What’s wrong with downtown plans for Gateway and Coliseum

In June, a few weeks before he resigned, Governor Rowland announced the state had agreed to commit $140 million for a consolidated campus for Gateway Community College on the vacant Macy’s and Malley’s sites, $30 million toward the cost of a new Long Wharf Theatre on a portion of the site occupied by the Coliseum, and $10 million for parking facilities. As part of the arrangement, the city will pay $6 million to demolish the Coliseum.

A second phase of the plan, which will cost more than $200 million and be financed entirely by private investors, envisions a 300-room hotel, 100,000 square-foot conference center, and 280 apartment units in several buildings on the Coliseum site.

Consolidation of Gateway at one location in New Haven — it’s now located at two sites, one on Sargent Drive, the other in North Haven — makes a lot of sense. But there are two major problems with the proposal to build the consolidated campus on the downtown site. One involves the long-term cost to the city of giving away prime downtown real estate for a tax-exempt purpose. The other involves parking.

New Haven has probably the greatest amount of tax-exempt property of any city in the state. More than half of the real estate in the city will be excluded from the 2004 grand list. The grand list dropped by $100 million in 2003 and will probably drop again this year as more property goes off the tax rolls because of the continued expansion of Yale-New Haven Hospital and other tax-exempt institutions. The city has one of the highest tax rates in the state. The tax rate has gone up each year for the past three years and will no doubt continue to go up in the future. The city has faced a fiscal crisis each year and its workforce has shrunk by 750 positions over the past three years, with substantial cuts in the police and fire departments.

What New Haven needs, above all, is more tax-generating property. The very last thing it needs is to give away two large blocks of prime downtown real estate to a tax-exempt institution. It’s true the city will receive some $1.8 million per year in Payments-in-Lieu of-Taxes (PILOT) from the state for Gateway. But that’s much less than it would receive if the property were developed with tax-paying uses.

Gateway has 5,600 students and another 6,000 take noncredit courses. Based on the experience of community colleges in Hartford and Bridgeport, the enrollment will probably increase substantially when it moves downtown. The college now makes use of some 1,200 parking spaces and most estimates suggest it will need at least 1,500 to 2,000 spaces for its students and staff in the future.

A severe shortage of parking already exists in the downtown area. The plan calls for adding parking spaces in two existing garages and building two new garages in the Ninth Square area. But those additions and new garages will add a total of 1,000 new spaces, far less than the number needed. Where will Gateway’s students and staff park?

One possibility would be the Temple Street Garage, which is immediately adjacent to the proposed site. But that garage serves the patients and staff of the Temple Medical Center as well as businesses in the area. If Gateway takes over the garage, where will those people park?

Another possibility would be to keep the Coliseum and its 2,400 parking spaces. The ramps could be enclosed and the top level of parking covered as the architects originally intended, and the arena space could be adapted for artistic and cultural uses. But Mayor DeStefano decided two years ago to demolish the Coliseum and, despite the subsequent uproar from architects and many others, he has refused to reconsider the decision.

So the likely result of putting Gateway at the downtown location, in addition to foreclosing any future development of two large blocks with tax-generating commercial, retail, and residential uses, will be an even more acute shortage of parking, and even greater traffic congestion, in the area.

The second phase of the downtown project — a hotel the size of the Omni, a conference center, and several hundred apartments on the Coliseum site — is at this point little more than an exercise in wishful thinking. It’s New Haven’s version of a “field of dreams”: “Demolish the Coliseum and they will come.”

But in fact they — private investors — probably won’t come, for a simple reason: They don’t like to lose money. Except around the time of Yale’s graduation, New Haven doesn’t need a second 300-room hotel. And conference centers don’t make money, which is why they, and usually the hotels attached to them, are almost always built largely if not exclusively with public money. So New Haven’s “field of dreams” is likely to remain just that — a field, in this case probably a large vacant lot.

One reason the plan has problems is because the process by which it was formulated was flawed. Indeed, it gives it too much credit to call it a plan; it’s more like a back-of-the-envelope scheme, hatched by the mayor and a few advisers behind closed doors and agreed by a governor in desperate political trouble. As usual in Mayor DeStefano’s New Haven, the Board of Aldermen and the public have been left out in the cold. In the more than two years since the mayor announced — without any prior public hearing — its closure and demolition, there has never been a public hearing on the fate of the Coliseum. Neither the City Plan Commission nor the Board of Aldermen has held a public hearing to consider alternative sites for Gateway. Neither body has held a public hearing on the mayor’s decision to give away two large downtown blocks to a tax-exempt institution. A textbook case of New Haven-styled democracy!



David Cameron is a professor of Political Science and a member of the board of the New Haven Urban Design League.

Comments