Fearing Decline, 9th Square Unites

Christopher Peak PhotosNewly organized Ninth Square merchants are floating ways to stabilize a neighborhood where they worry that recent gains are starting to slip away in the face of business closures and increased crime.

Spurred by an attack this past Friday on an Artspace employee, business owners regrouped at the Orange Street art gallery on Wednesday afternoon to talk through why their historic neighborhood in downtown’s southeast corner seems to be faltering, even as their counterparts west of Church Street seemed to be flourishing.

The shopkeepers questioned why so many buildings are sitting vacant on Orange Street and how drug dealing has taken over bus stops on Chapel Street. After pointed questions about the city’s next steps and a self-examination of their own role, the group agreed to schedule a standing monthly meeting.

During the 90-minute chat, the attendees squeezed around a table set up next to colorful photographs and reflective boxes. Grouped on one side, the business owners included Helen Kauder, Artspace’s executive director; Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s founder; Bruce Ditman, Meat & Co.’s co-owner; and John Ginnetti, 116 Crown’s mixologist. Clustered at the other end, officials included Win Davis, the Town Green’s manager; Matthew Nemerson, city government’s economic development administrator; Carmen Mendez, downtown specialist for the Livable City Initiative (LCI), the government’s anti-blight agency; and Lt. Mark O’Neill, downtown’s top cop..

Though they sparred about the exact details, everyone agreed that the Ninth Square — a once blighted area revived as a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood in the 1990s and early 2000s — is changing again.

Aided by spots like the Grove, more office workers are reporting to the neighborhood for their day jobs. Popular nightlife draws, like Skappo and Amoy’s restaurants, Firehouse 12, Cafe Nine along with Artspace, continue drawing people to the area. But other businesses have vacated the area, as in many other commercial districts nationwide struggling to compete with online sales, Berkowitz observed. In recent months, the Ninth Square lost Thali Restaurant, Neville Wisdom’s designer clothing, Acme Furniture, Fresh Yoga, Reynolds Art Gallery, Rendezvous and Sassy.

“It’s never been like that,” said Berkowitz, who has worked in the area for a decade.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority is in the process of finding a buyer for buildings with 335 apartments in the district, which need millions of dollars in renovations as their St. Louis-based owner has fallen behind in debt payments. And a key piece of real estate — the former Coliseum site — remains an undeveloped surface parking lot as a developer, LiveWorkLearnPlay, has fallen years behind in plans to build a $400 million mixed-use project there.

At the same time, a crackdown on the Green has pushed loiterers down Chapel Street, into an area where drugs change hands in front of fenced-in lots and surface parking. Many of those swapping pills are suspected to be out-of-town patients of the APT Foundation, a treatment facility for those with opioid use disorder, waiting for a bus to carry them back to the suburbs.

Those simmering issues boiled over on Friday night, when an agitated man entered Artspace and walked past the artwork to the organization’s office space.

“May I help you?” an employee asked. “You’re not supposed to be back here.”

The man grabbed her, holding her neck in a chokehold while punching her back. She screamed, and a visitor scared him away.

Police officers canvassed the neighborhood and picked up a suspect who met the description, whom the Artspace employee confirmed as her attacker.

“This guy is one of our regulars downtown, and he’s constantly a nuisance under the influence. He’s not usually violent. A lot of times, we find him passed out,” Lt. O’Neill said. “I don’t know what he was on that day. He’ll take pretty much whatever he can.” The cops charged the man with third-degree assault, which covers anything from a slap to a punch, and breach of peace.

The employee went to the hospital for a check-up, and doctors confirmed she wasn’t seriously injured. Still shaken up, she is taking time off work and seeking counseling, Kauder said.

While traumatic for her staff, the incident is “part of a larger story” about the neighborhood, Kauder said. “When I shared what happened, I was amazed and alarmed at the number of other folks that immediately came out with issues of their own,” she said. Kauder said she worries that if they didn’t get the situation under control, business could take a bigger hit.

Berkowitz agreed that the neighborhood is reaching a tipping point. “It’s unfortunate that this is the flash point for getting together and having the meeting,” he said, but “reactivating this neighborhood is a way to solve it.”

Exactly what that rejuvenation might look like proved tougher to figure out.

The merchants urged Nemerson to push on with development deals for 808-810 Chapel St., corner lots that had been scorched in a fire and ripped down. And they asked him to change bus routes to drop suburbanites off directly in front of the APT Foundation.

