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