Living on the Edge

Yale’s twelve residential colleges are arranged in concentric rings around the University’s core, each facing the central axis of Old Campus, Cross Campus, and Commons. The colleges along the University’s eastern and western rims, sitting with their backs exposed to the city, are encircled by waves of urban development. Morse and Ezra Stiles are overlooked by Payne Whitney Gymnasium from across the arc of Tower Parkway. Rows of Park Street student apartments, Lynwood fraternities, and Howe Street restaurants border Pierson and Davenport. Silliman and Timothy Dwight rest on a long arm of polished downtown office buildings and shops stretching up Church Street. On the streets surrounding every college, from every side, facades are maintained, stores abound, and the shared economic life of Yale and New Haven is, by any reasonable measure, thriving.

But even Yale’s most self-assured cheerleaders of progress do not expect this to be the case for Yale’s planned 1 th and 14th colleges. These colleges, slated for a large triangle wedged between Prospect on one end, Canal and the Grove Street Cemetery on the second, and Sachem on the third, will sit alongside an undeveloped corner of New Haven, an area which campus planners refer to as Lower Hillhouse, and which promises very little opportunity for economic growth. Heading past the corner of the destined triangle currently occupied by Mudd Library, onto a segment of Sachem that will be steps from a student’s room in future years, and across a desolate stretch of empty lots and chain-link fences, one encounters the only unit of retail within blocks: Paolillo’s Service Center, a claustrophobic blue automobile supply store advertising two varieties of antifreeze and several name brand coolants in its window. By the admission of Michael Morand, Yale’s dapper associate vice president of New Haven and State Affairs, “If you look at this area now, there’s not a lot of service retail.” And, if Morand is to be believed, very few shops and restaurants will be enticed to join Paolillo’s even after the colleges are completed. “I wouldn’t oversell the retail implications of the new colleges,” he says. “Students don’t have much purchasing power.”

This entire neighborhood’s negligible appeal for future businesses and students is something that Morand and the University have made little effort to deny. Instead, officials have ignored the problem publicly, perhaps because they realize that the truth may be a bitter pill for students and alumni to swallow: In the face of the University’s most important expansion in half a century, the strategies which, for 15 years, Yale and New Haven have jointly and successfully employed to attract wealth, revitalization, and investment to the city will, it appears, hit their limit. it is difficult to underestimate the in- fluence Yale is unwilling—or unable—to use to transform Lower Hillhouse. Yale’s engine of economic growth has no doubt been responsible for dramatic changes in the New Haven business-scape during the past decade and a half. Perceptions of town-gown conflict aside, the mayor’s administration recognizes the perks of hosting a world class university.

“It’s beneficial for us being in a college town,” explains Kelly Murphy, New Haven’s economic development administrator. “I think the relationship between Mayor DeStefano and President Levin is very good. What’s good for the city is good for Yale, and what’s good for Yale is good for the city.” Yale’s primary economic strength emanates from the fact that as a university, it is highly resistant to economic recessions. Yale attracts thousands of students, faculty, and staff to the city, bringing about half a million visitors to New Haven annually. The University, in turn, inoculates the areas around it, injecting local businesses such as support services, research, and particularly construction, with regular investments. University employees, who enjoy job and income security, spend their earnings on retail in the area. In 2000, the University estimated that it directly contributed almost a billion dollars to the metro area economy that year; its indirect impact was considerably greater. To New Haven’s benefit, Yale is a magnet for investment. “A lot of people outside of the area may not know New Haven,” Murphy says. “But they know Yale.”

National businesses, from the forthcoming American Apparel on Broadway to Pfizer in its immaculate $ 5 million clinical research facility next to the School of Medicine, regularly approach Yale to consider leasing University property. Yale frequently rebuffs such requests and, according to Karyn Gilvarg, a member of Murphy’s economic development team, puts its suitors in contact with the city. “When developers are interested, they send them our way,” Gilvarg says, explaining that this sort of “anecdotal” support can be extremely valuable. Sometimes Yale can catalyze a project merely by contributing its prestige. The Omni Hotel on Temple Street was redeveloped once Yale agreed to attach its name to the project, creating the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale. “Something seemingly intangible like that,” says Gilvarg, “can have a major impact.”

