College/Chapel District — New Haven, Connecticut
“At the southern border of Yale University sits a small neighborhood that belies the common image of New Haven as a struggling inner city. This enclave, referred to as the College/Chapel District, encompasses two pleasant, people-filled blocks with a lively diversified environment. The traditional look and feel of this downtown area gives the impression that it has existed this way for many, many years. Actually, its condition today is primarily the result of the efforts of one private developer, working in cooperation with the City.
Until the early 1960s, the area was considered to be one of the most popular places in town, with several theaters and shops, as well as a residential population, but by the early 1980s, the buildings were 95 percent vacant, most residents were gone, and on one corner, sat a single room occupancy facility. A few deserted theaters remained from New Haven’s heyday as a ‘tryout’ venue for Broadway-bound shows.
Believing that the area could be renewed with the theaters as anchors, developer Joel Schiavone embarked on an unusual endeavor by privately financing the purchase of buildings and taking on the full responsibility of rehabilitation, leasing and public-space management. Although it was hoped that the refurbished theaters would help revive the city’s cultural life, the project was not conceived as a theater district. Rather, it was seen as a way to create an active, downtown mixed-use neighborhood.
Development work, chiefly the renovation of old and historic structures, began in 1982 and continued through 1984. The preservation and restoration of existing buildings have helped maintain the area’s traditional character. The owners’ leasing policy has been another strong influence on the retention of an ambience from a bygone era. During renovations, efforts were made to retain existing tenants, such as a cigar store and health food restaurant. Schiavone’s leasing emphasis has always been on locally owned and operated retail stores. Retail shops include a jeweler, a bicycle store and a coffee shop with outside seating that has become the local ‘hangout.’
Another important component has been the introduction of streetscape improvements. Implemented by New Haven’s transportation department in 1983, the improvements include wider sidewalks, extensions at their corners and parallel parking on both sides of the street, leaving two lanes of traffic. Brick pavers were installed in the crosswalks and along the perimeters of some sidewalks. Trees, benches, bike racks, trash dispensers, special lighting, plantings and public art were added. Three outdoor cafés now occupy the extended sidewalk and a newspaper stand has opened on a corner.
The College/Chapel District today is a well-used, mixed-use area that includes housing, retail stores, restaurants and commercial tenants in upper-level offices. Over 100 restaurants draw people from outside the neighborhood for a variety of dining experiences and for pre-theater dinners on the weekend. Several theaters have been completely rehabilitated. The Shubert stages Broadway shows, opera, dance, musical concerts and family entertainment. The Palace stages a full range of concerts and special events. A number of bars and nightclubs adds to the area’s liveliness on weekend nights.
At most times of the day and night, the neighborhood is busy with residents, office workers, shoppers, students and visitors. Where few people once had reason to come, thousands now come to dine, attend shows, shop, socialize, work and walk around. Many Yale students walk to the district. Many people ride in on their bicycles. Police maintain a presence, although crime is rare. A full-time maintenance crew, paid for by the tenants’ common-area charges, helps to sustain the area’s image as a viable and secure place, while keeping it running smoothly.
The district continues to be managed by Schiavone with little direct assistance from the City. In Schiavone’s estimation, a centralized management and leasing approach, with one committed organization in charge, is what has ensured the success of this area and its high standard of quality.”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces, Inc., “Streets as Places: Using Streets to Rebuild Communities,” 2008