Maurice Johnson and Kim Latimer had a new bench to sit on Friday to watch the latest “New Haven’s on a roll” ribbon-cutting.
The bench was part of the point.
The ribbon-cutting marked completion of renovations at eight buildings that anchor the historic Ninth Square downtown district bounded by State, George, Church, and Chapel Streets.
The buildings contain 335 apartments as well as ground-floor stores and restaurants. Boston-based Beacon Communities purchased the buildings in 2019 and rescued them from financial instability. (Read about the deal here and here.)
Backed by a 20-year-city tax abatement and assistance from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), Beacon agreed to keep rents on 190 of the 335 apartments “affordable” (some deemed “deeply affordable”). It proceeded to fix the places up with new windows, roof repairs, masonry — and benches like the one Johnson and Latimer (pictured above) sat on in the complex’s inner-block courtyard off Orange and Center streets.
“It was OK” beforehand, said Latimer, a former Yale New Haven nurse who has lived there for 16 years. “Now it’s getting better. They are fixing stuff up.”
The Beacon rebuild preserves a project launched in the late 1990s to respond to all the perceived failures of urban renewal: It renovated historic buildings instead of razing them. It put apartments on top of stores and offices (aka “mixed use”). It ensured that people of all backgrounds could afford to live there. It filled in vacant spaces with new buildings designed to fit into the landscape. With walkable sidewalks, plus now a blocked-off section of Orange with outdoor tables connected to restaurants.
The district’s mix of stores and eateries and cultural outlets (like Cafe Nine and Artspace) survived the pandemic. In fact, five new businesses opened. Close to 90 percent of the district’s businesses obtained federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to keep afloat.
Addressing funders and officials and commercial and residential tenants in the courtyard Friday, Beacon Communities CEO Dara Kovel celebrated the persistence of an “old and new neighborhood. This is a Jane Jacobs special.”
Mayor Justin Elicker (pictured with Kovel before the event) noted that this was the second upbeat public event this week connected to downtown development — and how these celebrations have coincided with struggle for many New Haveners facing the “trauma” of increased shootings.
“In some ways it’s hard to connect these two” sets of events, Elicker said. “But these two issues are deeply connected.”
He spoke of how a new biosciences tower at 101 College St. — part of the first public event earlier in the week — will include classroom lab space for public-school students to help get them started on tech careers. The companies involved will also collaborate on career pathway programs with Southern Connecticut State University and Gateway Community College. New commercial buildings like this one will also pay taxes that will help the city address social challenges.
Elicker also spoke of how the Beacon Nine Square properties include a hefty chunk of affordable apartments.
“As we grow — as people opt to live in New Haven,” Elicker said, the city is working to “ensure that everyone benefits.”
“We can’t have two different New Havens, a New Haven downtown and New Haven neighborhoods,” agreed state housing chief Seila Mosquera-Bruno. “We have to connect them.”
Jason Watts (pictured at Friday’s event) is one tenant finding opportunity. He’s preparing to open a new restaurant and nightclub called Jazzy’s Soul Kitchen in the old Thali restaurant at the corner of Orange and George Streets.
Set to open later this summer, the restaurant will feature “authentic” African-American, African
“I’m 39 years old,” Watts told the crowd. “I’m from New Haven, Connecticut. I was born at Yale New Haven Hospital. This is a dream come true.”
Watts currently lives in West Haven. He said he’s considering moving back to New Haven, to the Ninth Square, and walking to work.
I lived in the Ninth Square from late 2019 up to just last week, and it’s been great watching the neighborhood blossom, even through the pandemic. The new murals, the Orange St Promenade, and the work Beacon has put into its courtyard & facades are really coming together into something vibrant, especially with the concerts and salsa nights happening throughout summer. There are also a bunch of awesome businesses clustered there, most of them locally / family owned (I’m thinking Elm City Games, Skappo, etc).
Beacon agreed to keep rents on 190 of the 335 apartments “affordable” (some deemed “deeply affordable”)
Affordable For Who?
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