But Nemerson said he doesn’t have the power to change those items, which are in the hands of private developers and state agencies. He said the mayor’s administration has been trying to do both for the last four years, but progress has been slow. (Mayor Toni Harp said Monday that her administration is proposing plans for new bus hubs elsewhere in town as part of a response to the problem.)

Nemerson did say his office is trying to put together a deal for a residential skyscraper like 360 State St. to fill in a surface lot between Center and Chapel Streets between Chapel and Orange.

By the meeting’s end, the participants agreed to some short-term changes.

Lt. O’Neill said he has already stationed two officers for a walking beat and he’ll put an additional officer on a bike in the area.

Davis, of the Town Green, said he’ll order another lighting survey. He wants to make sure that he is tracking all the streetlamps that have gone dark. And he’s going to try to get landlords with vacant properties to keep their lights on. Up ahead, he hopes that they can convince property owners to put displays in the windows, whether simple advertisements for a lease or installations by artists.

And the merchants said they’ll continue meeting monthly to keep the conversation going.

“Whether it’s a block watch or having everyone here on speed dial, whether it’s feeling like they have allies in their neighborhoods, that takes an immediate network I’d like to have strengthened,” Kauder said.

They also said they’d join in quarterly meetings with the entire Chapel East corridor’s property owners, which LCI’s Mendez has hosted for about three years. Out of those discussions, Mendez said, she hopes to distill the neighborhood’s identity.

“Some people say the Ninth Square is artsy, so let’s capitalize on that. Some say funky, which I’m not sure how to interpret. Some people say we should look like Chapel West,” she said. “But it’s up to you and what you want to do.”

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posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on February 8, 2018  8:32am

It’s been a rough year for the Ninth Square. A lot of tenants simply can’t afford the rents there, and it’s not going to be easy to find a seller to take over financially distressed affordable housing apartment buildings. I don’t know what the answer is.

For instance, I know myself and a friend have discussed the possibility of a performance-type space like Joker’s Wild used to be, for comedy, but there’s simply no affordable way to do anything remotely resembling that downtown unless you have insane amounts of capital.

Perhaps we can think about how we can work with the state to bring in incubator money in order to attract possible startups.

It’s going to be tricky to develop the retail locations. I really like Rendezvous as an affordable clothing store, but with the crazy rents, it’s tough to operate more than 1-2 discount-type stores like that, Dollar General, etc.

The fact that that lot on Orange/Church is still empty what, ten years later, is insane. The city needs to figure out something there. Not sure why it’s easy to find developments elsewhere but not in these prime downtown locations.

The crime is a totally separate issue and something that is going to be a challenge for New Haven. If you want to push people off the Green, they’re going to go somewhere. Drug use is a serious health problem, but we need to find a way to humanely deal with it, rather than just ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 8, 2018  8:50am

Newly organized Ninth Square merchants are floating ways to stabilize a neighborhood where they worry that recent gains are starting to slip away in the face of business closures and increased crime.

Forget it.The Gentrification Vampires have already take over downtown New Haven.A lot more of you will be gone.In fact this is what is happening across this country.Just look at New York. and other parts of the country.

Why Is New York Full of Empty Stores?

But landlords can be blamed mightily for this blight — the greedy among them who raise rents to stratospheric levels, figuring that some deep-pocketed company will pay top dollar for the space.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/19/opinion/nyc-empty-stores.html

Bleecker Street’s Swerve From Luxe Shops to Vacant Stores

During its incarnation as a fashion theme park, Bleecker Street hosted no fewer than six Marc Jacobs boutiques on a four-block stretch, including a women’s store, a men’s store and a Little Marc for high-end children’s clothing. Ralph Lauren operated three stores in this leafy, charming area, and Coach had stores at 370 and 372-374 Bleecker. Joining those brands, at various points, were Comptoir des Cotonniers (345 Bleecker Street), Brooks Brothers Black Fleece (351), MM6 by Maison Margiela (363), Juicy Couture (368), Mulberry (387) and Lulu Guinness (394).Today, every one of those clothing and accessories shops is closed.Bleecker Street, Mr. Moss said, is a prime example of high-rent blight, a symptom of late-stage gentrification. “These stores open as billboards for the brand,” he said. “Then they leave because the rents become untenable. Landlords hold out. And you’re left with storefronts that will sit vacant for a year, two years, three years.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/fashion/bleecker-street-shopping-empty-storefronts.html

Like I keep telling all of you Keep your bags pack.A whole lot of you will be gone.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 8, 2018  9:01am

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on February 8, 2018 8:32am

It’s been a rough year for the Ninth Square. A lot of tenants simply can’t afford the rents there, and it’s not going to be easy to find a seller to take over financially distressed affordable housing apartment buildings. I don’t know what the answer is.

