New Haven, CT: Project Storefronts

Clothing storefront with decorative representations of clothing
Photo courtesy of Project Storefronts New Haven

How can artists make empty storefronts become catalysts for economic revitalization?

When New Haven, Connecticut, assessed its commercial landscape, it noticed an issue - too many empty storefronts in the Ninth Square, one of its central districts. The city also noticed that while arts activities were thriving across the city they lacked permanent spaces. So, with Project Storefronts, the city connected the dots by helping to secure space for artists and arts-related businesses in the vacant storefronts.


New Haven—home of Yale University—is Connecticut’s second largest city and known as the “Creative Capital” of the state. With over 125,000 residents, 11,000 university students, and a greater metropolitan population of 850,000, the city supports several commercial districts, both downtown and dispersed across the city. An active arts community and several arts organizations thrive in the local creative community. Originally laid out as a nine square grid, the historic city center underwent redevelopment in the 1980s, introducing 311 apartments with ground floor retail.


While the residential components of this redevelopment proved to be quite successful, the retail elements languished, leaving a series of vacant storefronts throughout this central area. For a city the size of Hartford, the downtown area is dense and diverse, with more than 7,500 residents in the immediate area. The city estimates that creative industries employ more than 5,600 people, or 7.3% of the workforce, spread across 440 different firms.


The national recession exacerbated what was an already a sluggish local economy, leaving many storefronts around the city empty. These were particularly present in the downtown area, and the city worried this lack of commercial vitality would create a negative impression of the district and would have the potential ability to introduce other undesirable activities to the area. In their efforts to revitalize the area and attract potential tenants, the city knew they first needed to increase foot traffic and make the area more active.


New Haven wanted to bridge the gap, pairing artists in need of space with space in need of tenants. Hence, the city’s Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism (DACT) developed “Project Storefronts,” a program which filled empty retail spaces with galleries, studios and arts- related offices, creating low-budget ways for entrepreneurs to test business plans in real conditions. The city hoped it would create a more activated area and would help to spur economic growth. PProject Storefronts video


DACT spearheaded the Project Storefronts effort, as it had the ability to leverage expertise within its own department and from other city departments as well. In particular, DACT had assistance from the City's Office of Economic Development (OED) and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which provides small business counseling and fiscal oversight. Because of the project’s scope and focus, the plan depended on key community stakeholders and private property owners. As such, DACT built partnerships with local building owners and negotiated for free access to the vacant underutilized spaces for an initial 90 days.


The project, as Arts Consultant for DACT Margaret Bodell put it, was a “marriage of economic development and the creative.” In modeling its New Haven program, DACT took inspiration from projects such as Los Angeles’ Phantom Gallery and New York's Swing Space Program. The organization developed a methodical approach, refining the concept, weighing feasibility, and addressing legal issues. They undertook outreach to property owners and negotiated with them for existing and new retail spaces, and for reduced or in-kind services. Once they selected entrepreneurs from a pool of applicants, DACT provided administrative and logistical support to develop their retail spaces, helping them to procure insurance and navigate legal issues. To promote the program throughout the community and city, DACT organized several events, including a citywide open studios program, an arts festival, and an exhibition.


Over 20,000 people participated in the events put on by DACT, representing a broad cross-section of people from the community and city throughout the year. During the grant cycle, DACT helped create four new businesses: Karaoke Heroes, Neville’s Fashion Design, Our Empty Space, and Vito’s Artmart. They also created the Ninth Square Merchants Association, which will continue to help to organize activity beyond their immediate engagement with DACT during the grant cycle. Although exact evaluation measures are not in place yet, over the long term DACT will be measuring the number of entrepreneur applicants, the number of interested property owners, the amount media coverage, and the amount of retail sales and foot traffic. In the meantime, though, anecdotal evidence points to increased foot traffic in the area, viable new retail businesses taking shape, and increased engagement with area residents.


“One of the wonderful ‘side effects’ of our program was the sense of community we created in the spaces we inhabited,” said Bodell. This camaraderie can be seen in a new collaborative initiative called 'First Friday on 9,' which is an event which brings visitors down to the in the shops, eateries, residences, and cultural arts centers in the historic 9th Square neighborhood. Overall, the project, “not only provided artists and other relative entrepreneurs with critical business and retail experience, but our locations became a ‘hang out’ space in the best sense of the phrase.” In addition to the community spirit, the project’s success is spreading to other cities. Other Connecticut cities, including Bridgeport, Hartford and Torrington have all begun experimenting with similar programs. Building on the civic spirit of the program, New Haven, as Bodell said, “is trying to mentor [similar projects] and share our information.”


Artists fill vacant New Haven storefronts
Article from the Yale Daily News

  • Town Green Special Services District (Town Green)
  • The Arts Council of Greater New Haven (Arts Council)
  • Artspace, collaborated on many events in the Ninth Square during Artspace’s City Wide Open Studios
  • The merchants in the city's 9th Square neighborhood
  • Yale University Properties
  • The Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce
  • Market New Haven (city’s non-profit marketing arm)
  • REX (the regional economic development agency for South Central Connecticut)
  • 9 Arts to present L.A.M.P. (Light Artists Making Places) light festival, considered New England’s premier light event
  • Art installations/galleries
  • Special interest bookstores
  • Arts & crafts workshops/educational uses
  • Retail for creatively re-cycled, up-cycled wares
  • Retail for handmade creations
  • Live performances
  • New technology/green goods
  • Seasonal and holiday sales
  • Filmmaking and screenings
  • Urban gardening
  • Food and other culinary-related uses
  • Vintage clothing, housewares 
  • Numerous types of consignments