When Marcel Breuer designed the Armstrong-Pirelli Building more than 30 years ago, he probably did not expect to see a blue and yellow IKEA billboard hanging from the facade of his work. However, if IKEA goes ahead as planned, this will be the case in 2004.
Despite local controversy, plans for an IKEA in New Haven are well underway. Last year, the Swedish furniture store announced its interest in opening a branch at the site of the old Pirelli tire factory on Sargent Drive, off of Interstate 95. Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75, executive director of the New Haven City Plan Department, said city officials are currently working through details of IKEA’s site plans, and the target opening date is set for 2004.
Local critics of the plan point to the architectural significance of IKEA’s chosen site. The new store would knock out a portion of the old Pirelli tire building, which is considered by many to be an architectural icon. A new, separate building will house the store itself, but an IKEA billboard will be attached to the face of the Pirelli building.
Constructed in 1969, the building was designed by Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer, who is perhaps best known for his design of the Whitney Museum in New York City. Although the Pirelli building is on the State Register of Historic Places, it is not protected from modification, or even destruction.
Robert Narracci, a member of the Long Wharf Advocacy Group, called the building a “seminal work in industrial design.” The Long Wharf Advocacy Group is composed of architects, environmentalists and urban design advocates who have voiced concerns about the architectural and environmental impacts of the project.
Narracci said part of the importance of the building is its formal asymmetry, which IKEA’s plans would disrupt. He and other critics of the project also maintain that the corporation has not been fully open to compromise.
“It’s disappointing that IKEA has continued without blinking,” Narracci said. “[IKEA] has missed an opportunity to engage a fascinating building in a creative way.”
City officials, on the other hand, praise IKEA for its sensitivity to special interest groups. Gilvarg said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has said from the beginning that he feels the Pirelli building is a signature structure for New Haven, and IKEA has carefully designed its plans around it.
Ward 26 Alderwoman Lindy Gold said IKEA was sensitive to the community’s concerns.
“If they were insensitive to what the community wanted, they would simply level that building and enhance their parking facilities because they have absolutely no use for [it],” Gold said. “They have redesigned their entire concept in order to preserve the building at their own expense and inconvenience.”
Concerns about the environmental consequences of IKEA moving in have also surfaced. On its Web site, the Long Wharf Advocacy Group points to the disappearance of the Pirelli lawn. The large green space would be replaced with a 1,200-car asphalt parking lot, the site says.
Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 said when the plan went before the New Haven Board of Aldermen last fall, she was worried about the aesthetics of a huge concrete parking lot.
“My main concern was whether the city and the aldermen were thinking of what New Haven would look like in 10 years with the developed waterfront,” she said.
Gold and Chen said IKEA will have a positive economic impact on the city, bringing job opportunities and an expanded tax base.
“A lot of IKEA’s jobs are — full-time with career benefits and with career ladders,” Gold said.
Chen said she too supports IKEA mainly because of the job opportunities.
“A lot of my constituents have lost their jobs. They were on the state payroll,” she said.
Chen and Gilvarg both said IKEA could draw attention to New Haven’s waterfront, which the city is trying to develop. They said the store will bring customers to the area, who might then also shop elsewhere near the coast.
Opponents also recognize the economic potential of the proposal.
“We’re not against jobs and taxes; we think that’s great,” said Lana Berkovich , a local architect and member of the Long Wharf Advocacy Group. “I wish the city had put up a stronger stance in terms of urban design.”
Some critics have noted that as New Haven’s front door, the Long Wharf area might be tarnished by a corporate structure like IKEA.
“It’s the introduction to the city,” said Anstress Farrel of the Urban Design League. “Strip development and ‘big-box’ retailers [do not] make much of a contribution. It’s the first and sometimes the last thing that people see.”
Gilvarg said IKEA is on the agenda for this Wednesday’s City Plan Commission meeting. There have already been two public hearings before the City Plan Commission and the New Haven Board of Aldermen, she said. In this week’s public meeting, IKEA representatives will walk through the details of their plan — from landscaping to signage — and city staff will have the opportunity to comment. Gilvarg said the Commission will then accept the staff’s critique wholesale, or amend it, before voting on the plans.
Gilvarg said she would expect commissioners to vote by Thursday morning, if not Wednesday night.