The answer is already here.It is call Gentrification Vampires.They have very Deep pockets.In fact from what I hear from friends of mine who are fighting them off in D.C New York is that Big money will be coming into New Haven Hartford Bridgeport and West Haven.from out of state.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on February 8, 2018  9:15am

I simply don’t know enough about real estate and city planning, so pardon me in advance for the dumbest of dumbed-down questions…. but WHY is downtown so expensive in the first place? Is it because of state tax burdens? City taxes? Both? Changing consumer culture? Yale?
I can’t help but ask myself, “Who does New Haven think it is”? Who decides it’s worth as much as it is? Because apparently it isn’t. What’s the good in having such high property values if nothing can be sustained?
These are all dumb questions that likely don’t have any single answer. Otherwise, I’ll remain cautiously pessimistic.

posted by: CamilleS on February 8, 2018  10:04am

Rendevouz didn’t actually close, they just moved one or two doors over

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 8, 2018  11:48am

3/5ths, do you have their phone numbers? :-) More seriously, Chapel is very different than Bleecker. I’ve been in town 30+ years and don’t recall any high-end shops such as Coach located on Chapel.

I suspect that part of the issue for the landlords is the uncertainty of the nearby housing developments on Chapel and Union Streets.  Assuming these projects go forward, there will be a couple of hundred new residents living a short distance away, as well as some new retail spaces. But under the best of circumstances, it will take a couple of years for these projects to be built and rent up.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on February 8, 2018  12:09pm

Honestly, I think that Ninth Square should be a lot better than what it is. The area has been transformed to look nicer over the past 5-10 years, but not to a point where it’s always lively or busy like if you went to an area in Miami, New Orleans or San Francisco. New Haven has pretty much always been in a deep hole financially mainly because of the State and the extremely slow process of much needed redevelopment. The region is struggling because of the lack of jobs. Crime only gets worst if there isn’t going to be plenty of opportunity.

posted by: JCFremont on February 8, 2018  1:45pm

Does seem counter intuitive when rents are so high that much of the tenants income goes to rent. Now they may be sold that high rent because of those lovely boutiques and nice restaurants but find that you can’t enjoy the amenities. I’m sure those living on Bleeker Street enjoyed their Potemkin Village strolls but may have notice the lack of customers inside. Neighborhoods rise and fall, a once industrial old neighborhood can by low rent opportunities but the backlash can be when it becomes to popular. Look at Goatville when the heck did the word gourmet become used in a sentence with Beer and Pizza?

posted by: ShadowBoxer on February 8, 2018  1:52pm

1.  Move the buses from out of town connections away from the green - they are destroying the experience downtown.

2.  The idea it takes half a decade or more it seems, to move a bus route is outrageous beyond words.

posted by: HewNaven on February 8, 2018  2:03pm

Kevin,

I agree the Comcast development has been needlessly delayed by competitors (PMC), but do you really think that businesses which had been downtown way before that development proposal was even sketched on a napkin, decided to pack up and leave because they were worried about the “uncertainty” of that project? Or was it maybe, that MANY conditions have changed in the years since these businesses initially moved downtown (e.g. rents have risen, more competition has arrived)

Consider the following:

Thali’s owner decided to close ALL 3 of his New Haven restaurants (not just 9th Square) because he was doing a lot better in other Connecticut markets. I’ve said it before, our downtown is over-saturated with dining options. If a restaurant of that quality cannot make it, something must be wrong.

Neville Wisdom admitted that it was hard to justify the operating costs of his 9th Square location given the lack of walk-in business. He consolidated in Westville, which most would say does not guarantee walk-in business. I imagine the cost of RENT might have something to do with it, but he’s being polite talking to reporters.

Fresh Yoga was the only studio downtown when they moved in, long before the residential development boom started. Now there is Breathing Room, and I’ll assume an unjustifiable increase in rent.

Acme Furniture is perhaps the only instance of a “Vanishing New Haven” where historic businesses are priced-out of a changing market. This happened 10 years earlier on Broadway, but also coincided with older owners deciding to retire (e.g. Yankee Doodle, Cutler’s). Yale simply played the waiting game there, and has since erected a “POTEMKIN VILLAGE”

Those are just 3 different reasons that businesses may come and go. And, I haven’t even mentioned the bus-stop/addict issue which I know many business-owners are angry about.

