How Yale's Outgoing President Made Peace — and Prosperity — With New Haven

Richard Levin's remarkable legacy on the home front.

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Walking Geek/Flickr

New Haven, Connecticut, and its most famous institution of higher learning, Yale, have a long history of not getting along. From all manner of violent and colorful altercations (as the Harvard Crimson gleefully recorded in 1952) to sharp political differences, the city and the university have often treated each other with suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The tradition of loggerheads goes back at least to the Civil War era, but New Haven’s post-war decline made the town-gown contrast painfully obvious. As the industries that had made the city an inter-war boomtown failed or moved away, only one of the city's mid-century power players remained at the table: Yale. The enormously wealthy (and untaxed) university stood – seemingly indifferent – in the middle of one of the country’s poorer urban neighborhoods.

By the late 1980s, the university president was living in New York City and New Haven was widely considered Yale’s Achilles heel, a weakness that would hamper the school's ability to compete for students and faculty with Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia.

The Dwight neighborhood is one of the areas near the Yale campus that's seen an influx of investment thanks to the Homebuyer Program. Photo by Sage Ross/WIkimedia Commons.

People raise an eyebrow when I say it, but things have changed since then. The "New Haven Renaissance" is very real. According to the U.S. Census, no large city (pop. over 100,000) in New England grew as fast as New Haven between 2000 and 2010. A city once synonymous with blight now has the lowest residential vacancy rate in the country, despite the 2010 construction of the city’s largest-ever apartment building. In just six years, from 1996 to 2002, city retail sales nearly quadrupled from $577 million to over $2 billion. Though any one of these statistics would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, the biggest surprise of all is that the man who deserves the most credit for this is Richard C. Levin, the president of Yale who announced at the end of August that he'll retire at the end of this school year.

My four years as an undergraduate at Yale offered only a glimpse of the president's program for New Haven. Levin has been in charge of the university since before the current freshmen were born -- longer than any other Ivy League president, longer than any Yale president since the 19th century -- and his tenure has been uniquely ambitious. He will be remembered for growing the school’s endowment from $3 to $19 billion, renovating its aging infrastructure, and expanding the Yale brand worldwide, opening a controversial second campus in Singapore.

He should also be remembered for transforming New Haven. Levin was appointed in 1993, two years after a Yale student named Christian Prince was murdered in a stick-up attempt on Hillhouse Avenue, on a block of classroom buildings halfway between the President’s House and one of Yale’s residential colleges. His death and an ensuing politically charged trial marked a low point in town-gown relations.

From the start, Levin recognized that Yale and New Haven shared a common destiny. He famously pledged that the first thing he would do as president was shake the mayor’s hand. (That this gesture seemed worth mentioning testifies to the deep gulf that existed between the university and the city.)

Levin’s New Haven legacy has three central achievements. The first was the creation, in 1994, of the Homebuyer Program, which today offers up to a $35,000 subsidy to any university employee who buys a home in New Haven. Since 1994, Yale has contributed more than $25 million to help over 1,000 employees buy over $175 million worth of homes in New Haven. Eighty percent of these are first-time homeowners. This map makes clear the scope of the program.  

The second was the establishment, in 1996, of the Office for New Haven and State Affairs, an umbrella office whose responsibilities included the Homebuyer Program and the management of Yale’s expanding portfolio of commercial and residential property. Bruce Alexander, who had worked as a developer at the Rouse Company on Baltimore’s Harborfront project, was recruited in 1998 to be Yale’s first Vice-President for New Haven and State Affairs.

Commercial real estate was not Yale’s strong point – most previous presidents had thought it was not the purview of an institution of higher learning. But Alexander turned an expanding roster of commercial properties in the university’s control into a tightly managed retail operation, a process I documented last year in the Yale Herald. He coordinated the development of three retail strips surrounding campus, and succeeded in bringing in Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, and American Apparel to the Broadway area. In just a few years, Yale transformed that street from a hodge-podge of small businesses to a shopping destination for suburban commuters, complete with an Apple Store. Controversial decisions – like replacing the beloved Yale Co-op with a Barnes & Noble – soon faded from memory as the student body turned over.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Matt Furst

Not everyone praised this project. University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer called it "gentrification by central planning." Those who could remember the old Broadway yearned for its quirks and local character. But city officials saw the transformation as an economic miracle. And because Yale owns all that property, the university is now one of the city’s largest commercial taxpayers.

The final section of Levin's long olive branch was the 2011 New Haven Promise program, another subject I covered as a student, and one which Mayor John DeStefano’s office called "the most significant announcement ever made in New Haven." In a "Promise" program, an angel investor or coalition of donors agree to meet the costs of college for any students in the jurisdiction who meet academic specifications. Place-based scholarships like this began in Kalamazoo in 2005, and the model has since spread rapidly. The idea is to help kids attend college and give them incentives to study hard, but also to persuade young families to move to the city and thereby boost residential property values (boosting the tax base, and improving the schools).

Yale announced it would be the chief sponsor of New Haven Promise scholarships, pledging over $4 million in 2010. This year, the program’s second, 123 students qualified for scholarships, which cover full tuition at in-state public universities. The results, both in property values and education, won’t be apparent for some time.

With Levin's exit date now set, it will be interesting to watch what happens next. His time in charge has coincided with the record-setting mayoral tenure of John DeStefano, and the two have been almost in lockstep, at least publicly, on development issues. But it’s possible that after a while, Yale’s vision for New Haven (at least part of which now looks like a Scarsdale mall) will diverge from New Haveners' vision for New Haven.

If that happens, who will have the right of way?

Inset photo of Richard Levin: Norbert Schiller/World Economic Forum via Wikimedia Commons.

Top image by Flickr user WalkingGeek.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.