It was a typical Saturday night in New Haven: a long line of people snaked back alongside Toad’s Place on York Street. Cabfulls more got out at the curb every few minutes. Hordes of college students spilled onto the adjacent walkway that divides the venue from Mory’s, the private club next door, and leads back to two of Yale’s residential colleges.
Over the course of its nearly forty years in operation, Toad’s has hosted its fair share of legendary acts. In 1989, the Rolling Stones opened their longest tour ever with a surprise performance there. Its frequent concerts and dance parties have established the venue as a mainstay of New Haven nightlife. Yet many regulars I talked to that night, and since, haven’t heard about the ongoing legal battle that threatens to close it down.
Several doors of the Toad’s building open onto Yale property, including the walkway that borders Mory’s. For thirty years, the two entities had a standing legal agreement that gave Toad’s access to those exits. But in 2008, the university laid out new terms: exits could only be used in emergencies, and Yale could terminate the agreement at will. Toad’s rejected that offer, largely on the grounds that the agreement’s short duration rendered it useless. “In ten years, it’s over,” explained Jim Segaloff, who has not been representing the club in this particular suit but is Toad’s longtime lawyer. “Yale revokes it or terminates it, and then where are we?” But Yale press secretary Tom Conroy dismisses this argument, comparing it to a lessee who wants an infinite lease on a property. He explains, “Think of all the businesses that have leases. Their lease is going to run out, they’re going to have to negotiate with their landlord, and their landlord might decide, ‘I have another use in mind for that property.’”
The club has continued to use the disputed property on the basis of easement by implication, a legal term that indicates that a right can be established over time, even without an explicit agreement. Yale responded by filing an injunction against Toad’s in 2010. The case has been in limbo since Bill Gallagher, the attorney representing the club in the dispute, died in December. Segaloff said that the case would remain on hold for the time being while Gallagher’s colleagues grapple with their loss.
In recent decades, Yale has brought in high-profile businesses like J.Crew, Urban Outfitters, and Apple, through its commercial properties management division, University Properties. Despite its popularity among students, the club’s grittier aura seems out of place among the sleek upscale chains that line the neighboring avenue, Broadway. Toad’s campus marketing representative, Yale senior Arvind Mohan, contends that, “The lawsuit just seems like it’s more about politics than the actual door.” Yet Conroy insists that, in the Toad’s case, Yale’s effort to rebrand New Haven is “irrelevant, completely irrelevant.”
In 2008, Yale engaged in a similar battle with local restaurant Bespoke. The restaurant’s back door opened onto a lot owned by Yale, and its owners fought to establish permanent free access rights to that space. While the issue was being resolved in court, Yale built a fence along the property line about one foot from Bespoke’s back wall, making it impossible to open the back door more than a sliver. The restaurant’s owners won their case, but they ultimately sold the restaurant and left New Haven, telling the Yale Daily News that the emotional and financial toll of the ordeal had been too much to bear.
Meanwhile, Mory’s, which regularly hosts trivia nights and undergraduate a capella groups, also has several exits that open onto the contested walkway, yet it has negotiated with Yale without incident. Since 2010, there has been an agreement in place that permits their use of these exits. While it includes a yearly renewal process and a similar capacity to terminate at will, these provisions have proven much less problematic than for the dance club next door.
One night at Toad’s, I asked a group of students what they thought of the ongoing property dispute between the club and Yale. “The ongoing what?” they shouted back at me. For now, revelers continue to dance into the early morning hours, blissfully unaware that the court must eventually come down on one side of the street or the other.