persuaded” by Nemerson’s response to his questions. Some local businesses—like Cutler’s record store—have gone out of business, he said. And why doesn’t a city with a major university have more independent bookstores? Greenberg asked, pointing out that the Labyrinthshop closed, in 2011.

“There is a hard balance to strike” between local and chain stores, Greenberg said. He said he doesn’t know exactly how to strike it, but the answer must be out there. “There must be some examples of cities that have figured it out. It might not just be letting the market do the work.”

Parking & Busing


Newhallville Alder Delphine Clyburn asked about parking problems in New Haven, specifically around Science Park. Although it has a big garage, people don’t want to pay to park there, she said.

Parking is a “challenge of medium-size cities,” Nemerson said. When people go to a suburban town like Milford, they expect abundant free parking on the street. When they go to a major city like Boston, they expect to pay dearly to park. In a mid-sized city like New Haven, suburban expectations can meet city parking prices.

Building parking garages can cost $40,000 per parking space, Nemerson said. That means people will have to pay to park there. He said he hopes surface parking lots turn into building lots. Again, that means people will have to either pay to park or, “like in Europe” park in a location like Long Wharf and take a shuttle into town.

People will either accept that they have to pay to park, or, if the “intra-city” transportation system is good enough, they’ll get rid of their cars.

Fair Haven Heights Alder Rosa Santana, chair of the committee, took up the question of transportation. “Many years ago, there was a shuttle service,” she said. Now, it’s hard to get from the train station to other places in town. The city needs a better system, like ones she’s seen in places like Indianapolis, Santana said.

“We have to work with the state,” Nemerson said. The state runs the bus system and has its own agenda: bringing people in from the suburbs and getting them out again. As a result, New Haven acts as a “terminal” or “exchange” for people going from, say Waterbury to Hamden.

“We want to study all internal transit in the city,” he said. The goal is to make movement within the city easier and more efficient, he said.

Improving bus service has emerged as a key agenda item for the new Harp administration.

“I hope I passed the audition,” Nemerson said at the end of his testimony. The committee responded by voting unanimously to approve him.

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posted by: anonymous on February 11, 2014  1:21pm

Congestion and a lack of parking is the sign of a successful city, where jobs are created and where people have a better opportunity to advance to the middle class.  Places like Boston and New York.

Want to see what it looks like to have abundant parking in your downtown?  Spend a few minutes in Pontiac, Michigan - if you can bear it for that long.  The entire Red Army could fit in that downtown’s public parking lots, and there would still be ample street parking.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 11, 2014  2:07pm

While encouraging local businesses to open is an important goal, I think the more important discussion than local verus chain is the urban versus suburban one. Should the city take the form of a suburb or a city?
Should downtown merely be a place to work and shop with large employment and shopping centers akin to an edge city? Or should it be a vibrant neighborhood where people live, work, shop, send kids to school, and enjoy parks? Should neighborhoods merely act as dormitories where people live or should they also provide walkable options for shopping destinations, schools, offices, and parks? Should New Haven be a place where driving is required for daily life and where pedestrians feel comfortable only in the places that haven’t been developed since 1950? Or should New Haven be a place where walking, biking and transit are viable options for daily life and driving is accommodated where possible?

While local businesses located along shopfronts entered from the sidewalk and part of mixed-use buildings are the ideal, I would rather have a chain business in a shopfront-style building than a strip mall style local business with surface parking in front. In other words, zoning reform to discourage suburban-style development and encourage urban development, is more important, in my opinion, then worrying about whether or not the development will contain a local or chain store.

Edge cities:

suburban style chain development:

urban style buildings that happens to house chain stores:

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on February 11, 2014  2:10pm

I have this lasting memory of Nemerson as the key player in the Yale Co-op’s farcical relocation to the Chapel Square Mall. Somehow the Co-op was supposed to re-gain financial stability at the new location, despite Barnes & Noble coming to town. Yeah, right.