Yale creates the greatest ripple effect, however, when it says yes to developers. On Broadway, the crown jewel of New Haven’s revitalization, Yale first started buying properties and upgrading the street’s physical appearance more than ten years ago. Working with the city, Yale used its business relationships and prestige to entice tenants such as J. Crew and Urban Outfitters. Scott Healy, executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, a semi-independent development agency funded directly by property owners, calls these national chains “retail anchors in downtown.” Once the first chains had signed on, the dominoes began to fall. A full complement of businesses quickly emerged in what the University now proudly calls its “retail district.” Change was felt as far away as the Marriott on Whalley Avenue. The hotel chain moved into a building adjacent to campus but not owned by the University. Morand refers to this type of development as the “catalytic impact.”

When Yale expands, benefits rebound back to the city. Property taxes from developments fill the city’s coffers and outercity residents come downtown to spend their money. Moreover, small businesses, whose role in the downtown economy has largely been slipping in recent years, have come to fill a niche created by the big business Yale brings to the city. Walter Esdaile, director of New Haven’s Small Business Initiative, explains that, though Yale development has prevented the rise of certain types of small businesses, it has opened the door for others. “It’s tougher for a lot of our smaller guys to step into the Yale standard, let’s put it that way,” he says, referring to locally owned shops in prime Yale areas. But for local construction contractors and support services, Yale provides a steady stream of business. This dynamic is one component of a powerful partnership that has achieved a great deal when President Levin and Mayor DeStefano have pointed it in a mutually benefi- cial direction.

Lower Hillhouse, it appears, is no such direction. Yale and New Haven’s current development plans include no mention of transforming this quiet and somewhat dilapidated residential area—“a good American neighborhood,” in Morand’s careful construction—into a new center of commerce that those affiliated with and attracted to Yale might actually patronize. New Haven is not prioritizing the neighborhood for development, and Yale has either kept silent about its dissatisfaction or is simply indifferent. Whatever the reason, “sustained cooperation” between DeStefano and Levin, which Morand and so many others credit with being the first step toward change in the city, is not forthcoming for this neighborhood.

Instead, the City and the University have more or less agreed to focus on an entirely different part of town. DeStefano recently laid out New Haven’s long term development aims according to a $1.5 billion agenda he calls the “Future Framework.” Bearing his PowerPoint gospel to City Hall meetings, DeStefano explained that he wanted to see “urban infill” around the downtown area by converting the unsightly Route 4 highway into an urban boulevard and connecting the Medical District and Union Station to downtown proper. Murphy later amplified the mayor’s philosophy: “New Haven is a fully developed city, basically, within our borders…the idea is stitching the city together.”

It is a bold and exciting mission, and one to which the University is also devoting much of its attention. Since April of 2000, when Yale published “A Framework for Campus Planning,” its blueprint for future development, the University has been looking to achieve a goal constantly repeated in the document: “improved connections among Yale’s three campuses,” identified as Central Campus, the Medical Center, and the Athletic Fields. Morand, echoing DeStefano, says the University’s aim is “extending the vitality of downtown” by connecting the University’s core with the train station and the Medical Center. Yale is doubly interested in fostering development around the Medical School in order to create a “thriving biotechnology industry in New Haven,” according to Jon Soderstrom, managing director of the Office of Cooperative Research. The OCR, which works closely with Morand’s office, is hoping that such an industry will help to attract and retain faculty by offering research opportunities. For these reasons, the area between Central Campus and the Medical School has been lavished with enormous attention.

