As COVD-19 vaccination rates continue to rise, many in the city are waiting to see how the city’s downtown will rebound from the pandemic.
“It’s less crowded, way less nightlife,” said Eileen Wyatt, a New Haven resident. “I don’t think it’ll be permanent.”
Prior to the arrival of pandemic, New Haven prided itself as the food and culture capital of Connecticut. That swagger took a hit as city office buildings and sidewalks emptied, leaving some in the business community wondering how bad things could get. Now officials and others are looking at housing permits and construction, more students returning, office occupancy and outdoor dining for signs of recovery.
Tom Maloney, whose upscale men’s and women’s clothing shop Raggs, sits on Chapel Street, just a short stroll from the upper New Haven Green, said the crowds have not yet returned.
“January and February were two of the worst month I’ve had in 36 years of business,” he said.
“March is starting to trend back up a little bit, but I don’t see a see a lot of people on the streets. It used to be pretty hard to find a parking space on the street, but now, you pretty much have your pick,” Maloney said. Resiliency
A total of 29 businesses in the city closed permanently in 2020, according to City Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli.
New Haven resident Joshua Levinson said it is hard to see the once vibrant city have business closures.
“Sadly, some places will not recover,” Levinson said via social media.
But as winter begins to give way to spring, Piscitelli is bullish on New Haven’s recovery. The building blocks for a return to a more robust economy over the next several years are already in place, he said.
For instance, even in the midst of the pandemic, the city led the state with permits for 750 units of new housing, which Piscitelli said led the entire state.
“We’re already starting to see the resiliency,” he said. “Overall, there are 900 new units under construction and an additional 2,200 are at some point in the pipeline. That kind of density will support the restaurants, the museums, the theaters and all of the other businesses going forward.”
In an effort to help small businesses downtown survive through this winter, city economic development officials launched an online marketplace to direct consumers to New Haven businesses. Piscitelli said more than 100 business are now getting customers from that platform.
But critical factor in determining both the short and long-term fortunes of the Connecticut economy is how many people return to work in the city’s office buildings and how soon, according to Ginny Kowalski, executive director of Visit New Haven.
“Do I think that a majority of folks will return to work downtown at some point...?”, Kozlowski said. “I think that’s doubtful. What we probably will see is a hybrid model at first; this is clearly going to be a multi-year ongoing situation.”
Piscatelli also said the future of downtown office buildings is still very much in flux, and, “you’re going to continue see people working remotely” for certain job functions.
“The space will be built for collaboration, not for employees to write reports.” he said.
Donald Klepper-Smith, chief economist and director of research for DataCore Partners, said three separate and distinct forces will play out over the remainder of the year in New Haven’s downtown.
“The first is what Yale does, both in terms of returning to in-person learning and whether its employees continue to work remotely,” Klepper-Smith said. “The second is those who work in the downtown office building. And the third is this pent up energy that people have people have to get out and do things.”
But Klepper-Simth said economic activity will take time, months or perhaps years to recover.
“The coronavirus has not been an equal opportunity destroyer,” he said. “It plays out differently over different business sectors, different communities.”
Klepper-Smith said the pandemic also is changing the whole equation of worker productivity.
“It was always thought that people had to be in a traditional downtown location to be productive,” he said. “But the traditional business model is going through some massive changes. Some of those long held tenets are dead and gone.” Change a Constant
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the city’s ultimate goal “is to create a more vibrant downtown” going forward.
As New Haven begins to emerge from the pandemic this spring, for example, there will be a lot more outdoor dining than there was last summer, Kozlowski said.
“Outdoor dining is here to stay,” she said. “It’ll launch earlier than last year and last much later in the fall.”
Levinson said he is intrigued about the possibility of there being more New Haven restaurants with outdoor dining.
“[Already] there are far more restaurants with outdoor seating,” he said. “I think [that] will expand, become more common as restaurants realize what a great opportunity it is.”
Elicker said his administration would work with the Board of Alders to expand the number of either full or partial street closings from the two that were in place last year and helped provide space for restaurant tables.
“This was something that was very popular with both business and the public,” he said.
