3 Stores Close; 4 Restaurants To Open

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThree former Chapel Street business owners will soon work side by side—in Branford.

One of them is Tracy Bonosconi. She ran the downtown boutique Tracy B—and closed it for good on Wednesday. She said she looks forward to opening a new shop in Branford soon.

Her new store, Lovet, will be next to two restaurants that opened there after their owners left Chapel Street three years ago. Those two Branford restaurants are run by the former operators of Chapel Street’s Roomba and Bespoke.

Several doors down from the now-closed Tracy B, near the corner of College and Chapel, a going-out-of-business sign is up in the window of Celtica, the Irish-themed gift store. In between, at 1022 Chapel St. (pictured), the windows of the recently-closed Lisa Jones jewelry store are papered over.

Tony Bialecki, the city’s deputy director of economic development, said he doesn’t think the closures are a sign of bigger trend.  More businesses have opened than have closed in the last year he said, and New Haven’s restaurant scene is flourishing.

Chris Ortwein, who works on downtown business for the Town Green Special Services District, concurred. She said four new eateries are slated to open downtown in the month of March. One will be the Caseus venture in Richter’s. She declined to name the others.

Bonosconi (pictured) said she operated her Chapel Street boutique since 2008. She said she decided to relocate to Branford due to a confluence of factors: The recession, soaring rents, changes to parking rules downtown, and the rise of online shopping.

“The economy really hurt,” Bonosconi said. When she first opened the store, she would stock dresses for $250. In the current economic climate, she’s had to shift her price point to about $100 per dress, she said.

“It just got harder and harder and harder,” she said.

Time was, Yale freshmen would come in and shop with “unlimited use” of their parents’ credit card, she said. That stopped happening when the economy tanked.

Meanwhile, Bonosconi’s rent has been increasing, she said. The rents never came down from the height of the market in 2008, she said. Her retail space is owned by Yale University. Store manager Becky Harper said she counted seven vacant Yale-owned spaces in two blocks around Tracy B.

Then the city changed the parking rules, charging for parking up until 9 p.m.. “That hurt over the Christmas holidays,” Bonosconi said.

“I need to run out and feed my meter,” said a customer. Bonosconi smiled ruefully and shook her head. “I can’t enjoy my shopping experience while I’m worrying about getting a ticket,” the shopper said.

Bonosconi said a customer recently told her that city parking enforcement officers have been standing and waiting for meters to expire so that they can give out a ticket. That kind of parking enforcement drives away shoppers, Bonosconi said.

“I can only tell you that I have not heard these concerns from Tracy or really any of the other businesses,” replied Jim Travers, the city’s traffic czar. “Without a doubt, my direction to parking meter attendants and supervisors is they’re to walk their beat and if [the meter light is] red, write a ticket. If it’s green, keep going.”

Travers said he hasn’t seen a drop in shopping as a result of the extended parking meter hours: “When I look at parking downtown in the evening ... people are still parked. It’s not like the streets are bare.”

Bonosconi said she has also been the victim of a rise in online sales in recent years. She’s jumping on board that ship with her new venture, Lovet. She’ll have a small store of that name in Branford, but she’ll also conduct online sales from her new website.

Bonosconi said she’s sorry to leave town. She grew up in West Haven and spent much of her adult life in New Haven. But she hasn’t taken a paycheck the last couple of years, she said. She can’t afford to stay in town.

Bialecki said he’s sorry to see Tracy B and Celtica closing. “Certainly I think it’s unfortunate because those are two great businesses.”

“There is a certain reality that we are still in hard economic times,” said Ortwein. “You’re dealing with boutique shops that have been through Hurricane Sandy, a flat holiday season, and now a snowstorm.”

“It’s been a tough road the last couple of years” for retail businesses, Bialecki said. A lot of stores have felt the pinch from online sales, he said. That might ease with Amazon’s new agreement to charge sales tax in Connecticut, Bialecki said.

But restaurants are doing well downtown, Bialecki said. Ortwein said four new eateries will open in March.

Bonosconi said that while new businesses are opening in town, they tend to be owned by big corporations. Chipotle and Shake Shack, two chains, have recently opened downtown. A Panera restaurant is on its way.

If that trend continues, Bonosconi warned, “then every town ends up looking like every other town.”

