Taking down the Oak Street Connector

The demolition of the Oak St neighborhood in 1957. (Courtesy Yale University Library)


It’s not every day that a city has the chance to fix mistakes of the past and effect change that will affect generations to come. But the City of New Haven is attempting to do just that with its plans to replace Route 34 with a new urban development and revitalize the area between downtown New Haven and the Yale-New Haven hospital complex.

Earlier this year, the federal Department of Transportation awarded New Haven a 16 million dollars Tiger II grant for the Downtown Crossing Project, one of 41 winners chosen from thousands of projects submitted from across the nation.

The Downtown Crossing Project, according to the grant proposal, “is the city’s master plan to convert CT Route 34 from a limited access highway to urban boulevards from Union Ave. to College St.” The project aims to create a continuous urban fabric by reconnecting neighborhoods that

were divided during the urban rene-

wal period.

To create Route 34 in the 1950s, Mayor Dick Lee’s administration destroyed the Oak St neighborhood, forcing 881 households to relocate and clearing 350 businesses. The Route 34 connector was meant to connect New Haven and the two rock valley communities, channeling traffic in and out of the city. Partially because of community opposition, this urban renewal project was permanently abandoned in the 1970s, but the completed construction still separated residential neighborhoods, Union Station, and the downtown area in a way that has since hindered a sense of community in the area. Anne Haynes, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of New Haven, believes that the construction of Route 34 “made a huge gash in the city.”

The limited access highway linking I-91/I-95 and downtown New Haven carries 75,000 vehicles per day. According to the grant proposal, “Route 34 east of the hospital represents an intimidating physical and visual barrier isolating downtown from city neighborhoods as well as the Yale University School of Medicine from a growing cluster of spin-off research and development firms.”

According to Bob Brooks, the Project Manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the firm leading the planning and design of Downtown Crossing, this is “an incredible opportunity to reconnect the street network that was bisected.” He explained that, with the new grant, construction may begin later this year or early next year.

The project has four major components. First, North and South Frontage Rds. will be converted to urban boulevards by narrowing car lanes and adding bike-specific lanes. Landscaping, street lighting, signs, added traffic signals, and other enhancements are also planned with the aim of making the area more pedestrian-friendly. These new boulevards will create a zone to facilitate the transition from highway to city streets by reducing travel speed.

Second, the local street connections will be changed, some off-ramps replaced with streetscape, and crossings upgraded in anticipation of the high volume of pedestrians.

These changes are aimed at greatly improving traffic flow and safety, especially for pedestrians and bicycles. The project’s grant proposal suggests that the new area “will also define a signature gateway entry to the City from the regional highway network.”

Third, the College St. Bridge, which currently crosses over Route 34 and is in need of repair, will be reconstructed. A tunnel beneath College St. will be constructed to allow vehicles to access Yale-New Haven Hospital parking and the Air Rights Garage.

Fourth, the project will leave many opportunities for development. Approximately 11 acres, to be divided into four sections of land, will be set aside for future development, and Winstanley Enterprises currently has plans to construct a building at 100 College St., which will cost 140 million dollars and rise 10 stories. It will have space for labs, offices, and retail. Haynes said that these developable sites should increase the tax revenue of the city.

This economic benefit is one of the main focuses of the project. By reinforcing “New Haven’s position as a global center of influence in biotechnology and health sciences,” the new development is expected to create 2,000 temporary construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs at 100 College St., according to the grant proposal. Increasing land value “could yield net tax revenues of 1.434 million dollars.”

With planning still in process, community members have had many opportunities to get involved. There have been a series of public meetings about the project, the latest on Tues., Nov. 16.

To a crowd of nearly a hundred gathered in the basement of the New Haven Free Public Library, Kelly Murphy, Deputy Mayor for economic development, explained that the project aims to create “an environment where people can live, work, and play” in a closer area. She also emphasized the focus on safety and sustainability. With its location in the heart of downtown, the project could substantially increase employment opportunities and tax revenues.

