Downtown Crossing: A Turning Point For New Haven?
(12/14/2010) By PHILIP LANGDON, The Hartford Courant, December 12, 2010
It's not every day that a Connecticut city gets to rip out an expressway, even one as short and abrupt as Route 34. So a lot of anticipation surrounds New Haven's proposal to fill over the highway that runs from I-95 to Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr., with a $16 million federal Tiger II grant and other funds, intends to take the corridor — described by urban designer Alex Krieger as "a kind of DMZ through your city" — and convert it into a network of multipurpose streets.
The overall goal is superb. If the "Downtown Crossing" project succeeds, it will make a drab area on the southern edge of downtown start to feel like a normal part of the city again. People will walk, bike, live, work and shop there.
Nobody likes the existing road, sometimes called the "Oak Street Connector." One of the chief purposes of the mile-long, high-speed route was to funnel traffic rapidly into and out of downtown — a function that lost much of its urgency when downtown ceased being the region's retail center. Today the 41-year-old expressway, which comes to a sudden end at the Air Rights Garage, is mostly is an obstacle to the natural functioning of the city.
At a public discussion last month, city administrators and consultants presented a plan that, while far from complete, is a big improvement over current conditions. The expressway would be replaced by a pair of east-west surface streets (including a bike lane, wide sidewalks and trees) approximately where the North and South Frontage Roads now sit. Three cross-streets that currently are interrupted or stopped altogether by the expressway — Orange, Temple and College — would be extended across the reconfigured area.
For the first time in decades, people would have a relatively direct walking route between Union Station and downtown, via the extension of Orange Street. Mike Piscitelli, the city's transportation director, says a key object of the redesign is to get motor vehicles down to a speed at which they can coexist with pedestrians. That would be accomplished in part by narrowing the travel lanes, allowing on-street parking (at least outside of rush hour) and installing crosswalks and traffic signals at intersections.
Ten acres now within the expressway right-of-way would be filled with new buildings, over below-ground parking. The city and its consultants say the new buildings would be varied in both height and use, and might include offices, housing, research and academic functions, a hotel and street-level retail — a good mix.
"The most important thing is to provide retail uses on the streets connecting downtown to the Hill" neighborhood, says Alan Mountjoy of Chan Krieger NBBJ, the project's Cambridge, Massachusetts-based urban design consultant.
Unfortunately, the renderings released in November offered no assurance that the buildings would actually be interesting to look at or walk by. The sketches didn't have the intimate, nicely detailed, occasionally quirky character of the buildings that enliven New Haven's best existing streets, such as Chapel Street just west of the Green.
I attribute the sketches' flaws mostly to the fact that the project is still in an early stage. Chan Krieger NBBJ will be producing design guidelines that, according to Mountjoy, will give the streetscapes "variety and texture." My sense is that one of the things most needed — and not yet committed to by the city — is a sizable number of small buildings, slender buildings, narrow facades. Multiple small variations from one building to another could go a long way toward making the area enticing.
To get narrow buildings that exude human scale, the city should search for ways of bringing small developers into the picture. Tony Bialecki in New Haven's economic development office says this would be challenging because of costs. Yet diversity of this sort will be crucial to making the district an organic extension of downtown.
The blocks envisioned by the city seem overly large. From east to west, the blocks probably will average 400 feet or more in length. They need to be broken up if they're going to appeal to pedestrians.
One New Havener, looking at the proposed pair of wide, one-way principal streets, told planners last month that they seemed to have one foot in the walkable city camp and the other "stuck in the Robert Moses idea of moving cars as opposed to moving people."
He had a point. The two arteries (which are not "boulevards," though they have frequently been called that) look intimidating for people on foot.
Downtown Crossing is a concept with great promise. What remains to be seen is whether the detailed decisions yet to come will deliver on that promise, or subvert it.
Philip Langdon of New Haven is senior editor of the urban design newsletter New Urban News and the recently launched NewUrbanNetwork.com. He is a member of Place's Board of Contributors.
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