New Haven mayor butts heads with new urbanists

  • Parking today, housing tomorrow

    Parking today, housing tomorrow

    New Haven traffic chief Jim Travers stands on Orange Street, pointing to a parking lot that Montreal-based Live Work Learn Play is hoping to redevelop with rental apartments, possibly accompanied by retail and other uses. The development will be more attractive if Rt. 34 is almost entirely at grade-level rather than elevated.

    Photo: Melissa Bailey/New Haven Independent

Philip Langdon
Better! Cities & Towns

UPDATED: Criticism of a flawed expressway replacement plan fails to sway Mayor John DeStefano. But there may be help from Montreal.

You can lead a horse to water, the saying goes, but you can’t make it drink.

That was essentially the situation with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. last week. He took time to attend part of the 20th-anniversary Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, Florida, but he remained averse to design ideas that new urbanists have been urging him to adopt for more than a year.

The main focus of a CNU session last Friday was the mayor’s plan for replacing the Rt. 34 expressway—a depressed highway that carries vehicles between Interstate 95 and the Connecticut city's growing hospital-medical complex, on the edge of downtown.

CNU President John Norquist invited the long-serving mayor to discuss the project, called "Downtown Crossing," with a gathering of new urbanists from around the country, and DeStefano did that. He trumpeted the fact that with the help of a $16 million federal TIGER II grant, New Haven intends to replace the less than one-mile-long expressway with a pair of surface streets and he expects to get new buildings constructed on the acreage being made available by the expressway removal.

The New Haven Urban Design League and others in the city remain unhappy with the city’s plan. “The project as currently planned does not remove the highway, but rebuilds it in a different form,” League President Anstress Farwell said in a public letter that was distributed at the Congress.

“Travel lanes now confined to a trench will be moved up to surface streets, expanding their widths to 4 and 5 lanes—5 lanes at the most busy, pedestrian dominate intersections,” Farwell wrote. A parking garage for approximately 850 cars is to be constructed to serve the first building, “this,” she noted, “in a zone that is highly congested, and where over 50% of developable lots are currently used for parking.” 

DeStefano told the West Palm Beach crowd of several dozen people that the city has obtained more than 120 variances from the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Travel lanes, for example, will be reduced to a width of 10 feet. “We are trying to create gateways at corners,” he said.

Whenever Norquist or an audience member suggested, even mildly, that further changes are needed in the plan, DeStefano, a Democrat who has been in office for 18 years, curtly rejected their ideas. Norquist suggested, for example, that the vehicular route coming off of I-95 should slow down and mesh with pedestrian-oriented city streets immediately. Citing an example from another city, Norquist said “You get off the freeway, it’s urban, in a place with a freeway with 120,000 vehicles a day."

“Bring the check, John,” DeStefano shot back. “There’s lots of things I’d like to do,” DeStefano added, making it clear that he regards such ideas as too expensive or impractical.

One of the key things to be kept in mind, DeStefano said, is that the perfect should not allowed to be the enemy of the good.

That bromide didn’t sit well with R. John Anderson, a new urbanist developer from Chico, California, who participated in a design workshop last summer that generated ideas for making the project more pedestrian-friendly and more in character with the best sections of New Haven’s existing downtown. “We should not let the lame be the enemy of the perfectly adequate.”

As he had done with Norquist, DeStefano essentially rejected Anderson’s views as coming from someone who is not bringing dollars to New Haven. “You have no money on the table.” DeStefano bluntly said.

Anderson argued that if the project is designed better, it would actually attract a larger tax base than is currently anticipated.

Carter Winstanley, a Massachusetts-based developer who carries out projects backed by Yale University, is planning to erect a building containing medical research and other activities—in a part of the expressway corridor near Yale-New Haven Hospital. Farwell’s organization for months has battled the Winstanley plan, seeing the research building as being poorly integrated into the streetscape in addition to being accompanied by an oversized parking garage.

Farwell told Better! Cities & Towns this week that the parking Winstanley is planning is a requirement imposed by city government. She believes the flaws in the plan reflect the DeStefano administration’s unwillingness to come up with a plan that would make the corridor an appealing, natural extension of the nearby grid of city streets.

