After two decades, it’s New Haven’s SoHo

A blend of new and old buildings in a Ninth Square streetscape.

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

A blend of new and old buildings in a Ninth Square streetscape.

The 1970s may have been the nadir for U.S. cities, the time when the Bronx was burning, urban factories were closing and suburban sprawl was rampant. Yet, though few noticed, green shoots of revival were snaking through the cracks in the asphalt.

Artists were moving into the abandoned, and hence inexpensive, loft space. Entrepreneurs were opening funky urban bars and clubs. The historic preservation movement, once derided as “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” became a force in urban planning.

This change in attitude laid the groundwork for brick-and-mortar preservation projects in many Connecticut cities, none more daring or comprehensive than Ninth Square in New Haven. Conceived in the 1980s and completed in the mid-1990s, the project restored or carefully replaced late-19th and early 20th commercial buildings in a four-block area in the southwest corner of the New Haven Green, producing 335 apartments and almost 50,000 square feet of retail space.

Two decades later, Ninth Square is a vibrant urban neighborhood, a place for art, food, tech start-ups and street fun. People with varied incomes live there, not the norm in much of Connecticut. Ninth Square’s success helped spur more downtown development.

“Ninth Square was the canary in the tunnel,” said former Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who was in office when the project was completed. “It showed that people would move downtown, that a neighborhood would work downtown.”

Alas, Ninth Square needed considerable public money to build. Three years ago the developers, a partnership of McCormack Baron Salazar and The Related Companies, announced they were running out of cash and asked for a bailout.

Matthew Nemerson on Orange Street in the Ninth Square

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Matthew Nemerson on Orange Street in the Ninth Square

Ever since, the developers and the lenders — the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, the city and Yale University — have been negotiating a financial restructuring or recapitalization of the project. When the refinancing is completed, the developers plan to sell their interest in the project.

So Ninth Square is at a crossroad, a time of change. All involved say they expect the project to be successfully refinanced, and to thrive. After two decades and some major obstacles it has become “the most spectacular mixed-income project in New England,”  said New Haven economic development administrator Matt Nemerson.

Oxymoron

U.S. cities have seen two waves of urban renewal since the end of World War II, and New Haven was in the forefront of both.

The first, in the 1950s and ‘60s under Mayor Richard C. Lee, was a massive project covering a third of the city and involving the demolition (“clearance”) of thousands of housing units and relocation of thousands of residents and businesses. New Haven got more federal urban renewal money per capita than any city in the country, and more in total dollars — more than $180 million — than all but a few of the country’s largest cities.

Though the undertaking got considerable national attention, history has judged it a mixed success. Parts of it, such as the preservation of much of Wooster Square, the creation of the Long Wharf commercial area and removal of the city’s worst slum housing were applauded. The cataclysmic demolition and creation of a downtown shopping complex, now reconfigured or demolished for apartments and a community college – not so much.

“From the start, redeveloping downtown New Haven was a mistake,” wrote prominent architect and planner Alexander Garvin in his influential 1996 book “The American City What Works, What Doesn’t.” 

”New Haven was not renewed,” urban affairs writer and New Haven native Rob Gurwitt wrote in Mother Jones in 2000.

Gurwitt said projects such as New Haven’s and those in many other older cities “gave urban renewal a bad name.” Indeed, many came to consider the term an oxymoron. 

But one area that was spared from the angel of urban renewal was Ninth Square.

Historic blocks

The 17th century settlers of the New Haven Colony laid out the area then adjoining the harbor into nine roughly half-mile squares, eight around the central square, the New Haven Green. The southwest quadrant became a hub of commercial activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, home to hundreds of businesses large and small.

It was spared the wrecking ball in the first urban renewal project because officials saw value in its array of commerce. It was given the name Ninth Square in the 1970s  – the squares hadn’t been numbered to this point – as a kind of marketing slogan to invite redevelopment, because by then it had become, in the current parlance, sketchy. Flight from the city had taken its toll, the buildings were worn, many storefronts and most of the upper floors of the three and four-story buildings were empty.

But attitudes were changing. This was the city’s last cluster of 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings, and some now saw the value in that. Property owners, developers and preservationists pulled a plan together to redevelop — rather than demolish — several properties in the area into apartments with ground-floor retail.

“It was considered revolutionary — people weren’t moving into cities,” said Will Ginsberg, who served as the city’s development administrator from 1984 to 1988 and now heads The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Inc.

It was also really challenging.

Street dining in the Ninth Square

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Street dining in the Ninth Square

Going back to the drawing board, the city got in touch with St. Louis-based McCormack, Baron & Associates (now McCormack, Baron, Salazar), a well-regarded residential developer with a reputation for delivering projects others could not.

McCormack, Baron refined the plan with the city to restore, or in a few cases sensitively replace, a cluster of buildings in the center of Ninth Square around Orange and Grove streets. True to reputation, the developer assembled a dizzyingly complex package of city, state and federal grants, loans (from three different types of bonds), tax abatements and equity from the sale of historic and affordable housing tax credits, all totaling $86.6.million (a middling amount for such projects, dwarfed by the state’s announced $529 million investment in Hartford’s Adriaen’s Landing a decade later).

Challenges remained.

Delay

For one, the project was delayed for years; it was six years between the time the plan was prepared and the first apartments opened.  Some properties were acquired by the inevitably slow and often controversial process of eminent domain. The deep recession of 1989-90 slowed the work.

