As expected, the Connecticut State Bond Commission unanimously voted today to approve more than $20 million in funding to support New Haven’s downtown redevelopment plan.
The first component of the $180 million project to move both Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theatre to new downtown locations, the funding will go to clearing the former Macy’s and Malley’s sites on Church Street where the college will be located, as well as to infrastructure and parking improvements in the area.
The plan is intended to bring over 10,000 students and thousands of theatergoers to a part of downtown that has long been in decline. Similar steps have already been taken in Hartford and Bridgeport, where city colleges were relocated to central downtown areas. Dennis Schain, spokesman for Governor Jodi Rell, said he is confident the benefits these cities have seen will be just as great in New Haven.
“The addition of thousands of students downtown brings more life to the city by helping to create a more attractive and vibrant downtown,” Schain said. “And the government understands that urban centers are key to the health of the state.”
The plan — which has been submitted to the Board of Aldermen, but has not yet been approved — will hand over a parcel of prime downtown real estate to the state of Connecticut to relocate Gateway Community College, a tax-exempt institution. Board member Carl Goldfield said that although members have not discussed the issue enough to formulate a point of view, some have raised concerns about giving the state full powers over the land.
“Maybe building up instead of out with a combination of private owners and non-profit organizations would be a better option, but these things have a momentum of their own,” Goldfield said. “Now that the state has given us money before we have even said yes, it is going to be pretty hard to say no.”
Some New Haven residents complain that the state and city governments have not offered the public a say in the decision to develop the site formerly occupied by Macy’s and Malley’s. Political Science Director of Undergraduate Studies David Cameron said many residents think the site could be adapted for better uses.
“The city should, for a change, listen to the public before going forward with the project,” Cameron said. “The very last thing New Haven should be doing given its economic situation and, in particular, the enormous amount of tax-exempt property in the city, is to give it away for a tax-exempt purpose.”
The first step in a long-term project, the plan cannot be fully enacted until another proposal is approved by the State Bond Commission granting New Haven the $100-million-plus package to construct the college and theater. Still, commission members said they are confident that if the first $20 million is spent appropriately, they will be eager to approve the rest of the funding. State representative and commission member Richard Belden said the plan had overwhelming support from the commission because it is a win-win situation.
“We have found that moving these facilities right downtown where they are accessible to so many transportation modes is an economic benefit for the city as well as an educational benefit for many residents who wouldn’t have previously had the opportunity to enjoy this cultural center,” Belden said.
The State Bond Commission estimates that if the city moves forward with the project immediately, it could take as few as three years to complete. Once the Macy’s and Malley’s sites are demolished, the next step will be for the city to perform an environmental study of the land and to hire an architect to design the new college.