New Haven officials: our road project is good enough

  • Street plan

    Street plan

    The City of New Haven's street plan for Downtown Crossing, including alterations made to accommodate bicyclists.

Better! Cities & Towns

Among the most controversial sessions at CNU-20 in West Palm Beach was one in which New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. defended his plan for replacing his city’s Rt. 34 expressway with the help of a $16 million federal TIGER II grant.

In a May 16 article posted here, I wrote that DeStefano took time to participate in the Congress but remained averse to new urbanists’ ideas about how to handle the traffic that will be shifted from the less than one-mile-long expressway. I emphasized that the New Haven Urban Design League and others in the city remain unhappy with the city’s plan.

“Travel lanes now confined to [an expressway] trench will be moved up to surface streets, expanding their widths to 4 and 5 lanes,” I quoted Anstress Farwell, leader of the New Haven Urban Design League, as saying.

Michael Piscitelli, the City’s deputy economic development administrator, has since sent Better! Cities & Towns an e-mail charging that our coverage failed to present the project accurately and fairly. He wrote:

I am terribly disappointed in the tone and misstatement of facts about Downtown Crossing once again in Better Cities. In regard to the presentation of Downtown Crossing at CNU20, the recap article presents a narrow view of both the actual presentation, dialogue, and actual facts of the project.

Please note the following:

(1) The City prepared a formal letter to the Urban Design League. Please read the letter [attached below as a pdf] to fully understand the City's perspective and corrections on points-of-fact.

(2) At the public hearing of May 10, there were far more speakers in support of 100 College than against. Speaking in favor included the president of Gateway Community College and the head of the Chamber of Commerce, along with business and institutional leaders and residents from across the City. Your article would have you believe no one spoke in favor which is entirely not true.

(3) The article again implies 4-5 through travel lanes, which is simply not true. The plan responds both to the urban context of Downtown New Haven and introduces some of the highest levels of Complete Streets design features for an urban arterial.

The pedestrian crossing distances are consistent with Downtown streets in New Haven and across the nation. We are introducing the first on- and off-street bike lanes and bike boxes in this district. New traffic signals will include exclusive phase pedestrian signals...a major safety feature and a citywide standard that is not always found in central cities.

There is no mention in the article of the Complete Streets aspects of the project, which is troubling after the milestone affirmative votes of the Board of Aldermen in 2010 and 2011, the letter from the City to CNU about the project facts, our follow-up conversation with CNU year, nor the Better Cities follow up article earlier this year. This article implies there has been no iteration of the project during the community participation process, which again is not true.

(4) In this article you continue to allow quotes from Ms. Farwell and not the professional engineers, planners, architects, and urban designers working on Downtown Crossing and who ultimately will sign off on the project's design details. I am disappointed that you again did not reach out for official comment before publishing a one-sided view of the project.

(5) The article moreover fails to look at the project in full context of an economic development opportunity which will create 2,000 construction jobs and 600-960 permanent jobs in a city with an 11.7 percent unemployment rate. There is limited funding available for public infrastructure, but we are taking advantage of a moment-in-time to start Downtown Crossing in light of the intense competition for new jobs following the recession.

Phasing of major projects is part of the 'new normal' for public investments and these decisions must be viewed in an interrelated fashion. The Mayor discussed at length this very context for the project; a copy of the presentation is attached. Again, I must say that I am disappointed about the absence of fact-checking, nor equal time to present the actual facts from all perspectives.

Piscitelli, who previously served as New Haven’s transportation director and earlier worked in the Department of City Plan,  deserves answers. So here are my views:

• The chief aim of both our print newsletter and our website is to cover urban design, planning, and development intelligently. If more people spoke in favor of Downtown Crossing’s first building project than against it during a public hearing, what does this tell us about the quality of the building’s urban design or about the character the corridor is likely to have once the City’s plan is implemented?

The answer: Not much.

Public hearings in New Haven—and probably in many other cities—are curious exercises, easily subject to manipulation. When Yale University wanted the City to permit construction of a hulking new School of Management building by Norman Foster on Whitney Avenue just north of downtown about three years ago, many who spoke in favor of that project were sent there by labor unions, which in turn were mobilized by the university's admistration. The union membrs wanted construction jobs, plain and simple. They weren’t concerned about the damage that would be inflicted on a gracious streetscape or the neighbors.

It’s hardly surprising that the president of Gateway Community College would say nice things about Downtown Crossing. After all, the City and its economic development agency helped make sure that Gateway received prime commercial real estate downtown, adjacent to Rt. 34, for its new main campus, which is now nearing completion. It would in fact be odd if Gateway were not willing to return the favor by praising the City’s current, somewhat embattled Downtown Crossing. That's how politics works, at least in the one-party (Democratic) city where I live. I think the focus of our coverage should be the merits and flaws of New Haven’s expressway removal project. How many people endorsed it is not terribly relevant to our purposes.  

• The statement in my article about four to five travel lanes being anticipated on the main surface street carrying traffic diverted from the expressway was a quote from the Urban Design League, and it seems to have been somewhat misleading. Planning Director Gilvarg says part of that route would have only three travel lanes. Nonetheless, some portions of the street will be wider, and that's likely to be intimidating for pedestrians.