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posted by: Anderson Scooper on February 28, 2013  10:00am

The Broadway shopping district has downtown’s only retail friendly parking lot/garage, at 75 cents per half hour.

In the Chapel Street area there are no designated garages for shoppers, and most of them charge more than the metered street parking. ($3-4/first hour, and then $2-3 for every hour or part of an hour thereafter.) Up at Whitney/Grove it’s as bad or worse.

Why is there no plan from the City? Or is it really for shoppers to park on the street, with built-in time limits and the risk of tickets?

posted by: robn on February 28, 2013  10:23am

“It’s been a tough road the last couple of years” for retail businesses”

Yet the rents skyrocket and landlords are content to treat New Haveners to large streetscape vacancy rather than budge. There’s a serial killer on the loose and it’s name is Yale Properties.

posted by: anonymous on February 28, 2013  10:43am

Things would get a lot worse if we made parking free, because there would be less turnover.  As it is now, we need to remove some spaces in order to provide better pedestrian infrastructure, which is the real determinant of how attractive a place is to shop. 

How about removing a lane of George Street and putting in free back in diagonal parking along it after 5PM and on weekends?

posted by: Gauss on February 28, 2013  11:05am

Before we start the comments about how everyone should bike or walk everywhere… If you are paying $250 (or even $100 for a dress) and then going to a fancy meal, is $4-5 for parking really that much of a hit?

posted by: Stylo on February 28, 2013  11:18am

To all the displaced New Haven shops: come to downtown Milford. We’d love to have you.

posted by: SaveOurCity on February 28, 2013  12:16pm

Some parting gifts from DeStefano.  If you know any owners/operators of downtown businesses, ask them about how the higher property taxes are turning into higher rental rates and ask about how there used to be an influx of customers at 7pm when the parking meters were off - that is gone now. 

Three businesses in one month in a small city isn’t a trend??  There are at least two others that probably won’t make it until graduation….

posted by: HewNaven on February 28, 2013  12:36pm

I have this crazy idea I’ve been tossing around:

What if we supported merchants who sell things that we need instead of luxury/vanity items that the average New Haven resident could never afford and doesn’t need!? Who cares about parking? No one in my neighborhood is trying to find a spot in front of Tracy B’s. They’re trying to feed and clothe their families and furnish their homes. Lets try to facilitate those essential needs before we worry about jewelers and restaurateurs and go on and on speculating about parking fees.

posted by: anonymous on February 28, 2013  12:48pm

Gauss: Exactly. The most successful shopping districts in the world do not have cheap parking. Chapel Street is competing with the Back Bay, not with the West Haven Post Road.

posted by: Cinderella on February 28, 2013  12:49pm

Regardless of how much a dress cost at Tracy B’s or dinner downtown, the point is to keep up the image that the city is alive with visitors and people who open their wallets. No one wants to go to a dead zone town. It’s the kiss of death for cities to discourage people from coming in by imposing unfriendly parking rates and empty storefronts. This is just common sense.

The other unmentioned concern are the number of Panhandlers who accost, and I mean accost, pedestrians. No one likes to be targeted by them and some are not so pleasant.

posted by: Noteworthy on February 28, 2013  4:49pm

I don’t often criticize Yale. But escalating rents to the point of pushing out small business in favor of chains who will pay more is not good for this city. These boutiques bring unique products and customer service you don’t get from chains. The money stays in and around New Haven. It’s important to have a diversity of businesses and not turn downtown into a food court. We can find that anywhere. I strongly urge Yale Properties to reconsider their plan for growth and their need or greed as it relates to a return on equity.

posted by: NewHaven06511 on February 28, 2013  4:57pm

The revolving door of tenants of Yale properties spins so fast. They bring em in & spit em out so quick.

posted by: smackfu on February 28, 2013  5:07pm

Seems odd to focus on the parking rule changes for a store that is open after 7 PM for just a few weeks each year.  Seems like just a scapegoat.

posted by: Bill Saunders on February 28, 2013  7:49pm

And somehow, Yale Prop-Ups, like Chairagami, are surviving?