The city is building a new high school and accompanying retail space, the University is leasing property at 00 George Street to fill vacant lots, and the dean of the Medical School is constantly negotiating with outside developers. The University has committed eight million dollars to a new Economic Development Corporation run jointly by the City and Yale to provide an independent impetus for downtown development.

The only area anywhere near Lower Hillhouse that attracts this type of joint attention is Science Park, off Prospect Street near Marsh Hall, a hub of technology businesses of interest to the City and Yale for many of the same reasons that Yale is encouraging biotechnology near the Medical School. Should development in Science Park begin to attract retail as Morand hopes, it will not do students in the new colleges much good; it is still far enough away that they might as well walk over to Audubon.

Even if Yale wanted to develop Lower Hillhouse itself, it is not clear how it would proceed. For one thing, the University controls little property beyond the ten million dollar corner of the Prospect- Sachem-Canal triangle it purchased from the City. “There really isn’t any that we own. The current space we have wouldn’t lend itself to [retail],” Morand says, referring to the Rose Center, a beautiful community education center run by Yale about a block past the proposed site of the colleges, a Yale police station, and a Bristol Street building even farther away which the University purchased, cleaned up, and sold to Beulah Land Development Corporation. These developments have resulted, in part, from a subdued push over the last several years to clean up an area that has served as an occasional student route between Swing Space and Science Hill.

That a rehabilitation project begun in tandem with the 199 construction of Swing Space has achieved so little tangible progress is perhaps indicative of the University’s minimal influence in the neighborhood. Since most of the remaining property consists of private homes, it is unlikely that Yale will be able to acquire much of it. Furthermore, the closest the third building on the proposed site of the colleges—which will likely be filled with classrooms and performance spaces—will come to retail space is a late-night café. “I think it’s doubtful,” Morand says of commercial development within the colleges. “It’s not a priority for anyone that the colleges themselves include retail.”

Those who accept that the University is unlikely to single-handedly remake the neighborhood—an undoubtedly dif- ficult goal, given that past developments have generally required cooperation with the Mayor’s Office—hold out hope that the market alone will spur development. Greg Morehead, the Ward 22 alderman who represents the area, explains that residents are almost universally enthusiastic about the prospect of the colleges. Many, Morehead included, hope that some modest development will follow. “I don’t think [it will be] necessarily attracted by the colleges,” he concedes. “But it’s going to be a plus. If there are no restaurants in the area, some will be attracted by the colleges.” Morand also believes, despite his doubts about student purchasing power as a draw for commerce, that businesses will respond in some way to the influx of several hundred new residents.

Healy offers a more damning assessment. “There are no commercial corridors close enough to the proposed site of the colleges to see any influx of new commerce,” he says. “It’s possible, though, that commercial demand will grow organically, providing incentive for the development of storefronts in the area.” But Healy guesses that the most probable commercial influx will be in the form of food pushcarts. perhaps, ultimately, development of the Lower Hillhouse area will be unnecessary for students in the new colleges. They will be three minutes’ walking distance from the nearest stores on Whitney, and President Levin has endorsed the College Study Groups’ recommendations that the University enhance security in the area and provide regular transportation between the new additions and the rest of campus (the center of which is, after all, only three blocks away). The University may even consider new retail on the first floor of the Becton Center.

But, in the absence of commercial development, life for students who live in the new colleges will be crucially different from student life in every other residential college. While the others are cloistered not only within the University itself but also within the most thriving and inviting parts of the city, the new colleges will jut into an area in which students will have little reason ever to set foot.

The new colleges might pierce the Yale bubble, placing students side-by-side with a good American neighborhood. In this way, the University may finally realize its 2000 Framework objective of “blending campus edges with surrounding neighborhoods.” But if students end up more isolated and inconvenienced than their peers, they might find themselves wishing that the University, somewhere in its Study Group document or official deliberations, had planned to place their new home somewhere they might actually want to live.

Mitch Reich is a junior in Pierson College.

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