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New Look For New Haven

Cutler's Corner Focus Of Makeover

November 30, 2003

By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER, Special to The Courant

NEW HAVEN -- For about 150 years, the six-story Cutler Building has stood prominently at Chapel and Church streets, diagonally across from New Haven Green.

Once proud home of Lerner department store, the Italianate, brick-clad building, like much of downtown, did not age gracefully over the past half-century. After Lerner vacated, several successors failed to survive.

Developers and city officials hope a $15 million makeover now underway will transform the Cutler Building and its 75-year-old neighbor, the Woolworth Building, into a downtown showpiece, with a mixture of retail space and luxury apartments.

When the scaffolding comes down next fall, project backers say Cutler's Corner will help cement and intensify ongoing efforts to lure young professionals and empty nesters to live downtown.

The project complements several ongoing projects, including rehabilitation of the Chapel Square Mall across Church Street, nearby apartment developments and other components of the 20-year effort to revive the city's Ninth Square district.

By converting once-dilapidated stores and office buildings into luxury apartments, developers and city officials hope to capitalize on the city's improved image and the host of restaurants, clubs and shops that have opened in recent years.

In particular, they point to stable employment, a reduced crime rate and cultural attractions at and around Yale University as powerful draws for new residents, who have filled nearly 1,000 new apartment units in the past five years.

"New Haven right now is seen as the place to live in Connecticut," said Michael Schaffer, who is developing the Cutler Building for the firm C.A. White. "It feeds on itself."

The increase in demand for housing downtown has driven rents to nearly double what they were five years ago, said Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who attributes the demand to young professionals and empty nesters who are moving in from out of town.

"They're aggressively consuming these units," DeStefano said. "Frankly, it seems as though the more of them we get, the bigger the demand gets."

Cutler's Corner, funded almost entirely by federal and state money, will merge the Cutler and Woolworth buildings to create about 16,000 square feet of ground-level retail space, and 83 apartment units. An Eckerd's pharmacy will occupy about 12,000 feet of the retail space, with the remaining retail tenants still to be settled. The studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units will lease for between $900 and $2,000 a month, Schaffer said.

Efforts to reinvigorate the Ninth Square, named for its place on the original grid city founders used when they laid out the city in 1638, have been underway for years.

The first phase of the revitalization, completed in 1994, focused on developing apartments, restaurants and shops; adding planting trees; and repaving sidewalks.

The second phase is expected to add 25,000 square feet of renovated retail space, 138 parking spots and 221 apartment units, most at market rates. Besides Cutler's Corner, it includes projects on Crown Street and in the former Grant's Department Store on Chapel Street.

Some city leaders fear the increased focus on higher end apartments threatens to price longtime residents out of downtown, depriving them of the benefits of the downtown renaissance. The development won't be successful, they say, if downtown becomes an unaffordable place for working class families to live.

Dolores Colon, an alderwoman who represents the area, said she worries the price increases will drive more residents who work downtown to the outskirts of the city or nearby suburbs.

"It's good for the city to have a face lift," she said. "But by the same token, you don't want to have another New York, where you can't afford to live there."

Jorge Perez, president of the board of aldermen, praised the combination of residential and retail space in the development, but questioned the fairness of catering to an upscale market rather than longtime residents who cannot afford top rents.

Other city officials defend the project, pointing to the availability of affordable units in other neighborhoods and set-aside affordable units in some Ninth Square buildings.

But it's market-rate apartments that will be the key to transforming downtown, said Douglas Rae, a Yale professor whose recent book, "City: Urbanism and its End," focused on urban change in New Haven over the last century.

"There's a huge strategic importance in having middle class people living in the downtown in large numbers, because everything else works a whole lot better if they're there," he said.

Rae, the city's chief administrative officer during the early 1990s, said he is sympathetic to concerns about affordable housing, but said it's not realistic to expect it to remain downtown.

"It is not feasible in real life to make the city become more prosperous and not gentrify any of its neighborhoods," he said.

How many new residents the city can attract to the luxury apartments remains an open question, Schaffer said, but he expects the market to expand as units are created.

Schaffer said the increased interest in developing market-rate units was inspired largely by success at filling nearly 150 units at the Strouse, Adler Apartments, where developer David Nyberg converted a former corset factory into luxury apartments on the edge of Wooster Square.

Brooke Crum, 31, who moved to downtown New Haven from Manhattan a year and a half ago to take a job at The Hospital of St. Raphael, is part of that target market.

"I just wanted something quieter and something not so busy all the time, but it's nice because it's open late," she said.

Crum grew up in Fairfield County, but never went to New Haven. Her mother still thinks of the city as "a horribly dangerous nasty pit," she said. But Crum loves the restaurants and the ability to walk to work, and says she thinks the city can lure more young professionals and young families.

"I definitely feel safe. I would like to live here a long time."

From The Hartford Courant

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New Haven benefits from being on I-95 and from having a direct MetroNorth link to New York City. It's sort of developing into a hip urban area for young people who work in the Southern Connecticut office sprawl to live. It's a good urban alternative for people who can't afford (or don't want to afford) to live in New York.

This site has a lot of interesting projects/proposals for New Haven.

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