posted by: Chip on March 1, 2013  7:44am

Between Yale Properties’ unreasonable leases and the City’s ignorance it has eternally been difficult for independent retailers to survive in downtown. How many empty storefronts are there now? Someone should total them. Travers’ comment, “When I look at parking downtown in the evening ... people are still parked.” is highly ignorant. The mere presence of cars downtown doesn’t mean they belong to shoppers. So much time and $ has been spent trying to make downtown a shopping destination but Yale’s impossibly high rents and leases, poor parking, bad marketing, etc., strangle independent retail stores. New restaurants are not the answer either, as turnover in that business is much more higher. The boutique Seychelles was there almost 20 years. Sorry to see you go, too, Tracey - and you’re right, downtown New Haven will end up looking like every other town. Sad!

posted by: Guy Noir on March 1, 2013  1:02pm

Surprised Tracy was only recently informed by a customer that parking enforcement officers were on stand by waiting for meters to expire.  Lurking is more like it, especially on corner of High and Chapel near Starbucks.

This modus operandi of ticketing by ambush has prevailed for years and really does cramp a motoring customers spending pursuits. West Haven and Branford have free 2 hour municipal parking. Businesses have been fleeing to the burbs due to New Haven’s sadistic parking enforcement policies.  Warning- if you are motoring by Starbucks on Chapel don’t even think of grabbing a Joe to go unless you feed the meter.

posted by: anonymous on March 1, 2013  1:12pm

Chip - Downtown retail vacancy is at a near all time low which also explains the higher rents (primarily driven by non-Yale properties such as those housing Panera, ECM, and both Starbucks).  Are you suggesting that the powers that be are not collecting accurate information?

posted by: Claudia Herrera on March 2, 2013  4:52am

I live and work in New Haven, also I’m looking to open my own business soon, I was seriously considering to open it in here New Haven, but after the last few months of have been study the business trends. I saw many and good chances to succeed, but huge problem that will stop me to open my business in NH is the same reasons that Ms. Bonoscon said “rents, changes to parking rules downtown, and the rise of online shopping” On more thing she left out. The strong marketing is all focus around Yale properties. New Haven has a very strong market but is so over look because the prices in the “successful areas” only sell very expensive products that NO many NH residents can afford to buy in the regular basic.
We no only need a decent and enjoyable place to eat, dress and entertain. WE need affordable prices to get out with the family and walk around New Haven, last but not least safety too. 
Right now all marketing is target to Yale’s students and their visitor. What about the huge market around us? hospitals, schools, banks etc. All these people could drive back besides their job needs and find a family affordable places. If this can happen I don’t think the $5.00 dollars parking will make a big issue or even better we can improve our public transportation.

posted by: Mister Jones on March 3, 2013  12:01am

I have no problem paying for parking meters, whether during the day with two hour limits, or in the evening without the time limits. I have a problem with the enforcement model, because it’s not pay-as-you-go. I get far too many tickets when I have misjudged the time left, or I linger too long over coffee, or other business. I can’t say the meter readers are lurking, lying in wait, but it sure feels that way when I keep getting tickets for going two minutes overtime. The Parkmobile app touted in another article is a big improvement for us frequent parkers. I used it in Washington DC, and after going through the setup routine, it worked great. I especially liked the reminders as time was running out, and the opportunity to add time remotely. Meters will always be problematic for people unless they replicate the parking garage experience where you pay for the actual time used, rather than getting a $20 ticket when you misjudge.

The private lots tend to charge a flat rate of $8 for evening parking—more than them $4-5 mentioned in the article. It’s not much if you are dropping hundreds on dinner or theater tix, but for most of us stopping for a drink or coffee it’s steep. And street parking is indeed tight all over downtown these days. Finally, I’d add that Bespoke was on College not Chapel. I know that doesn’t fit the article’s premise about Chapel Street businesses closing, but it’s a fact.

posted by: Shawn Szirbik on March 4, 2013  1:08pm

The parking enforcement doubled when the meters went to 9pm.  One of our employees was parked in front of the store for 30 minutes left to do an errand when they came back later and parked in a different space across the street they got a meter repeater ticket after a total of only an hour parking.

And oh…wasn’t it only 2 1/2 years ago that The Copper Kitchen (the best and most affordable breakfast in downtown) was forced out to give Celtica a new location on Chapel Street?

posted by: Doctor Who on March 5, 2013  4:17am

Why do I have to deal with the hassle of street parking and meter enforcement or flat rate evening parking lots when the Boston Post Road with all the variety of stores, easy on and easy off and free parking beckons?  The only advantage New Haven has is if you want to get drunken and not have to drive home.  If you’re not a drinker….. meh.