Report castigates New Haven road plan

  • Alternative concept

    Alternative concept

    Mixed-use infill plan, establishing cross-streets, a variety of lot sizes to support opportunity for both small and large developers to participate in the project while also creating a mixture of physical scale to make the streets inviting and interesting. Concept, Ben Northrup. Source: New Haven Urban Design League

  • Cross-section

    Cross-section

    Schematic comparison, from bottom to top, of existing conditions, the TIGER Phase One proposal, and the Community Workshop concept for maximizing usable land and reducing street widths by building parking underground. Source: New Haven Urban Design League

  • Build out of Downtown Crossing

    Build out of Downtown Crossing

    Red arrows indicate additional parking in a zone characterized by high rates if the land is used for parking.  The plan does not develop robust transportation options to reduce parking demand in undeveloped areas (grey).  Source: New Haven Urban Design League.

  • Current conditions

    Current conditions

    Oak Street Connector and MLK Boulevard. Source: New Haven Urban Design League

  • Destruction from current highway

    Destruction from current highway

    Source: New Haven Urban Design League

Author: 
Philip Langdon
Better! Cities & Towns

The New Haven Urban Design League says Mayor John DeStefano Jr.'s proposed replacement of the Rt. 34 expressway is so badly flawed that it should be replanned through a charrette.

In a 30-page report entitled "A Highway Rebuilt, Not Removed," the League says the City has lost the vision that the removal of the short downtown expressway was supposed to represent. The best way to save the situation, the League says, is by conducting "a meaningful public process"—such as a charrette organized by the National Charrette Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The report declares:

Downtown Crossing/Route 34 is a project that started with a vision. It was a vision of restoring the human, urban, and economic vitality of a large section of New Haven by removing a highway spur, a spur whose original construction created a dead zone around its perimeter, and cut off the urban grid connections between the medical/hospital area, the train station, downtown New Haven, and the adjacent Hill neighborhood. ...

The Downtown Crossing project as it now stands does not remove the sunken highway spur. It rebuilds it and widens it. Though it is only Phase One of a multiphase project, it so mimics the flaws of the original highway spur that without improvement it is likely to remain as much an obstacle to reconnecting the City as the existing highway to nowhere.

Among the flaws the League finds in the project are these:

• The city administration used a federal TIGER II grant to make way for a badly conceived building project of developer Carter Winstanley on part of the land being freed by the expressway removal.

• Despite early promises that cross-streets would be built across the current sunken expressway corridor, "There are no new cross streets, and therefore no additional connectivity in the proposed design."

• "The street level arterials on either side of the highway are expanded, and the resulting sunken and street levelcombination is an even more formidable barrier to connectivity than the previous conformation."

• The Winstanley development would include an above-ground 800-car parking garage adjacent to an existing 2,600-car garage. The League says that "in a zone already burdened with poor air quality, severe pedestrian safety failures, severe traffic congestion, and a degraded street-level environment, no serious consideration was given to the effect of the Winstanley plan on these problems."

The report details City Hall's "vehement opposition" to a safe-streets resolution aimed at making sure the replacement thoroughfares would be safe and comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists. Last year the League, in partnership with local architect Robert Orr and many community groups, conducted a weekend workshop that generated ideas for improving the expressway corridor. 

"The pattern that emerges in all these public interactions is that despite a time consuming public process there has been limited engagement on the part of the City with the specifics of the suggestions and concerns raised by the public," the League asserts. 

"Government officials have told us that we have to 'swallow the bitter pill' of this grossly impoverished plan," the League says. "We don't feel that $30 million in public funds, (and perhaps an addition $100 million in State incentives for a biotech company to lease space in the Winstanley building) should be used to create a plan that fails."

Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), one of the largest employers in the city, is also taken to task in the report. The League notes that nationally,

highly skilled professionals now entering the workforce value urban environments that offer benefits to their quality of life.

Despite this national trend, YNHH is working on an assumption that a large majority of its workforce will commute by SOV (single-occupant vehicle). To accommodate this assumption, a suburban standard of 5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet is being applied to its projects. Not only does this plan create hazardous streets and poor air quality, in an environmental justice community, it is also unsustainable because it wastes valuable land, and it provides no transportation benefits for people who live in the area.

The report also notes that the Downtown Crossing project seems to have botched the opportunity to link with other projects in the area:

The Downtown Crossing plan has not been integrated with other major Federal investments in the area—the TOD project for Union Station, the Church Street South project to rebuild a former public housing complex as a mixed-use, mixed-income development, and the New Haven Streetcar Study. The current plan for rebuilding Church Street South does not even establish a simple, intuitive, walkable link from the Train Station to Downtown and the Yale Medical Area. Removing the barriers that have disconnected vital parts of the City requires integration, not isolation, of the different projects supported by these Federal funds.

In an interview with Better! Cities & Towns, Anstress Farwell, president of the League, said her organization's goal is "reopeningthe public design process." The League has been in touch with the offices of US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-New Haven) about the problems of the TIGER project and prospects for getting the project better designed.

Under the current schedule, the city would need to have all the needed funds committed to the project by November, according to Farwell. That would require that planning documents be completed by then. 

It might be a struggle to replan the project by November, she said, but "I think it could be done."

A pdf of the League's report can be downloaded below.

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