The most comical part of the fiasco was Nemerson insisting that Cordish, the Chapel Square redeveloper, had given him a verbal sign-off on the financial arrangements for the $1.5 Million renovation of the new retail space. “He told me he was okay with it!”

posted by: robn on February 11, 2014  2:27pm

“There must be some examples of cities that have figured it out. It might not just be letting the market do the work.” Greenberg is letting his labor philosophy get in the way of clear facts. Independent bookstores, music stores and video stores have failed in New Haven for the same reason that large chains (Borders, BlockBuster, etc) have failed; people are buying fewer hardcopies of books, music and videos. You would think this was self evident to someone intelligent enough to get elected to the BOA. Or maybe he does recognize it but this prime propaganda moment was too good to let pass without his best populist exclamation.

posted by: Esbey on February 11, 2014  2:30pm

Alder Greenberg talks as though Cutler’s was put out of business by chain record stores that opened up downtown.  In fact, there was a brief period (the late 19990s?) when there were one or two chain record stores downtown, but they were gone long before Cutler’s went out of business.  My guess is that Atticus will similarly outlast Panera, but mostly as a lunch place decorated with books, not so much as an independent bookstore.  Changes in technology do change the retail mix and there is nothing New Haven can do to stop that.

Jonathan Hopkins is correct, as he often is.  We should be concerned about urban vitality as opposed to the financial ownership structure of a given retail outlet.

posted by: RHeerema on February 11, 2014  3:26pm

“Enough customers” is side-stepping the question asked. Local businesses keep locally spent money local. Chains and franchises take money - spent in New Haven - out of New Haven to regional, national and international corporate headquarters. Local businesses make communities unique and charming. Shop local!

posted by: TheMadcap on February 11, 2014  3:38pm

“People will either accept that they have to pay to park”

That right there is important and it’s something that needs to be hammered into people’s heads.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on February 11, 2014  5:28pm

Robn is letting her/his anti-labor philosophy get in the way of clear facts. Yale Properties has systematically purged independently owned businesses in an effort to remake downtown sanitized for global consumer comfort. Never did Yale advertise for Cutler’s, Labyrinth, News Haven or other businesses the way that it is now plastering ads everywhere for “The Shops at Yale” (which really could be The Shops at Any Corporate Campus). The way Yale Properties has handled its downtown real estate is to put up a big sign to most residents of New Haven: You’re Not Welcome Here. Local/Chain & Urban/Suburban are not and should not be mutually exclusive ways of understanding the problem.

I recommend checking out the most recent attempt by Yale to run Toad’s out of town, drawing on the strategies Yale Properties used to bankrupt Bespoke.

“Today’s lawsuit, almost thirty years since this episode, signals what Phelps believes is Yale’s desire to ‘control’ real estate in downtown New Haven. Suing Toad’s, he said, is just another part of this ‘grandiose scheme.’”

posted by: alex on February 11, 2014  6:10pm

SteveAnderson is correct. Toni made this an issue in her campaign when she said that dealing with the vacant storefronts on Audobon Street would be her “ask” of Yale.

New Haven has plenty of mixed use urban architecture - but Yale keeps properties vacant while they wait for corporate chain stores so they can maximize rents.

We could use another frozen yogurt place though.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 11, 2014  6:13pm


Excellent points. I just think that zoning reform is the more pressing issue, but if both can be addressed simuntaneously, then great.

As for the example of Cutler’s, Strawberry, a national chain also closed in North Haven. I think both closings are due to catastrophic changes in the retail market for music rather than any real estate power move, though there are plenty of other examples where Yale is clearly molding the downtown to fit the desires of their student body.

posted by: HewNaven on February 11, 2014  7:33pm

I would love to see a return to strong neighborhood-level economies akin to present-day Orange Street. The EDC needs to encourage and incentivize local business for obvious reasons. At the same time, one can’t ignore the fact that Orange Street has developed independently of City Hall, as far as I know. So what can the EDC really offer formerly prosperous corridors like Dixwell and Congress to make them more like Orange St.? Is that even realistic?

The big question with chain stores has always been, what kind of company are they? How do they treat their employees? What’s their environmental track record? I think Chipotle and Starbucks are good examples of the ‘compassionate capitalist’ model. Is it a farce? Perhaps, but its more welcoming to the average tourist, and that’s what the EDC really cares about. I really don’t expect this administration to make any bold ED decisions. I think they’re going to follow the Bruce Alexander/YP model which has worked out pretty well for them. (It worked at the expense of the local businesses that were booted like YorkSquare Cinema, Yankee Doodle, etc.) If there’s a flaw to the YP model its that they were not accommodating to the long-time local businesses that they squeezed out to make way for the national chains. As New Haven transitions its economy, this issue needs to be addressed. OR, the debate between local vs. chain, and town vs. gown, will continue ad infinitum.

posted by: robn on February 11, 2014  10:59pm


Actual Statistics provide enough information for me to make an informed opinion on this subject although I can’t help but point out the irony of Gourmet Heaven, one of the few non-chain businesses in York Square, and their abysmal labor record.

posted by: citoyen on February 12, 2014  1:19am

“Nemerson noted that Chipotle, the new chain burrito joint at the corner of Temple and Chapel, is always bustling.”

