Yale University Battles Popular Local Restaurant Over Property Rights

Yale University normally concerns itself with issues such as global warming and genetic research. But lately it is in a protracted battle over a restaurant that just wants to continue serving chorizo encrusted cod and lobster cassoulette.

The Ivy League school — and its $22 billion endowment — is in the midst of a property fight with a chef and his wife that has forced their signature eatery to close. They say it also jeopardizes a second eatery in which they've invested their life savings.

"To put them out of business is a disgrace," said developer Joel Schiavone, who accuses Yale of being mean-spirited and forcing one of the best restaurants in Connecticut to close.

Yale purchased the vacant lot behind Arturo Franco-Camacho's new restaurant, Bespoke, in 1999 and says it owns an area that includes a walkway and storage shed. But Franco-Camacho and his wife, Suzette, claim access rights to the area.

Yale, which owns dozens of storefronts and is New Haven's largest retail landlord, at one point blocked Bespoke's back door by building a fence along what it says is its property line, inches from the restaurant's back door.

Without an agreement on the issue, Yale refused to renew the lease on Franco-Camacho's signature restaurant, Roomba, which was popular among Yale students and promoted in the book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."

Roomba closed in June, shortly after the book was published.

"There is a relationship between the two," said Yale spokesman Tom Conroy. "We felt we couldn't have a productive ongoing relationship with a tenant with whom we had such a fundamental disagreement that couldn't be resolved."

The future of Bespoke — which serves such dishes as Moroccan spiced shrimp and pomegranate rack of lamb, and was called "aggressively hip" by the Hartford Courant — also is uncertain.

"I think they've handled it in a very shortsighted, punitive way," Suzette Franco-Camacho said. "There were many ways to resolve this and they weren't open-minded to any of them. For a university of its stature, I think it's a shame."

The city tried unsuccessfully to mediate the dispute, said Mayor John DeStefano, who declined to take sides.

"It's like when you have two friends and you like them both and they get divorced," Destefano said. "It's an unfortunate dispute between two significant institutions in our city."

The Franco-Camachos said they've spent more than $2 million buying and renovating the building that houses Bespoke to try to overcome the lack of rear access. It is a risky investment in a city with a history of crime and poverty.

"We're mortgaged to the hilt and we're struggling to maintain those loans," Suzette Franco-Camacho said. "Certainly you don't have the bank account Yale has."

The university, which has no immediate plans to develop the property, offered the Franco-Camachos free access to the shed and walkway as long as they acknowledged Yale owned the land, but they refused to do that, Conroy said.

"We're simply defending our property rights," Conroy said. "It's hard for us to understand why they think they have a right to the property. It's clear we own the property."

The Franco-Camachos said Yale could revoke the offer for access at any time. They say tenants have used the walkway for decades, a practice which by law gives them rights to the area under adverse possession, or squatters rights.

The couple say the rear access is important for safety reasons in case of a fire, and that the area can be used for deliveries and garbage. Yale says the restaurant can operate without the exit.

The two sides reached a settlement that gave the restaurant access to the disputed area. But Yale wants to back out, saying the agreement did not acknowledge Yale's ownership of the property.

"It's going to be decided on the merits and not who the parties are," Conroy said.

Arturo Franco-Camacho said he can't understand Yale's stance.

"I've never encountered such resistance to something good," he says.