James's Commentary

Posted January 28, 2006 (user submitted)

Chapel Square Mall was a pioneering urban center that was the heart of downtown New Haven, Connecticut for almost 30 years. In 1957, Mayor Richard C. Lee made a bold decision to clear the three central commercial blocks of downtown, from the central town green to the new Oak Street Connector/ Route 34 highway and between Church Street and Temple Streets for a new in-town retail and commercial complex. It became one of the most controversial urban renewal projects in America and has been touted as a poster child for how bad planning and shifting demographics will doom almost any well-intentioned city renewal effort. That's a simple answer, and for those of us who lived with it..its history and demise is more complex and not so cut-and-dry.

First some history. Chapel Square was smaller two level mall located on one block fronting the New Haven town green, which is still the physical and psychological heart of the city. On two sides of the green are city/ government and private use buildings, and the other two sides are mostly Yale University's campus. It is the signature town/ gown standoff if there ever was one!

Chapel Square was the retail side on the Green's southwest corner. From the mall you could walk through the second level over glass skywalks to the two anchors...first through a large Macy's store then through to a local department store, the Edw. Malley Co. The mall was a true mixed-use project long before these developments were commonplace. It had a 14 story office tower placed on the Chapel Street/ New Haven Green side and the 19 story, Sheraton Park Plaza hotel on the Temple Street side. If you looked at a roof plan, the two towers were offset to allow views to the Green, Yale and the harbor area. As I mentioned earlier, you had to walk through Macys to get to the Malley store, and there became the first of what were many poor planning decisions and circumstances that didn't bode well for the future of this mall.

The mall itself was a simple plan, with a wide, two level interior space that had a higher volume, exposed beam roof and a large clerestory valuted volume over the escaltors at the office tower side. It connected to the side streets at street level from the escalator court and through interior pasageways to the office tower and hotel. Except in the clerestory, there weren't any skylights, so the mall always had a somewhat dimly lit environment, at least until a major renovation in 1984 breathed some new life into it. If nothing else, it allowed the retail stores the ability to almost glow inside the space. Architecturally, it was plain vanilla box mall..with terrazzo flooring and simple glass railing...nothing to write home about. At the far opposite end, there were stairs up to enter the skywalk to Macy's, since it's second level started up at a higher elevation. Before handicap accessible ramps were added to the stairs, there was a freestanding kiosk next to them with an Orange Julius and a hot dog stand. The mall corridor itself wasnt very long, but it contained relatively decent, if mostly middle-class shops. Its biggest drawback was that it wasn't very large, only about 165,000 sf, so its merchandise range wasn't as comprehensive as a traditional regional mall. The assumption probably was that Chapel Square was to supplement the other downtown retail, not replace it, as a lot of the newer generation downtown malls tried to do.

Although proposed originally in 1957, after several re-confiurations, lawsuits from some of the original land and building owners, and some trouble lining up anchor stores, the project finally started in 1960, with the move of the Edw. Malley Co. from its prized position on the Chapel Street side of the green, in historic four and seven story buildings to a new three level, suburban-style box building on the Expressway side three blocks back. On the rear side, along Temple Street, a two block parking garage was built and connected into Malley's from the 2nd and fourth floors. (sidenote: The Temple Street Garage, as it is called, is one of the funkiest parking garages ever concieved. It's architect, Paul Rudolph constructed it in his signature style of cruciformed, hammered concrete, and appears to look like a stack of beige pancakes that float over the curb line....kind of like something from a Flintstone's episode...a prehistoric parking garage. Everything there was made in concrete form including even the top level light poles that are a really cool, if strange detail. Architecture students world over tend to know this building, at least in photographs) On the next block over, the city was fortunate to secure the first urban Macy's branch location out of NYC. It also was three floors and was connected to Malley's over George Street with another glass skywalk. Malley's opened in 1962 and Macy's in 1964, and then the Chapel Square Mall was opened in 1967.

Although now panned as a really good example of urban renewal gone bad, it held its own for about thirty years, even with some pains along the way. First, in 1973, a young woman was murdered in Temple Street Garage while visiting the complex...a man was finally convicted of the murder in 2001, but it was a huge blow to the image of the complex and scared away customers for years after. Then, in 1978, the Malley family sold their store to The Outlet Co. chain in Providence, R.I. After fumbling with their newly-acquired retail operations badly, they in turn, sold it to another operator who promoptly ran it into bankruptcy and liqidation, and thus ended the life of New Haven's last local dept. store in 1981. Being located at the far end of the block made finding a viable new tenant very difficult, and after a court ordered probate sale, the winning bid from a flea market operator from Brooklyn, began a multi-year odyssey of trying to get a 'classy' flea market open in the shell of the Malley building. This strange and odd venture pretty much doomed the Malley building from ever becoming anything but an eyesore for the remainder of its sad life. The city filed lawsuit after lawsuit and the flea market operator basically stopped paying taxes and upkeep. Needless to say, today's mall operators jealoulsy guard their dead dept store sites at viable centers to avoid just such vultures from dragging down their properties.