The mayor has made the Winstanley project a dominant element in Downtown Crossing's planning. The Winstanley project will be in Downtown Crossing’s first phase. It will be built before a set of cross-streets is created. If the cross-streets were built first, Farwell says, the main four- to five-lane streets could be built narrower; that would greatly enhance Downtown Crossing’s attractiveness to pedestrians.

Anderson told an on-line news source, the New Haven Independent, that the mayor’s rationale was unconvincing. As currently designed, Downtown Crossing is an “epic mistake,” Anderson said.

Norman Garrick, a transportation specialist at the University of Connecticut, praised DeStefano for going to the CNU event, but told the Independent: “What they’re building including the Winstanley building seems like a continuation of the suburbanization ... It’s a big box. It’s a lot of cars. It’s not integrated with the neighborhood.”

On May 3, the city convened what it had hoped would be the last public hearing before the project’s approval by the Board of Aldermen. But it turned out that the city had not properly notified the public about the changes being proposed to the city’s zoning. Consequently, the hearing was postponed, which may delay final action by another four to six weeks, according to Farwell.

The Urban Design League has tried in recent months to get officials in Washington—both in the federal Department of Transportation and in the offices of Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D)—to require an improved design for the project before federal money is disbursed. Those efforts have been unsuccessful, despite arguments that the New Haven project as currently conceived will be an embarrassment for the Obama administration.

UPDATE: Ideas from Live Work Learn Play

The original version of this article, posted May 15, closed by noting one glimmer of hope: The city has a Montreal-based firm, Live Work Learn Play, advising it on redevelopment of the site of the demolished Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is along the Rt. 34 corridor. We identified Live Work Learn Play (LWLP) as a consultant that has worked on new urbanist projects across the US and is familiar with what it takes to create places where people want to spend time.

We have since learned that on the 4.5-acre Coliseum site, LWLP is not simply a consultant but rather, the city's "preferred developer." The company's thinking appears to support one of John Norquist's main contentions: that the road from Interstate 95 into the city's center should make a quicker transition from expressway to street grid than the city's administration has been planning to do.

The city's current plan calls for Orange Street—now cut off by the Rt. 34 expressway—to be extended beneath the highway. This underpass would give people a more direct connection between the downtown Ninth Square neighborhood and New Haven's busy Union Station. But pedestrians and cyclists, along with some motorists, generally dislike traveling through underpasses. 

Richard Martz, vice president of the firm, told Better! Cities & Towns that ideally, LWLP would like Orange Street to have an at-grade intersection with Rt. 34. A grade-level intersection, equipped with traffic signals and crosswalks, would make a more appealing connection than would an underpass.

Such a surface-level intersection of Orange Street and Rt. 34 would likely help distribute incoming traffic from I-95 more quickly onto city streets. This might reduce the volume of vehicular traffic on the two main streets that are intended to carry traffic between the I-95 and the city's medical district. "Bringing traffic back into a city grid is important," Martz emphasized. 

To make such a change, the roadway from I-95 would have to be brought down to ground-level faster than the city had been contemplating. How difficult it would be to accomplish this is not entirely clear. But the change would likely be a boon for the development that LWLP is thinking of building—300 to 400 apartments plus retail and possibly a hotel, office space, or institutional use. LWLP is not eager to have its future housing back up to an elevated section of road. Also, retail would probably fare better if Orange Street doesn't get funneled into an underpass. 

The liveliness of a street that goes under a highway "is different than one that is fully at grade," Martz told the Independent last week. Kelly Murphy, New Haven's economic development administrator, noted that the city chose LWLP because the company's officials "get urban."

Martz agreed, in a phone interview with Better! Cities & Towns, that "one of the reasons were were chosen as developer was because of our mixed-use orientation," including attention to human scale and urban settings. LWLP has been examining methods of traffic-calming, with the help of a local traffic engineering firm. "We're hoping to have some measure of clarity by fall," he said.

The New Haven Register reported last August that LWLP was prepared to spend $1 million predevelopment planning. The firm's involvement is a conspicuous bright spot in an expressway conversion that, as of now, remains far short of what new urbanists would like to see.

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