Oh, and there’s also that pesky AMAZON thing no one wants to mention. For any American who still has a job, online shopping is easier.

posted by: anonymous on February 8, 2018  2:50pm

It would be great to improve bus connections however possible, but no matter where the buses are, people aren’t going to congregate anywhere other than downtown.  That is just the nature of a downtown - it draws people in.  If someone thinks moving the connection points will help with that then they may be disappointed.

For many people, downtown is the only place where they will ever feel safe hanging out.  For one thing, many of the surrounding towns where people come from do not have any sidewalks or gathering places that are open past 5:00PM or on Sundays.  For another, if you do not look like a Yale Professor and you start walking down St. Ronan, McKinley, Ridge Road, or Linden Avenue in Branford at 8pm, people will likely start calling the cops on you.

The solution isn’t to displace people to some sort of skid row area next to downtown, it is to improve the quality of the downtown by improving the public parks, housing, better transit and bicycle lanes, lighting, hiring social workers, planning more activities, etc.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 8, 2018  4:20pm

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 8, 2018 11:48am
3/5ths, do you have their phone numbers? :-) More seriously, Chapel is very different than Bleecker. I’ve been in town 30+ years and don’t recall any high-end shops such as Coach located on Chapel.

I do have there numbers and if you want will in box your Face Book Page.The point is they are being push out.Can Not get around it.In fact look at that B.S. so call Hi tech mall that is comming to west Haven.look at how the people was told take the money or we are going to use eminent domain to take them anyway.

West Haven initiates eminent domain to acquire 6 properties for The Haven South project
6 properties targeted for The Haven

WEST HAVEN >> The city, through its Redevelopment Agency, has initiated eminent domain proceedings to acquire six properties within The Haven South project area for the first phase of the proposed The Haven upscale outlet mall.

The agency filed the six “statement of compensation” documents Tuesday, according to attorney Gary O’Connor of Pullman & Comley.

The documents were filed with the City Clerk’s office and sent to attorneys for the property owners, some of which are holdouts and some of which have unclear status that the proceedings are meant to clarify, he said.

https://www.nhregister.com/connecticut/article/West-Haven-initiates-eminent-domain-to-acquire-6-11320059.php

posted by: CamilleS on February 8, 2018 10:04am
Rendevouz didn’t actually close, they just moved one or two doors over

Just a Band-Aid.They will still be gone.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 8, 2018  7:42pm

HewNaven, thanks. Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the closures; I agree these were for the case-specific reasons you cite. Rather, I was thinking about landlords looking forward. If I owned property on Chapel, I would be inclined to take a wait and see approach in light of the Spinnaker development. I suspect the development will go forward. If it does, there will be a couple of hundred well-to-do tenants living a couple of blocks away. This would affect my rental strategy and it would be economically rational for me to be very cautious in renting out the storefront.

I think your comment about Amazon is apt. The city is pushing ground floor retail in residential developments. I read Jane Jacobs decades ago and understand the rationale for this policy. But I wonder how viable it is in the 21st century.

posted by: 1644 on February 8, 2018  8:28pm

If we want retail and restaurants to thrive in the Ninth Square, we need tenants with disposable income. i.e.. gentrification vampires.
As for the low-level crime that keeps people with options away, that will persist so long as we maintain our current aversion to incarceration.  I know people say programs like APT are the answer, but they obviously aren’t, since drug dealing, and the larcenies, burglaries, and robberies to support it continue.

posted by: wendy1 on February 8, 2018  8:36pm

Read Vanishing New York by Moss.  I loaned my copy to the Urban Design League. Bleecker St, one of New York’s most beautiful and cozy streets, is currently pretty much of a dead zone commercially.  I love Chapel St. but am afraid to walk in the dark.  I beg young people to learn lots of self defense.  I do shop locally—-no malls.

I would suggest:  more affordable housing
                  more detox beds and better medical care for the poor and homeless
                  decriminalization of homeless and addicts and sex workers
                  tax Yale

I met a lawyer/doctor rich guy who said that anyone with less than 25million stashed away would not be sharing it with the neighbors or even charity.  I blame the rich and greedy.
I doubt that this pathetic crew mentioned will solve this serious local problem.  When I got my $$ in 2016, I personally rescued 2 mom and pops who couldn’t get bank loans.  I couldn’t bear for these businesses to die.  I do believe in a future for this ravaged city but we need a Jane Jacobs approach, more integration of rich and poor, and a less corrupt cityhall.  As far as I’m concerned, all these projected building projects can be turned into green spaces instead. This town has enough buildings,  many underutilized or empty.  I could give a tour.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 9, 2018  7:22am

Lorcanotorca, those actually are good questions. Commercial rents are not just a function of “location, location, and location” but the adage is largely true. I was in a Facebook conversation with the owner of a building on Chapel Street who noted that the most she can get for rent is $17 per square foot. In contrast, the average rent on Bleecker Street last Fall was $351/sf.  Commercial rents can rise and fall quickly; the rents on Bleecker had fallen 25% from a year earlier.

