Downtown New Haven Has Changed in 20 Years: DeStefano

Wednesday, Dec 4, 2013  |  Updated 7:12 PM EDT
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In his 20 years in office, Mayor John DeStefano has changed the face of downtown New Haven.

Amanda Raus, Chris Podosek

In his 20 years in office, Mayor John DeStefano has changed the face of downtown New Haven.

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When Mayor John DeStefano took office in 1994, downtown New Haven was a different place.

“So, if you want to understand how the New Haven economy has changed over the last 20 years and how we do development buildings and how city planning has changed since the 1960’s and urban renewal, it’s that building behind us: 300 George Street,” said DeStefano.

It was the former SNET headquarters in the 60’s, sat vacant in the 90’s and now is home to pharmaceutical and bioscience companies.

“The economy shifted to these other kinds of companies. The way we do deals changed. We got away from this massive slum clearance to demolish everything, and are retrying to connect the City back from the damage that was caused in the 60’s by urban renewal,” said DeStefano.

Instead of tearing down buildings, Mayor DeStefano sought to reuse them. Case in point is the old UI headquarters on Temple Street. There’s now a movie theater on the bottom floor and residences on the top floors.

“We took a bunch of older buildings and encouraged their adaptive reuse from old Class B office buildings to residences. So the old SNET building at 227 Church Street is now the Eli. The UI building becomes apartments,” said DeStefano.

As people started moving back into the city in the early 90’s, it created a demand for more service businesses like shops and restaurants.

“So you had a downtown where no one used to live. Now you have 12,000 people living downtown,” said DeStefano.

It kept it bustling with people and changing. Where the Chapel Street Mall once stood as a closed up space, now sits Gateway Community College complete with floor to ceiling windows. Where the Coliseum once stood is now an open space with plans for apartments, retail and a hotel.

“I probably got, next to immigration issues, more negative citizen reaction about demolishing the Coliseum, but it didn’t work anymore,” said DeStefano.

When things didn’t work, Mayor DeStefano sought solutions. Part of that is evident in the relationship he built with Yale University over the years, striving for a partnership that kept the university and the City healthy.

“He’s great in terms of understanding at a higher order of conceptual thinking where the City should go, where it should go over a series of years to produce a tax base, to grow the prosperity of this City and to provide jobs for the neighborhood,” said Bruce Alexander, Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development at Yale.

He remembers when DeStefano came to Yale about purchasing foreclosed properties on upper Chapel Street.

“Today, it’s a great little series of shops, and that was the beginning of our partnership,” said Alexander.

That partnership continued with the development of Broadway shopping district and other real estate projects to build up the downtown area.

“I think they were very strategic in building economic development, making sure the Shubert Theater would bring in people, creating Market New Haven to bring in people,” said Claire Criscuolo, who owns Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street.

She says that needs to continue to sustain the progress in downtown.

“I think we need jobs. I can’t speak for other businesses, but I know our business is greatly helped with tourism and with people coming to the city for other events,” said Criscuolo.

“I think about how we promote entrepreneurship, how we support it, how we keep some people here who are thinking about that, is really, really important,” added DeStefano.

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