Debate begins on downtown

An extensive plan to bring Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theatre downtown faces a series of tests in the coming weeks, as City Hall seeks approval of the project from the city and the state.

Later this month, several components of the $230 million plan are expected to be submitted to the New Haven Board of Aldermen, which would reshape the downtown area around where the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum currently stands. In late September, the State Bond Commission is also scheduled to vote on an initial part of the $180 million Connecticut has pledged to the project.

The plan — which also includes space for a hotel and convention center, a skating rink, new housing and several new parking garages — is intended to bring over 10,000 students and thousands of theatergoers to a part of downtown that has long been in decline. But while city officials said they were very optimistic about receiving approval from both the State Bond Commission and the Board of Aldermen, the plans have come under attack by some who have questioned whether it provides the best use of centrally located real estate.

Despite those concerns, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said he hopes to present a complete array of proposals this month to the board, even if details of the project may change over time.

“We want to go to the Board of Aldermen with the whole package,” said DeStefano, a Democrat. “We want everyone to look at the project in its entirety.”

Yet critics like Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, have argued that the planned development devotes too much space to parking, removes property from the city’s tax base and ignores ways in which the Coliseum and surrounding areas could better be used for retail.

“It is the kind of project that is conceived whenever the doors are shut to community involvement,” Farwell said. “Every decision, from the closing of the Coliseum to inviting Gateway downtown, everything has been made without any public input.”

The project itself was rolled out by DeStefano and then-Gov. John Rowland in early June, who touted it as the city’s most ambitious downtown development effort in 30 years. Although Rowland announced his resignation less than three weeks later under the threat of possible impeachment, his replacement, Republican Gov. Jodi Rell, has expressed her intention to continue the state’s support of the project.

Under the agreement reached by DeStefano and Rowland, the city will pay for the demolition of the coliseum — slated to cost about $6 million and completed by early next year — while the state is responsible for Gateway’s $140 million move, $30 million for Long Wharf Theatre’s relocation and $10 million for parking and infrastructure. The rest of the development will be paid for by the theatre and private investors.

But while the city’s share of the project is only a small percentage of the total funding needed, the local debate over the redevelopment plans may be more extensive than the discussion at the state level.

Although the Board of Aldermen includes many close DeStefano allies, Farwell said she had spoken to several members who are considering opposing the project, although she declined to name them.

Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said he believed most aldermen were “generally supportive” of the project, even though they were concerned about some of the details.

“I think it’s very important that we give the public a lot of time in which to offer their input and not try to rush this through,” Healey said. “The downtown belongs to everyone, and we should make a good faith effort to give everyone a chance to voice their concerns.”

The State Bond Commission includes several state legislators and appointed officials, but it is chaired by the governor, who determines what items are on the panel’s agenda. As a result, the commission — which must approve all bond issuances by a majority vote — very rarely rejects a proposal that comes before it, according to State Rep. Richard Belden, a commission member.

“Generally, by the time something hits the bond commission, it’s touched every base it needs to, both locally and at the state level,” said Belden, a Republican who serves as ranking member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. “It’s very seldom that an item is defeated.”

Adam Liegeot ’94, a spokesman for Rell, said the agenda for the commission’s September meeting — which has not yet been released — will include some components of the plan. Tony Bialecki, New Haven’s deputy director of economic development, said he expected the state to approve funds this month for the demolition of the old Macy’s site — where Gateway will be located — as well as for the design of the college, waiting to approve the bulk of the state bonds until the end of the year.

The New Haven Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum stands on the site where city leaders hope to move Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater. Opponents say there was not enough community involvement in the plan.
Timothy Polmateer
The New Haven Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum stands on the site where city leaders hope to move Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater. Opponents say there was not enough community involvement in the plan.

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