Maybe the joint is busy because it’s always being visited by the traffic czar.

The NHI needs to expand its vocabulary!  It is so lazy and unimaginative to keep repeating “czar” and “joint”!

Director, department head, supervisor, man-in-charge, overseer, administrator, executive, manager, leader.  Is he really a “czar”—an authoritarian dictator?

Restaurant, hotspot, eatery, establishment, franchise, branch, place, emporium.  Are so many of the city’s eating places really low dives, greasy spoons?

[Editor: The transit chiefs in town inherited a job that one of their predecessors made into a czar/tsar post.]

posted by: robn on February 12, 2014  10:07am


I miss the Doodle but their owners decided to call it quits, not Yale. York Square Cinema unfortunately let their facilities fall apart around them; they didn’t need help from Yale to go out of business.

Toad’s seems to be going down the same road as the Camachos (Roomba, Bespoke restaurants); that is having a war of ill will with Bruce Alexander.

posted by: Bradley on February 12, 2014  11:51am

While I think that Yale’s retail developments have, on balance,  benefitted the city, I think the time has come for Yale to scale back its retail holdings. Audobon Street is a particularly good candidate. For the past 20+ years most of the storefronts have been vacant most of the time. University Properties simply cannot fill these spaces under its current policies. The university should either modify its policies (which I doubt will happen so long as Bruce Alexander is in town) or sell the properties to someone who can fill them.

posted by: HewNaven on February 12, 2014  12:36pm

Thanks, Robn. Perhaps I have a bit of misty nostalgia for those places and blocked out some of the facts! I agree Toad’s has not been an ideal neighbor either. We could have a really nice music venue downtown, but instead we have the sticky floors of Toad’s Place… and EDM night.

posted by: HewNaven on February 12, 2014  12:38pm


If you don’t like how News Czar Paul Bass delivers the goods, then there’s a news joint over on Sargent Drive. They’ve got all the stuff you need. ;)

posted by: robn on February 12, 2014  2:19pm


Ditto on the nostalgia but the stickiness is nothing new. If I had a nickel for every time I was stuck to the floor of Toads I’d be rich…instead of just sticky.

posted by: everloved on February 12, 2014  3:31pm

Book trader is still open., too.  Obviously downtown will always be a hub of socializing and spending money as long as money exists.  There always empty space and an ugliness to all of new haven, a history of demolition and junky architecture.  How about cheaper rents?  What is this article about?  I always parked on broadway many years ago and walked around what I thought was the “city”. It was fine for me.  Now its kind of a polluted confused town with good parks and some good people. Elm city market kind of broke up the monotany of that old bus corner of hair extensions and family dollar.  I wonder myself what I was doing there waiting to go to another shopping center in hamden.  More parks, more love, more fun, more opportunity.  Now that’s a city.

posted by: everloved on February 12, 2014  3:45pm

More bike and walking paths. Businesses that revolve around biking and walking. An area that is only for bikers and walkers.  To the greater city of new haven… who is responsible for the waterfront fiasco of oil?  Why doesn’t anyone talk about it.  Imagine that area a beach.

posted by: random on February 15, 2014  1:23pm

I smell a rat and the odor carries a strong stench. It’s name is Gentrification.

posted by: everloved on February 16, 2014  10:42am

Gentrification?  That word seems old.  Why doesn’t yale pay taxes.  It is not a church or free and they own much of the town.  I guess that’s a problem.  But what really is gentrification?  Kitchen zinc vs. Chipotles? It was a word used long ago when neighborhoods became expensive shopping malls instead of local businesses.  Downtowns are usually shopping malls.  Cutlers was good until they got rid of the listening stations.  I am surprised there aren’t public dowloading spots to keep it social.  But nobody does that.  You’d think metallica wasn’t getting paid enough.  The music industry is seemingly an endless pit of money but they and god have the nerve to complain so we can listen to over paid satanic pop music.