The long-awaited Downtown Crossing project has the city buzzing, but some fear it's not making the most of its chance
In the late 1950s, at the height of America's road construction craze, leaders of New Haven, Connecticut, wiped out an entire neighborhood to make way for a highway that would help save the city. The idea made sense at the time. Suburban flight had left the downtown area withering. By clearing a wide strip of land, New Haven could construct a long highway linking Interstate 95 to the state's Naugatuck Valley via the city center. Cars would follow this long welcome mat back downtown, and the city would thrive once more. The plan made New Haven a regional, if not national leader "in striking at the illnesses that plague all U.S. municipalities," wrote Time magazine in 1957. Some even took to calling it the Model City.
The great road never materialized as planned. Instead all the city could muster was a one-mile, limited-access highway known as the Route 34 Connector. For years the connector served as a continual reminder of the failed efforts of urban renewal. It had displaced some 800 families, severed the downtown district from a vital neighborhood, and, many felt, torn the fabric of the city beyond all repair. "It would appear that we love the road much more than we do places, certainly more than we love cities, so that our political powers always gather behind the highway network, and we are ready to destroy anything for it," Vincent Scully, a Yale professor and critic of the Route 34 Connector, wrote in 1967.
As the years turned into decades, plans to redevelop the neighborhood came and went. Then in late 2010 New Haven got its long-awaited second chance. It came in the form of a $16 million [PDF] federal grant under the TIGER program. Combined with other funding, the city now had some $33 million to replace the auto-centric connector with a livable "urban boulevard" called the Downtown Crossing. New Haven natives near and far rejoiced at the chance to correct the mistakes of the past. "Route 34 has divided our downtown for decades," Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said at the time. "It's unbelievable what has happened today."
But as the city pushes forward with the Downtown Crossing plans, some members of the community are pushing back. Critics fear the current design continues to favor vehicles and wide roads over pedestrian and bicycle interests. They contend some street crossings don't adhere to the city's own complete streets manual. A resolution to reconsider the entire concept has emerged, which the city's Board of Aldermen will vote on in early November. If the resolution is approved, the board will be telling the city, more or less, that much of New Haven doesn't think the current plan is good enough.
"It's a huge opportunity to re-knit together the downtown, provide a larger footprint for the downtown, provide a template for growth for the next 20 years," says John DeStefano, the current mayor of New Haven. "I think there's evident self-interest for everyone in this effort. The discussion is more about how we do it rather than if we do it at this point."
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There's a lot to like about the Downtown Crossing project in its current form. In part that's because there's so much to dislike about Route 34 as it presently stands. Right now the connector sweeps traffic off I-95 along five lanes that become North Frontage Street. Some of these cars duck onto an underpass that heads below College Street toward an unsightly parking garage. On the other side of the pass, South Frontage Street pushes more lanes of cars toward the interstate. It's a frustrating arrangement for people trying to navigate the city by any means except driving — and it's pretty frustrating for drivers, too.
The first phase of Downtown Crossing, which is covered by the TIGER grant, will close two of the interstate exits and replace them with streetscape enhancements. It will bring College Street down to grade level in an effort to help it connect with the rest of the city. North and South Frontage streets will be converted into urban boulevards shared by cars, pedestrians, and bike riders. There are even hopes that a streetcar line will make its way into the finished corridor.
The general idea of the street reconfiguration is to reconnect the downtown with the medical district of Yale University, as well as the Hill neighborhood that was destroyed by the original Route 34 Connector. "All of Downtown Crossing speaks to blending these economic centers, so it's easier for people to walk to work, bike to work, much easier for economic relationships to grow," says Michael Piscitelli, the city's deputy economic development administrator, and one of the project's leaders. "Today it's a very difficult connectivity. You may have people on one side of Route 34 get in their car and drive their car to the other side of Route 34."
An equally important purpose is to clear space for taxable property. The plans have already attracted an anchor to the new corridor: a new building called 100 College Street, which will be situated in front of the current parking garage. The site will bring up to 400,000 square feet of office, lab, and ground‐level retail space to the medical district. It will encourage tenants to commute by modes other than cars, and the building will have bike racks, showers, and other amenities for those who ride to the office. The building's parking garage will even have charging stations for electric vehicles.
All told this phase will create more than 900 permanent jobs and perhaps 2,000 immediate construction jobs. The project as a whole will boost the city's tax revenue by millions of dollars a year. The Downtown Crossing plans are still in a preliminary form — what designers call a 30 percent phase — but they're expected to be finished by the middle of 2012, according to a presentation made at a public meeting earlier this month. Construction would then begin near the end of that year or the start of 2013, with a goal of finishing 100 College Street three years later.
"Eliminating that highway is an essential. I think it will meaningfully and dramatically affect the character of the city," DeStefano says. "I think of this as a bit of gardening. We're a growing city. This is a piece of infrastructure that doesn't make sense. We ought to pull the weed."
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While the timeline does leave a little room before the weed gets plucked, some believe it isn't too early to start deciding exactly what will be planted in its place. Last week a committee of the city's Board of Aldermen approved a resolution [DOC] that calls some specifics of the Downtown Crossing plan into question. Citing growing evidence that knowledge-based economies thrive by facilitating personal contact among city residents, the resolution cautions that the current plan repeats many of the "automobile-first" design policies that characterize the current Route 34 Connector. In the words of the resolution, the Downtown Crossing therefore falls short of its "transformative potential."