Property taxes are a substantial part of commercial rents in New Haven. But they were about the same in this part of downtown a year or two ago, before the departure of the businesses described in the article. Same thing with state taxes.

Yale is an 800 pound gorilla. But I don’t think it is particularly relevant in Ninth Square. Unlike other parts of downtown, I don’t believe it owns many properties there.

posted by: 1644 on February 9, 2018  7:34am

The NYT had an article recently about how Manhattan apartment rents are have declined, down 3%, after a long period of stealth declines like one of more month’s free.  Of courser rents are still over $3K/mo, but the market is responding to the increase in supply.

As for Yale, as I have said before, it has no interest in New Haven real estate not adjacent to its campus.  Yale doesn’t buy New Haven real estate to make money,  It buys to create an attractive and safe environment for students, faculty, and staff, and to land bank. Yalies have no reason to go to the Ninth Square, and Yale is not likely to expand there, so Yale will not buy there.

posted by: wendy1 on February 9, 2018  10:43am

1644, everything Yale Corp. does is about money.  Wake up and smell the BS.  I have lived here long enough to learn that it’s all about the hoard of cash.  Yale does not care about the employees or customers, the kids or the townsfolk.  That includes you.  Call me and I can explain it to you.  I’m in the book.

I wrote letters and complained to Salovey and all I got was a call from Yale police telling me to quit.  Brave students like Fish Stark and Scott Stern and others criticized Yale.  I love them all.

posted by: anonymous on February 9, 2018  10:45am

Yale would be a logical investor in a large, privately-financed tower that could be built fairly easily on most of the block between Center, Orange, Church, and Chapel.  There are just one or two property owners to buy out. 

As more and more people retire, New Haven needs to be building thousands of units of housing each year to keep up with demand, and this is an optimal location for that.

posted by: HewNaven on February 9, 2018  11:02am

Kevin,

My apologies. Now I understand what you are saying, and it makes perfect sense. Investors are willing to be picky in a changing market like New Haven, where new, wealthier residents are expected.

Also agree that Jacobs is a heroic figure, but we should re-examine her conclusions for our present age. Cities all over seem to be having a hard time finding lasting tenants. In Jacobs’ time, the businesses that co-exited with residences were more essential (e.g. grocers, tailors, butchers, etc.), and thus more successful and long-lasting. Times have definitely changed, and I don’t see many of those businesses any more. Also, wage growth has not kept up with inflation, so people have less to spend then in the 1960s when she wrote.

posted by: wendy1 on February 9, 2018  1:07pm

Jane Jacobs will never die i.e. be irrelevant. We need tailors and grocers and shoerepair, newspapers or magazines or poetry, shoes and socks, etc.  We need human scale buildings not cold monoliths that look like tombstones or nursing homes.  Belle Vista is so ugly, it makes me cringe every time.

And Yale has a privately funded tower with empty apts.  It’s called 360 State.  It is a perfect move for well-off elderly.  I keep a studio there (my only luxury for old age).  It is full of Yale youth and employees as well.  It has 24/7 security and service and is the first US building to have it’s own hydrogen cell so the aged can still get an elevator.  Check it out and drool.  There are Yale people in 15 Orange (Trader’s Block—-I used to live there).  There are Yale folks and vacancies in RenTheUnion, Novella, and that spoiled but still standing Smoothie House off State.  The apt. next door to me with all the goodies is vacant cause the landlord is asking too much….$1350 for a 700 sq.ft. 1 bdrm plus utilities!!....been empty for months in Wooster Sq. facing the park.

posted by: Stylo on February 10, 2018  12:55pm

@HewHaven

Wrong on Thali. He only has one restaurant left, in West Hartford. A good guy and great chef, but maybe not the best business person. Overextended himself. He’s had 2 restaurants close in New Canaan, 1 in Ridgefield, and 1 in Westport. All of which are affluent and very active dining scenes.

posted by: Stylo on February 10, 2018  12:58pm

I think a really quick fix is better street lighting. It’s a bit spooky around there at night, which keeps people from exploring

posted by: Qua on February 11, 2018  12:29am

We are talking directly to you from the ninth square

posted by: Qua on February 11, 2018  12:21pm

: there are real artists making real art downtown. Hiding in plain sight and not part of the machine. Look up but live underground. 817 CHAPEL. - qua