by J. Brian Charles | October 2018
The sun hadn’t yet risen in New Haven one day this summer when a line started forming outside the new L.L. Bean store on Elm Street. People were queuing up to get first crack at the gift certificates advertised as part of a grand opening weekend, a three-day gala with music, food, a block party and a free yoga class.
Yale University is the landlord for the new store, which is the latest addition to the Shops at Yale at Broadway, a 9,000-square-foot retail triangle just a block north of the main campus. The exact university boundary is hard to identify because Yale’s presence is stitched throughout New Haven. It comprises not only academic and research buildings and dormitories, but also the hundreds of homes Yale has bought for faculty and staff, and equally important, commercial land holdings valued at more than $100 million. The university has reshaped a city where the Ivy League campus once felt like a world of its own, separate from the factory town where thousands of workers assembled bolt-action rifles.
When the new L.L. Bean opened in August, it wallpapered a nearby column with pictures of its signature duck boot. The boot’s color matched Yale’s blue. It was not a coincidence. Yale is New Haven’s biggest player in commercial retail development. The Shops at Yale, the Chapel Street Historic District and the Whitney-Audubon Arts and Retail District are almost entirely under university control. In many of the commercial corridors, quirky local businesses have been displaced by high-end national retail chains. Where Cutler’s Records used to sell used and new vinyl albums, the British clothing brand Barbour now offers a line of trendy cotton jackets. Patagonia, Lou Lou and J. Crew are all part of the Shops at Yale, and coffee shops and bistros, all Yale tenants, line up along adjacent Chapel Street. Lauren Zucker, the university’s associate vice president for New Haven affairs and university properties, admits she often has to think like a mall operator. Yale isn’t in the retail business to lose money. Still, she insists, the university places aesthetics ahead of pure profit in selecting commercial tenants. “If you wanted to make a quick buck in retail,” she says, “you’d lease it to a fast food restaurant or a bank.”