The odd thing is that around the time that Malley's went out of business, the Rouse Company, who had built the successfull Faniuel Hall and Baltimore Harborplace waterside malls took an interest in revitalizing Chapel Square and was even attempting to find of way of expanding it across two other blocks for more retail and another anchor store. They were convinced of its potential since the mall stores themselves did pretty well, with few vacanices. On top of that, the Macy's store was consistantly in the top five in sales of the entire New York division during the 70's and early 80's. I can remember going with my Mom and Dad to Macy's "one-day sales" during that time and having a tough time finding a parking space in the garage....even at 9 at night!!! Although Rouse did buy the mall and eventually renovated it, it took a big subsidy from the city and some creative financing to get it done. Once completed, Rouse reconfigured the second floor overooking the green into a cool food court and seating area, that really seemed to add some pizzaz to the mall. They also added linear skylights down the mall length, some new lights, interior trim and banners and restored the meager fountain below and around the bottom of the escalator. They filled the mall with some better merchants too, including a branch of the furniture store Conran's, from the UK. For those not familiar with them, they were like an early version of Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. They were located in a prominent corner of the mall at Chapel and Temple Streets with a corner exterior entrance that acted as a passage through to the mall from the green and Yale's campus nearby. Conran's was a very upscale and urbanish operator, and it gave the mall a somewhat more polished image. About the same time, the rest of downtown was going through a renaissance with stores like Gap and Laura Ashley opening nearby, along with some great restaurants and clubs.... it seemed for a few years that New Haven was on its way back...then the recessions of the 90's hit, a nearby local mall expanded and Macy's went into bankruptcy and all that work came unravelled in about four years time.

First the entire Northeast and the real estate industry came apart with billion dollar bankrupcies of high-profile firms everywhere....Rouse barely escaped this fate, but it shelved the expansion plans as far as New Haven was concerened. Then the nerby Connecticut Post Mall in Milford was expanded to include a new G.Fox store from Hartford, a new JC Penney and about 40 smaller shops. This really hit Macy's downtown very hard since it was the dominant store for so long in the area. In reality, Macy's corporate went through its own leveraged buyout and really let the New Haven store run even opened an off-price shop in the basement level where the toy and seasonal departments were. I couldn't write this honesty if also I didn't note that, with New Haven being a mostly minority community, the perception was that Chapel Square was becoming a 'ghetto mall' with a lot of loitering by the local kids from the nearby inner city neighborhoods. In all reality, I lived in downtown, working for a local architect for about two years, and I never heard about or saw much trouble...and whatever did happen got grossly overplayed by the local media.

While all this was going on, the local and national economy went into a tailspin and Connecticut in particular was hit hard, with defense cutbacks and bank failures. Next, the Conran's chain went under in 1992, and left the key corner at Temple and Chapel streets vacant. Then, the bombshell hit with Macy's going into bankruptcy and eventually closing its store in 1993. By then, you could pretty much write the obituary.

After a failed attempt to bring in the Taubman Company to start fresh with a huge new urban mall, the city focussed on building another mall over on a waterfront site where some land parcels could better accommodate a more state-of-the-art mall. That proposal, called Long Wharf Galleria, was to have a new Macys, Nordstrom, Filenes and Lord & was effectively killed by Connecticut Post's new owner, the Westfield company from Australia. They were pretty ruthless with a fake front group called "Save Our Downtown Alliance" acting like a they were defending the poor little local merchants that remained in New Haven and other nearby villages. The hipocracy of this move was almost breathtakingly comical. They in turn threatened some of the anchor stores and some national chains with 'site retribution' if they located at Long Wharf. They ended up purchasing the land from the mall developer, New England Development Co of Boston and held it until they sold it to IKEA for a new store that opened in 2004.

Back to Chapel Square. The Malley's building, vacant since 1981, and never allowed to open as a flea market, was finally so rotted out that it was torn down in 1997. The mall was converted on the upper levels to a novel, if boring looking, apartment complex with the mall roof ripped off to create an interior courtyard in 2003-2004, along with a good portion of the office tower floors converted to residential as well, with high ceilings and incredible views all around. From what I understand, they are leasing well and getting premium live in an old dead mall. The street level had some of the shop spaces reversed outward to the street facades. Frankly, this attempt has been somewhat of a dissapointment. The original developer of this concept, Williams Jackson Ewing ...who renovated Washington DC Union Station and Grand Central Terminal in NYC were supposed to develop the retail portion, but after not gaining control of the Macy's building site next door, decided to pull out midway through the project and the Nyberg Group, who converted the residential has taken over that portion of the project. Needless to say, retail development is not their strong suit. As of January 2006, the Macy's building is being torn down, and that site and the vacant Malley's site is to become the new urban campus for South Central Community College sometime in the next three years.

For those of us born and raised in Central Connecticut, we saw Chapel Square in its orignal life, its rebirth and demise almost as fast as we grew up. I actually will miss the Macys building, which wasnt particularly was a brick box..but what memories we have of shopping there with our family and friends..and going over to the mall for a bite to eat or to hit a few of the smaller stores...or when I lived downtown and was working in one of my first jobs and would go to the mall frequently for shopping and a to pick up something to eat at lunch. Although the mall box is still there, the interior will never again be a mall for the public, so for all of us, it will remain just a memory.

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