There will be a webinar on March 19 for restaurateurs interested in getting more details on al fresco dining.
“We issued 367 permits last year and we hope to issue more this year,” Piscitelli said, of outdoor dining.
Piscitelli said one place where he expects a surge in outdoor dining is in the city’s Ninth Square neighborhood.
“It is really going to benefit from the complete renovation that was done to the block between Orange and George [streets]” he said. “It has been completely renovated to allow for more outdoor seating.”
If Piscitelli were right, that would be good news for Carol Orr, whose vintage clothing housewares and clothing business is located at 839 Chapel St.
“The city’s business climate is very quiet, right now,” Orr said. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that there is no one working downtown. I hope they come back.”
She estimated that prior to the start of the pandemic, walk-ins from people who work in downtown represented about 60 percent of her total business. Since the arrival of COVID-19, foot traffic is down 40 percent.
Orr credits her ability to stay in business to an inclusion of house products is her inventory. In a way, selling plants is a return to her roots, she said.
“My first degree is in horticulture,” she said. “I used to be able to sell a ton of vintage clothes, but I had to change my business model about 18 months ago and that helped me survive during the pandemic. I’m dying to have people working in the offices.”
New businesses have moved into the Ninth Square neighborhood, she said, which Orr hopes will make it more of a destination for shoppers and city residents.
In another venue, Kozlowski said as year goes on there is a good chance that live music and theater will return in some form.
“I think one of the things people do miss is performances and right now, the Westville Music Bowl is scheduled to start performances this year,” she said, referring to the former Connecticut Tennis Center, which has been converted into a live performance venue.
“I think we need to start small and see if [crowd size] can get a little bigger,” Kozlowski said. “But we all have to do what we can to stay safe, because nobody wants to take a step back like we did last fall.”
Elicker said the city is not currently “making any effort to promote or provide any incentives to businesses to bring their employees back into the city’s office buildings because we are still in the midst of the pandemic.”
“Down the road that may change,” he said. Traffic Patterns
Doug Hauladen, the city’s director of transportation, traffic and parking, said revenues from the 2,000 parking meters on New Haven’s streets and the eight parking garages that the New Haven Parking Authority operates were just beginning to recover from the 2008 recession when COVID-19 hit last spring.
Hausladen oversees the eight parking garages as well as 8,000 paid parking spaces.
The city is caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of parking. Hausladen said the city is spending $15 million annually maintain the garages, but really has no choice.
“We are always doing cost benefit analysis, but the fact is we can’t afford to build new parking garages,” Hausladen said. “The revenues simply do not cover the costs to build a new garage.”
Each parking garage costs $220 per month per space just maintain it, he said.
But a way COVID-19 will change the city’s downtown going forward is the installation of a $3 million in traffic signals that will change how pedestrians cross the street, according to Hausladen.
The so-called ‘touchless system” does not require a prompt from a pedestrian to change the crossing light from don't walk to walk.
It goes through a cycle in which pedestrians are given five to eight seconds to step into the cross walk, after which traffic is free to begin turning. But motorists have the responsibility to yield to the pedestrians once they are in the crosswalk, according to Hausladen.
“It’s faster for cars, it’s safer for pedestrians and it reduces cars idling,” he said.
New York State has already implemented the system, according to Hausladen. Implementing it in New Haven will require making changes at 275 traffic signals.
Hartford-based LAZ Parking is one of the nation’s largest parking garage operators and Mike Kipphut is the company’s general manager for New Haven.
During the pandemic it has moved toward what it calls touchless parking, Kipphut said. Individual drivers are able use texts to book space for the length of time they desire, he said.
“You can either set up an account or do a one-time charge,” he said.
“We employ over 200 people at 25 locations in New Haven and so we had to be creative in terms of deploying our people.”
In addition to managing its parking empire, LAZ also oversaw traffic and parking for COVID-19 testing done at the Jordan’s Furniture parking lot on Long Wharf in New Haven last year.
“It was a good opportunity for us to keep a majority of our people working or bring some of them back,” Kipphut said. Read the original article from CT Insider here >>