New Haven, CT (1983)

Located at the southern end of the Yale University campus, Chapel Street was spared the physical disfigurement that Sixties-era urban renewal brought to much of New Haven. However, in 1983 the area was considered unsafe, and people found little reason to go there. Burnt-out buildings were just a block away; and only five percent of the area’s residential and commercial spaces were occupied. The prevailing wisdom said that Chapel Street was a lost cause.

A corner of Chapel Street during construction of its new sidewalks.

But where others saw blight, local developer Joel Schiavone envisioned a revitalized commercial district that would bring economic vitality and civic pride back to the city. After acquiring many of the properties on Chapel Street in 1982, he asked PPS to help him achieve this vision.

We knew Chapel Street was a success when a vendor set up shop hawking newspapers on the bustling sidewalk.

The first challenge was to recapture sidewalk space for pedestrians and retailers, which had been lost when traffic engineers widened the roadbed to allow more cars to pass through. Working with the same traffic engineers, we developed a scheme to expand the sidewalks about one car lane in width around each intersection. This would allow the street corners to provide space for outdoor seating, retail displays, and greater public use. What’s more, road space that had been reserved for through traffic could be used for short-term parking.

The new sidewalks and amenities made Chapel Street a place where people could feel comfortable having a conversation

The second challenge was to create a street environment that functioned well for shopping. The retailers did not want trees, signs, or anything else to block the view of their shop windows from the street. They had been upset at an earlier design full of fancy cosmetic “amenities.” PPS worked with retailers to locate the trees so they wouldn’t obscure store windows, and we suggested just a few simple improvements: double-sided benches, waste receptacles in key locations (where we knew they would be used), and historical-styled pedestrian-scale lighting. Three outdoor cafes soon opened. And we knew Chapel Street was a success when a vendor set up shop hawking newspapers on the bustling sidewalk.
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It’s worth noting that turning places around is often a matter of changing perceptions. In addition to our improvements to Chapel Street itself, another PPS project in the neighborhood had a major effect on what people thought of Chapel Street. We worked on the improvement of a parking lot that stood next to several burnt out buildings behind the newly renovated stores, restoring the historic gatepost at the entrance and adding a welcoming, lighted sign. A small historic structure on the site was also restored, creating a place for an attendant to greet people, and an old ailanthus tree was dignified by adding a stone wall and planting bed around it. People who drove to the area now felt safe parking their cars and spread word to their friends about the changes in the neighborhood.

PPS’s work on Chapel Street, designed to look modest and unassuming, led the way in reviving the greater downtown area. With two theaters now completely rehabilitated, and a retail mix that includes everything from jewelers to coffee shops to a bicycle store, the once-unsafe downtown is now busy day and night with thriving nightclubs, restaurants, and multi-family residential buildings. And because the goal was revitalizing the district, not gussying it up to look cute or nostalgic, it doesn’t look like the developer did anything at all!