Delay meant the neighborhood got worse before it got better. Yale law student Christopher Miller, in a 2011 research paper on Ninth Square, reported that the city moved 25 businesses out, some five years before the project opened, leaving vacant buildings behind. Some old-line businesses tried to hang on, he wrote, but as customers avoided the increasingly derelict district and no one came to develop it, “they gave up waiting.” (Of those businesses, only century-old Acme Office Furniture Co. remains).

While businesses moved or closed for a variety of reasons, some might have stayed, had the project gone more quickly. When the project was opened, what it needed were businesses.

Of the 335 apartments in the new project, called “The Residences at Ninth Square,” 57 percent are — per requirements of the financing — designated as “affordable,” intended for residents who earn no more than 60 percent of area median income (some tenants are eligible for Section 8 rental assistance). The remaining are rented at market rates. 

Retail detail

Though some predicted this mix wouldn’t work, it has. The apartments have been fully leased since they opened. The ground floor retail space took a lot longer; some of it stayed vacant for years.

This may be because the developers’ experience was with residential construction. An experienced retail developer probably would have had a marketing plan and moved heaven and earth not to open with empty spaces. But it was, and to a degree still is, “hard to find people who do mixed-use,” said city planner Karen Gilvarg.

A former firehouse, now a music venue, in the Ninth Square.

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

A former firehouse, now a music venue, in the Ninth Square.

One thing that helped kickstart the retail was an imaginative idea begun in 2010 called Project Storefronts, in which “pop-up” businesses or activities such as shared work spaces were put into vacant storefronts. The idea was to put feet on the street, see if the business caught on, or see if the location worked for another business. It has filled some storefronts, in Ninth Square and some other locations.

Thanks to imagination and patience, 94 percent of the retail space in Ninth Square is leased, according to June figures from the Town Green Special Services District, which promotes the downtown area.  There are good stories. Neville Wisdom, the popular Jamaican-born clothing designer, had a shop in the city’s Westville neighborhood, but closed it and moved to Ninth Square more than four years ago. He’s done well enough there to expand and open a second shop in Westville. 

Barcade, which features the compelling concept of vintage video games and craft beers, has a reputation for opening in places — the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn,  Jersey City — just before they are discovered. The New York group just opened its sixth site in Ninth Square (and reportedly is packing them in).

Overall, the retail in Ninth Square “is working, but it is fragile, especially the eateries. They have to work hard,” said Elinor Slomba, who runs Project Storefronts. That is probably a given in a city with scores of good restaurants — nearby Wooster Square is the epicenter of the Northeast pizza belt. But top Ninth Square beaneries are a destination as well. (The city’s parking department lets restaurants rent parking spaces in front of their establishments for a small fee and put tables there, a new twist on al fresco dining.)

The residents are a veritable Noah’s Ark of the workforce, everything from Yale research scientists to railroad workers to Knights of Columbus employees to senior citizens, said the ebullient Romulo E. Samaniego, the Residences’ property manager.  With the State Street train station and Elm City Market nearby, residents can live without a car, or not use one very often.  The neighborhood “has everything I need,” said Cris Ortwein, who lives in Ninth Square and works for the Town Green District. 

Samaniego did say that a handful of residents, including seniors transitioning to assisted living facilities, could use on-site social services.

Mayor Toni Harp said she wants to keep the same mix of affordable and market rate apartments as the project is refinanced.

Urban fabric

The urban fabric on Orange Street is part illusion; some of the buildings were merged behind their historic facades to meet modern building codes and provide communal facilities. But this makes it work and isn’t apparent from the street. The mini-neighborhood with its three- and four-story buildings — with one 11-story building overlooking the street at the end – plus shops, offices, bicyclists and parking-space diners – has the feel, several people said, of Williamsburg or SoHo. “You can tell it’s a good development when people can’t tell it’s a development,” said Nemerson.

A plaza in the Ninth Square

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

A plaza in the Ninth Square

With the possible exception of an early business owner or two, it’s hard to find anyone in New Haven who doesn’t think Ninth Square is a grand slam for the Elm City. 

DeStefano, reflecting on the project, said it shouldn’t be thought of as a one-off, silver-bullet solution, but as part of a continuum. It was preceded by the redevelopment of Upper Chapel Street by developer Joel Schiavone and succeeded by a host of newer projects, including major investments by Yale in the neighborhoods around the campus.

And he said the underlying accomplishment was not the bricks and mortar but the demand for more housing caused by the city’s improving economy, notably in healthcare. “When people get a job they need a place to live.”

Loss leader

Projects such as Ninth Square are sometimes criticized over their public subsidies. For example, Miller in his research paper suggests that $86.6 million is a lot of public money for 335 apartments — “a government investment of $258,000 per unit, not including retail space and parking.”

That, said Nemerson, is the wrong way to look at it.

In addition to providing affordable housing, which usually needs subsidy, Ninth Square has been a catalyst; its presence has helped leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment in every direction from the revitalized blocks, including 360 State Street, the sleek, 32-story, 500-unit structure that opened in 2010 as the state’s largest apartment building. (Vertical growth is welcome in land-poor core cities such as New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport.)

Such has been the surge in downtown New Haven that about 600 units of housing in several projects are coming online this year — all without public subsidy — and another 1,000 units on streets adjacent to Ninth Square are in the planning stage. Contrary to the negative opinion some have of government, Nemerson said: “This worked.”

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