Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“It’s like a massive footprint, it’s like a giant fortress when you come into the city,” North Haven resident Kevin Tennyson said, waxing poetic on the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “I always enjoyed going up and down the [parking] helix.”
With a demolition date set for some time within the next year, the Coliseum, that ponderous hulk of a downtown landmark, does not seem that it would attract many supporters or admirers. But the Coalition to Save Our Coliseum, an organization of around 100 area residents, many of them long-time Coliseum patrons, has worked since 2003 to stop the city’s demolition plans.
Sitting vacant since it was closed in August 2002 for mostly financial reasons, the Coliseum exudes an air of lonesome industrial abandonment. Though it was once home to hockey games and circuses, the building’s day in the press has come and gone. The public focus has shifted from the Coliseum itself to what will replace it.
But though the group struggles to have its voice heard, for coalition members, the cause — and the Coliseum — is far from dead.
“So many people think this is a completely done deal, which it is not,” life-long New Haven resident and coalition member Kimberly Thomas said. “There is always hope, and we will continue to fight. We’re going down with the ship.”
The group has struggled to gain a foothold with the city government and the public.
“The politicians get the public to believe what they see in print,” Tennyson said. “People just hear, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ They eat it up and don’t say anything.”
The curator of “The New Haven Traveling Hockey Museum,” which was intended to be located inside the Coliseum before it closed, Tennyson has a house full of the would-be museum’s black binders containing hockey memorabilia and photographs. He now drives down to Bridgeport’s Arena at Harbor Yard to watch the shows he used to view at the Coliseum, where he has attended more than 800 events.
Primarily, coalition members are angered by the fact that there was no public vote to decide the fate of the Coliseum. In response, they published a 43-page “People’s Report” to combat what they felt were misconceptions created by politicians.
“If the people of New Haven said, ‘Get rid of it, close it,’ then I can live with that,” Tennyson said. “But if the mayor closes the building without public input, that has a stink to it.”
Despite the resolve of local government, the Coliseum has remained standing for two years, the demolition date pushed back several times while the city raises money and politicians hammer out the details of what will replace it.
Now, even when the fate of the Coliseum appears to have faded from the public discourse, coalition members vow to continue to raise awareness. Many take aim at the current plans, under review by the State Bond Commission, to move Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater to the vicinity of the Coliseum after its demolition. Promoted by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and former Connecticut Governor John Rowland before his July resignation, the $230 million project also includes plans for a hotel, a conference center, an ice-skating rink, and parking spaces.
The coalition, however, says the area can be improved with businesses and cultural draws like Long Wharf Theater without having to demolish the Coliseum, itself.
Coalition Secretary Dick Walsh, who calls himself an “eternal optimist,” said a number of New Haven architects have creative plans to revive the Coliseum that would ultimately cost less than $230 million.
“[Architect Alan Organschi would] like to take the Coliseum and make use of all of the space — make it brighter, more airier,” Walsh, a life-long Coliseum patron, said. “We think [the current plan is] a waste of space.”
Thomas added that many of the coalition members worry that the Coliseum will be demolished and the city’s ambitious, but hardly cemented, replacement plans will fall through, leaving a deserted lot in downtown New Haven.
“Our concern is, if the city goes through with imploding it, it may never be redeveloped,” Thomas said.
Although Thomas and Walsh both support the notion of moving the Coliseum downtown, Tennyson said he is not in favor of that part of the current plans.
“I think it’s all a smoke screen to move that theater downtown,” he said. “The Coliseum reaches a broad spectrum of people. The theater is more in tune to a select crowd. Perhaps the powers that be want to turn downtown into a mini-Broadway. It’s not going to happen.”
If Tennyson had his way, the Coliseum, like its namesake in Rome, would stand for all ages. But should the wrecking ball fall, the Coliseum will live on in his memory.
“My personal Coliseum supporting will continue, God forbid, when the building no longer exists,” he said.