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Trendy by design, Yale builds the downtown of its dreams

NEW HAVEN, Conn. --Once decrepit and even dangerous, the shops outside Yale's historic Old Campus now bustle with energy, offering the latest in summer fashion, music and gourmet food -- everything a student or young professional might want downtown.

In fact, Yale has designed the district to be precisely that.

Armed with focus groups, student surveys and a growing list of retail properties, Yale is building the downtown of its dreams: A gourmet market here. J. Crew there. Barnes & Noble up the street and a Manhattan-style boutique around the corner.

After years of buying and remodeling, Yale now owns dozens of storefronts and is New Haven's largest retail landlord. Tenants are hand-picked and the details are closely managed, from requiring that shops stay open until at least 9 p.m. to insisting fresh flowers be displayed on the sidewalk.

The strategy is rare in academia, where real estate is typically used to expand campuses or build endowments.

"We wanted to run our real estate without regard to financial returns. It's strictly social returns," said university Vice President Bruce Alexander, a developer who helped rebuild Baltimore's harbor and Boston's Faneuil Hall before being lured out of retirement by Yale.

University scouts recruit across the Northeast for the names students demand. When selecting its newest clothing retailer, Yale had a list of brand-name musts: Lacoste, Juicy Couture, Citizens of Humanity, Joe's Jeans.

Prospective tenants who don't make the grade, such as a restaurant with so-so Italian food, are turned away.

Nancy Buchanan, president of the Association of University Real Estate Officials, said members have studied Yale's strategy, but it remains uncommon.

Most schools don't have Yale's $15 billion endowment and can't invest millions without immediate financial return. Retail is still mostly used to supplement housing or add campus flavor, she said, not to remake downtowns.

"Their economic interest is larger than any one property because they own all the properties," said Mayor John DeStefano, who encouraged Yale's downtown investment. "If you owned it, you'd care about one thing -- leasing the space -- and less about having a concept."

The concept began in the early 1990s, when New Haven renovated sidewalks in front of Yale property on a once-busy retail strip north of campus. Lighting, parking and remodeling followed and the university began buying more lots along the block.

In 1996, Yale formed University Properties to remake the commercial district, an ambitious undertaking for land near one of the city's largest housing projects. When Fred Kent, an urban planner with the Project for Public Spaces, visited the project, he was mugged.

One of Yale's first moves was replacing its bookstore with a Barnes & Noble. The university also began the contentious process of moving some longtime tenants to make way for student-friendly retailers.

"There's something unique about the design," said Police Chief Francisco Ortiz. "It's like crime prevention through environmental design, the lighting, the landscaping."

Around the same time, a strip of locally owned shops south of campus went into foreclosure. DeStefano, fearing that retail district would be lost just as Yale's was improving, asked the university to buy it all, a $5 million investment.

A generation ago, that would have been controversial in a city where laborers have clashed with Yale's intelligentsia. But New Haven is increasingly tied to the medical and biotech jobs Yale was spinning off, not to the dwindling manufacturing industry.

"We have an interest in seeing them grow, creating jobs and wealth," DeStefano said. "They have an interest in growing. That's cool."

Flush with property and slowly buying more, Yale's tenant search began. In Manhattan one afternoon, Alexander eyed a busy corner grocer. He immediately sent a student assistant to New York to visit every such market she could find.

"She told me she worked for Yale University," recalls Chung Cho, a longtime New York grocer. "She said a lot of things about Yale. 'We can help you out.'"

Cho had heard stories about New Haven's drugs and poverty and when he arrived, the revitalization was barely evident.

"'There's going to be changes, the whole thing,'" Cho remembers hearing. "'Don't worry. Do your business. We'll help you out.'"

Cho's business, Gourmet Heaven, opened in early 2001. Urban Outfitters and J. Crew soon followed. A trendy shoe store arrived from Boston. A seafood restaurant opened up the street. Between 1996 and 2002, city retail sales jumped from $577 million to more than $2 billion, according to state data.

Yale isn't finished. A sports-themed restaurant is coming soon and recruiters are screening tenants for a few vacant storefronts. Maybe a cosmetics or sporting-goods shop, they say. If students want it, Yale's in the market for it.

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