The biggest sticking point is the length of the street crossings. The plans presented to the public so far suggest that North Frontage Street will continue to exist as a four- and, in some places, five-lane road, including turning lanes (see below). Instead the resolution recommends turning North and South Frontage into a pair of two-lane roads, with a maximum of three including turning lanes. In addition, the resolution prefers to cap lane width at 10 feet; enhanced pedestrian crossing arrangements, such as refuge medians; a target speed of no more than 25 miles per hour; and general equal planning priority to pedestrian, bicycle, and mass transit movement.
"The intentions of the project are fantastic," says Justin Elicker, a member of the Board of Aldermen and the author of the resolution. "But the city's current design, which is changing as time goes on, is a road that's much larger than what a lot of community members and I feel is appropriate for the vision of New Haven as having complete streets that give equal importance to pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and public transportation. I felt like we should step in now and make a clear statement that we wanted them to look at the current design and scale it down some."
Elicker's position is backed by a good deal of recent evidence. This summer a pair of Yale doctors, Clara Filice and Gregg Furie, compiled a summary of the existing literature on health and road design. They found evidence that narrower lanes can reduce travel speed and that fewer lanes increases road safety, among other things. (To give a sense of just how long a 55-foot crossing is — the length of a five-lane, 11-foot road — Elicker brandished a tape measure all the way across a room at a recent community meeting.) Another part of Elicker's concern stems from the fact that the traffic on North and South Frontage will be coming off and going onto the interstate — and therefore, presumably, moving quite fast.
"A lot of the new design manuals recommend against any distances of more than two or three lanes," says Mark Abraham, coordinator of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition. "I think there'll be continuing pressure to make the road safer, since that's been such a priority here, pedestrian safety. I think there'll be more changes to the design that make it improved, including the shorter crossing distances and lower speeds."
Abraham is also concerned that the decisions made now can restrict future possibilities in the corridor. (Subsequent phases of Downtown Crossing will involve reconfiguring several other cross-streets in the neighborhood.) "Long-term, people want to see a transit-oriented development, less traffic, more walkability," he says — an ideal that's been captured in some of the project renderings:
On a broader scale, Elicker believes the current Downtown Crossing design stands in contrast the New Haven's own complete streets manual [PDF], considered by some to be the strongest in the country. The mission statement of that document, completed in 2010, reads: "To develop and promote a safe, context-sensitive transportation network that serves all users and integrates the planning and design of complete streets that foster a livable, sustainable and economically vibrant community." Elicker says the current design "just does not fit in with the spirit of the complete streets vision of the city." While he recognizes he's not a traffic expert, he says he would rather see cars sit in traffic each morning and evening than design streets that are hard for the majority of city residents to navigate the remainder of the day.
"It's clearly, the traffic counts are what's driving the project right now. That's why you have this number of lanes," he says. "If we make sure there's equal prioritization, number one, yeah, maybe you have some backups like you do now, for a half-hour a day, but more importantly you have accessibility for those other groups for the rest of the day. And number two, if we create an environment where pedestrians and cyclists feel safe, then they're more likely to use their feet and their bicycles and not need to use their cars."
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Whether the roads can slim down to the level Elicker and others would like is unclear. "If the issue is to take a limited-express highway and dump it onto two travel lanes, that frankly may present some math problems that may be difficult to overcome," says Mayor DeStefano. Indeed, two or even three lanes might not be able to handle the estimated 3,000 vehicles per hour that travel along North and South Frontage to and from the interstate. Other opponents of the resolution have a different concern: they fear fewer lanes will make it harder for ambulances to reach the nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital as quickly.
Piscitelli emphasizes that the forecasted number of lanes has been reduced since discussions for the project first began, and that further reductions remain under consideration. In the end this attempt at compromise might be enough for some critics. Elicker says it's more important to him that the city addresses the community's concerns than that it adheres to every single recommendation stated in the resolution. DeStefano, who has been a strong promoter of the project since the very early phases, says the key is to balance what's desirable and what's doable.
"I don't think there's a broad issue here of the desirability of this," DeStefano says. "I think wherever you can engage the community and address the issues that can reasonably be done, you do them. Where they're harder, where they're impossible, you say they're impossible. Then people can decide whether they want to support project or not."
The board's early November vote on the resolution is largely symbolic — it doesn't have any authority to change the design — but its approval would serve as a strong community refutation of the project's current trajectory. City officials stress that the design remains in a preliminary phase, and point to the dozens of community meetings that have been held as a sign that they intend to incorporate public feedback into the final Downtown Crossing plans. Piscitelli says this sort of feisty dialogue is par for the course in a place where residents demonstrate a lot of pride and passion for their home. It also may reflect the gravity of a decision some 50 years in the making.
"Nationally, you may look at it as a point of anxiety, but it's part of a natural discourse in a town like ours," he says. "New Haven is very fortunate to have an engaged community that works with us at every step of the process. It may be anxiety today but that translates into momentum for the next project and to keep improving the city generally."
All images courtesy City of New Haven