• Our coverage would have been strengthened by gathering more information from engineers, planners, and others working on the project, as Piscitelli says. But I’m mystified by the claim that I didn’t reach out for official views on the project. I sat through a presentation by the mayor himself at CNU-20, and he made it clear that he did not want to engage anyone in the audience in a substantive discussion of the project’s design. When criticisms or suggestions were offered to him, his reply was “Bring the check” or “you have no money on the table.” In other words, go away.

Better! Cities & Towns has acknowledged improvements made in the project as a result of community participation. In our April-May print issue, CNU staff member Caitlin Ghoshal reported on the “incremental progress” being made. The question is whether such progress is sufficient.

• Citing how many construction jobs the project will produce doesn't sound to me like a good way to figure out whether it's a decent plan.  A more valid question is the project’s long-term effect. Urbanists such as Massachusetts architect Sara Hines, who has worked in New Haven and who attended the DeStefano presentation, argues that a better-designed project would generate more benefits in the long run than the current plan is likely to do.

• In her letter, Gilvarg accuses the Urban Design League of “ignoring the existing traffic volumes (approximately 75,000 ADT) by insisting they can be accommodated by fewer lanes....” What will happen to that vehicular traffic is a key question. The League thinks that traffic demand management, greater use of transit, and other methods would go a long way toward solving the problem.

I don’t have first-hand experience with this, but there is no shortage of people with credentials—ranging from former San Francisco planning director Allan Jacobs to former Denver and Milwaukee planning director Peter Park—who argue, based on their experience, that when expressways are eliminated, vehicular traffic diminishes or goes elsewhere. The removal of the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee encountered opponents who said much the same thing that Gilvarg now says. In the end, the Park East was removed, and traffic was not a problem.

A “Safe Streets” perspective

Because City officials expressed distrust of the Urban Design League, I felt it would be worthwhile to turn to another knowledgeable local source: Mark Abraham, leader of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition. Abraham has long been involved in efforts to make the city’s streets safer. Here is what he wrote me:

A letter signed by representatives of all 12 of New Haven's neighborhood associations, and many elected officials, recently noted the following about the Downtown Crossing project: 

"Specifically, it is time for the City to end the rhetoric about potential long-term plans for the area, and instead ensure that in all phases, it designs a place that is truly safe and accessible for our most vulnerable citizens. The petition requested speeds of 15-20 miles per hour in areas such as the Hospital district, which are home to many pedestrians of all ages.... The challenges of this project within Phase One can only be solved by the most progressive, out-of-the-box thinking." (The mayor's response to the coalition's progress report is available here.)

Despite this widespread input, I predict that the many residents and workers in this area, including myself, who walk these intersections every day will continue to see them as hazards even after the completion of Phase One of Downtown Crossing. This lack of "complete" streets would represent an unfortunate outcome for such a high-profile national project.

Too often, in our focus to create new jobs, we ignore the details on projects—even ones like this that are a block from a major high school—and are then left with physical barriers that cause harm to residents for generations to come.

It is true that, over the past year, a number of significant changes such as narrower lane widths, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian refuge islands were introduced to the construction plans. These improvements can be credited to the work of the City and its consultants, as well as the Board of Aldermen and many engaged local and national advocates.

While these features may be very helpful individually (if they are included), in the broader context of new highway traffic patterns and overall amount of roadway infrastructure being created here, I remain unconvinced that the majority of the reconstructed streets will be even marginally safer than the existing conditions in the area.

Most residents I have spoken with about the project believe that ConnDOT and the City must redouble their efforts to safely accommodate pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Many other national projects and local engineers have offered guidance on this. To promote physical activity, our development authorities also need to mandate that new sidewalks running alongside Route 34, 100 College, and the parking garages will be as wide and attractive as the sidewalks generally found throughout the rest of Downtown New Haven. 

High traffic volumes and highway exits, narrow sidewalks located directly adjacent to traffic, and the lack of good mass transit, are among the current obstacles to creating a healthier environment in this area. We must address these issues if we want New Haven to remain economically competitive with our rivals like Cambridge, Boston, and New York.

For more in-depth coverage on this topic: 

Subscribe to Better! Cities & Towns to read all of the articles (print+online) on implementation of greener, stronger, cities and towns.

• See the March 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Traffic congestion, Zoning, DOT mainstreams livability, HUD's Sustainable Communities, Transit-oriented development, TOD tips, Form-based codes, Parking minimums, New classical town, Urban retail, James H. Kunstler, Placemaking and job growth, Maryland's smart growth.

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• See the January-February 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Value capture and transit, Social networks aid downtown, Live smaller, Rentals are market key, Streetcar inspiration, Box building, Civilizing suburbs, Alley houses, Sprawl repair, Healthy communities, Funding for infrastructure, Chicago River reversal.

• See the December 2011 issue of New Urban News. Wall Street and urbanism, streets to plazas, Sustainable Communities grants, Choice Neighborhoods, TIGER grants, buyers prefer smart growth, protecting historic buildings, public health and planning, redevelopment in Georgia, Ecovillages, parklets.

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