Van Halen. Aerosmith. Elvis Presley. In its heyday, the New Haven Coliseum hosted them all. But on the morning of January 20, 2007, almost five years after the arena’s final musical act, the building was imploded. Since then, the site on the corner of George and Orange Streets, just next to the Knights of Columbus museum, where the Coliseum stood has been vacant, save for a 400-space parking lot. But a Toronto-based developer, LiveWorkLearnPlay, wants to change that. The Coliseum project is just one part of an ambitious plan by the City of New Haven to reshape an area of the city overlooked by last century’s urban planners.
Traditionally, the “nine squares”—the area bounded by George, State, Chapel, and Church Streets—constitute what is considered downtown New Haven. The city’s “Downtown Crossing” project, already underway, aims to remove the Route 34 Oak Street Connector, a highway built in the 1950s era of urban renewal. As families left the city for the suburbs, they needed an easy way to commute into the Elm City. The construction of a highway connector gave cars an easy way to move from the new Connecticut Turnpike to downtown New Haven. The connector accomplished that, but it also had other, unintended and unpredicted consequences. Slicing through the city south of George Street, the highway, many allege, created a separation between Downtown and the neighborhoods south of the highway. Currently, Route 34 ends in a stub just next to the former Coliseum site, and unsurprisingly, over the years, the noisy highway has not fostered a pedestrian friendly environment.
The city first solicited proposals for the area in 2009. Amid stress from the recession, however, the request met with little support or interest. It was not until 2011, once the city had begun to recover from the recession, that it began to experience a surge in development, energy, and momentum. Only then did LiveWorkLearnPlay (LWLP) sign on to the job.
Encouraged by projects like the 360 State Street development, a similar mixed-use development not far from the Coliseum site, LWLP decided to take on New Haven. The mixed-use site contains a parking garage, a co-op grocery store, and almost thirty floors of apartments of different sizes. LWLP met with community members, government officials, and business owners, asking, as Kiran Marok, who oversees the Coliseum project, explained, what was economically, environmentally, and socially important to the community.
The firm envisions the site as a new “living room” for New Haven, explained Marok. Unlike other cities, she noted, New Haven lacks an urban plaza. Her company is planning a mixed-use site, with residential units at a variety of price points, restaurants, office space, and a hotel. “It will create new opportunities for people to live downtown, shop downtown, eat downtown, do their daily business downtown, instead of somewhere else,” said Chris Canna, economic developer for New Haven who has been overseeing the project.
Anstress Farwell, GRD ’79, head of the Urban Design League, a group of citizens working to promote high-quality urban design in New Haven, explained that citizens want a downtown that has “all the things that downtowns are, things that are convenient and fun.” She sees the Coliseum site as a place to build that, bringing back the sense of urban energy that she felt the area teemed with when she was a Yale student in the seventies. “The city was maybe a little more scrappy and grungy, but it was a little more fun,” she recalled.
New Haven’s urban landscape has certainly shifted since then. The Chapel Street Mall, once the city’s retail center located at the intersection of Chapel and Church Streets, spanned three city blocks and brought big retail stores like Macy’s to the city alongside various local storefronts. The massive complex was gradually converted into apartments and small stores. In a more promising move, Gateway Community College has moved into downtown. Developers and community advocates see the area as a “tenth square,” adopting the successful features—walkability, for example—of the city’s original nine-square grid. With other important changes, like converting two-way streets to one-way to calm traffic, retail activity could flourish. “We’re going to have to redevelop a whole new retail center,” said Farwell. The Coliseum project has the potential to make it happen. She thinks that LWLP’s espoused commitment to community-owned, “Mom-and-Pop” businesses will help cultivate a retail district that is unique to New Haven. North of College Street, Chapel Street has been recently gentrified by the arrival of chains like Panera and Pinkberry. But LWLP prides itself on working with young entrepreneurs that may not have other ways to put themselves on the map, Farwell said, and she is hopeful that they will bring these types of businesses to the new retail hub.
The project has a bold vision for cultural change in New Haven. But they are also aiming to address more practical problems. New Haven has the lowest apartment vacancy rate in the nation—2.2 percent—and it’s fallen by half a percent in the last year. The average rent is 1,154 dollars per month. “We need more apartments, but we need affordable apartments,” said Wendy Hamilton, a community advocate. “We have a large population of people who are underemployed and unemployed, and these are people who can’t afford 1,000 dollar rent.” LWLP envisions up to 1,000 units—rentals, lofts, and townhouses of varying sizes—and hopes to include market-rate and subsidized price points, as well as “workforce” housing, which falls in between. Public subsidies often come with the condition that affordable housing be part of the plan, and the city has planned for mixed-use housing since the pre-demolition planning.
Canna expects that the new housing will be especially appealing to Yale-affiliated residents: students, faculty, staff, researchers, and so on. “This is something that the market’s showing,” he said. “The Yale community is large and diverse. Everyone has a totally different experience downtown, from the cafeteria worker to the dean of the Med School.” The hope is that all New Haven residents, those affiliated and unaffiliated with the University alike, will benefit from easy access to work, school, and shopping, the benefits of a vibrant downtown community.
It is difficult, however, to quantify exactly what a downtown “needs.” Some local community members worry that the project will just hasten gentrification, catering to only a specific slice of the city’s population while disadvantaging others. The area in question already has a troubled relationship to the rest of the city. When the Connector was built in the 50s, hundreds of residents and businesses were displaced from the Oak Street neighborhood. Given that the areas—places like the Hill, a lower-income, largely minority neighborhood—around the proposed development are already struggling, the changes could have negative consequences for current residents. But Elihu Rubin, SY ’99, assistant professor of architecture at Yale with a specialty in urban spaces, notes that this situation is different, since the Coliseum site is already empty. “There may be ripple effects on property values and rents in the nearby areas,” he wrote in an email to the Herald.
The project was approved unanimously on December 2, 2013, by New Haven’s Board of Alders. “We were fortunate to have the support of the community behind us in what I understand is a very short period for the city in New Haven,” Marok noted. Local government support is strong, and 12 million dollars in city funds have been committed to the project, said Canna. The remaining funds are expected to come from the state, although no formal amount has been committed to the project. The Route 34 project is estimated to cost 32.5 million dollars.
The issue at hand is one of those don’t-talk-about-it-at-the-dinner-table topics: money. The Coliseum project is unusual in that it is being privately financed by equity and bonds, with the exception of the affordable housing units, which will receive federal funding. The project has garnered strong community and support from city leaders, but it may be at a standstill: the developer won’t provide the money for the Coliseum if the state doesn’t finance the highway reconfiguration, according to Farwell. She said, however, that the redevelopment project is a compelling case and has a good shot of receiving the necessary funding.
The state’s cooperation in the removal of the highway is crucial, explained Farwell. “I wouldn’t invest it in the shadow of high speed highway,” she added. The uses that LWLP envisions—retail, office space, shopping—can’t happen in a space that developers haven’t previously made accessible to the city’s residents. The strategy has been effective in other cities like Boston and San Francisco, Rubin explained. Taking down physical boundaries like highways, adding connecting streets, and constructing new buildings can “bridge the divide” between areas previously isolated from each other.
A new Elm City is possible, many say. The Coliseum site could become a new “gateway to New Haven,” Canna said—the first stop for regulars and visitors alike, more appealing than parking lots and a train station. The vision is there, but the project will take investment, more than just the financial kind. It all depends on what rises from the ashes of the former Coliseum site.