After presentations by the consultants, the crowd gathered around four tables for discussion with the consultants about the four central tenets of the project: Environment, Placemaking, Complete Streets, and Economy. Planners and residents engaged in a spirited debate for over an hour, gesturing and marking up the large maps with permanent marker. Several easels were set up around the tables for planners to note the concerns of residents.

Ultimately, every discussion came down to the desire—shared by all, it seemed—to create a lively, urban neighborhood on the site of the Oak St. Connector. Interested private developers will have their own goals for the parcels. After almost two and half hours, Karyn Gilvarg, Executive Director of the City Plan Department, called the session to a close because the library was closing. One question remained: How much of the Downtown Crossing project could be shaped by citizen desires, and how much would be left in the hands of

private developers?

“The old connector embodies what was wrong with urban renewal,” says Elihu Rubin, a professor of architecture at Yale, adding there really aren’t any reasons to maintain the highway as it is now. The project represents a “return to the street,” and changing values since the era of

urban renewal.

Rubin was weary of rhetoric emphasizing the stitching together of neighborhoods, arguing that there is not much of a neighborhood in the area of the project.

He also pointed out that the project reflects a broader trend toward boulevards. Octavia Blvd. in San Francisco, for instance, replaced a damaged portion of a freeway and was redeveloped for street space and housing. These boulevards, Rubin explains, place a greater emphasis on the city, rather than commuting to and from the suburbs.

In line with the New Haven’s Complete Streets Policy, the Downtown Crossing Project emphasizes pedestrian and cyclist safety, improved traffic conditions, and streets designed for many uses beyond just cars. The changes should encourage “multi-modal” transportation. With enhanced “safe pedestrian and bicycle mobility, the project is expected to boost the number of commuters choosing non-motorized transportation,” a number which, according to the 2000 US Census, was already very high in New Haven compared to the ten largest cities in New England.

The location of this proposed project is such that the changes could have a great effect on the surrounding community. There are currently three major businesses nearby: Yale-New Haven Hospital, and the Smilow Cancer Center in particular; 55 Park St, which houses a medical lab and office facilities with street-level retail; and 2 Howe St, a retail and office building with 24 residential units. 2 Howe St was the first building in the area to include residential units since the Oak Street neighborhood was demolished in the ‘50s. There are other residential units planned within walking distance of the project.

Additionally, the Downtown Crossing Project is being coordinated with Gateway Community College’s $140 million development of a new campus on Church St, by the northeast corner of the project site.

Robert Alpern, Dean of Yale Medial School, expressed hope that the “project will help the medical school and hospital become part of downtown, like a part of the community, because right now, Route 34 really prevents that.”

Rubin emphasized that, while the project could bring many positive changes to the city, it will not restore the “heterogeneous fabric” that existed before urban renewal. He says that before the construction of Route 34, there were about 150 smaller lots, including retail and housing, whereas this project will create a single, much larger development at 100 College St. “This is just one big building, it’s not a neighborhood,” he explained. Rubin also questioned the demand for such retail space.

According to Haynes, the 100 College St development will be an “appropriate size building for the location because it is by the Air Rights Garage” and other big buildings. She also pointed to the tension between what the city wants, such as walk-able streets and an appropriate scale, and what will be attractive and manageable for developers. She said that given the high cost of construction it would be difficult for smaller developers to foot the bill.

Kevin Hively, of Ninigret Partners, LLC, which is taking on the market analysis portion of the project, explained that it is “still very early in the assessment stage, so there are no final conclusions” about the level of demand.

Haynes echoed this emphasis that the project “is still in its early stages of planning,” and Gilvarg said that “design is not completed, but is underway.”

Overall, the project has been met with much enthusiasm. Alpern called the project “fantastic,” and despite his other concerns and questions, Rubin ultimately approved. “It’s is probably a good thing,” he said.

And according to Haynes, this project is only the beginning, only a “catalyst” in New Haven’s future development.

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