As the city prepares for the first of several votes on the future of the New Haven Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, the question has become less one of demolition and, instead, one of construction.
The Coliseum, shut down in 2002 by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., will have at least part of its fate decided at this Thursday’s Board of Aldermen’s meeting. A subcommittee of city aldermen will vote on whether to put before the entire committee the question of demolishing the old arena and moving Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theatre onto its downtown site.
With many predicting the aldermen will move toward allocating the $6 million necessary to demolish the Coliseum, the public debate over the arena is set to switch its focus from a discussion of whether to knock down the imposing structure to talk about exactly what should replace it.
“Our expectation is that working with the Board of Aldermen, we will soon demolish the Coliseum and bring in Gateway College, going through with our plans,” New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 said.
The city’s plan for the site is not entirely finalized, said Derek Slap, a spokesman for DeStefano, but the city has a general idea of what institutions and facilities will eventually occupy the site.
“We know that Long Wharf [Theatre] is going to come down on part of the footprint of the Coliseum,” he said. “We know that the Knights of Columbus are interested in using some of that land as well, and the city is interested in talking with developers about a hotel and a small conference center.”
The Coliseum, situated on George and Church streets, lies along the Oak Street highway connector, itself the legacy of a previous attempt to revitalize the area by drawing retail customers to two department stores — Macy’s and Malley’s — along Church Street. Malley’s, however, left in 1982, and Macy’s followed it in 1992; the current city redevelopment plan aims to move Gateway Community College to their now vacant site.
In some circles, this debate over how to revitalize the area already rages as community activists and planners have become increasingly concerned with the future development plans, however vehemently they argue that keeping the Coliseum would have been the best option. Anstress Farwell GRD ’78, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, said no one really knows what the city should be trying to accomplish with their redevelopment plans.
“I don’t think the question of ‘what do we want’ has actually ever been adequately posed to the people,” Farwell said.
Other cities approaching similar development projects often hold workshops at which the government gathers together members of the local residential or business community to establish a consensus about what the area’s basic needs are, she said.
One consensus that has emerged from the debate over redevelopment, however, is that any plan must integrate the Coliseum’s site back into the rest of New Haven’s downtown.
“The most important thing urbanistically is not so much what uses are there — I think the most important part is reconnecting that site to the city all around it,” said Alan Plattus, professor at the Yale School of Architecture and director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop.
Plattus said any plan developed for the Coliseum must address how the various sites in New Haven’s downtown, including the train station, the Knights of Columbus block and Church Street, will work and develop together in the future.
Although the city does not have final designs and has not yet solicited proposals from private developers, Slap said the city aims to develop a plan that will increase the “density” of the area, making it a more exciting and inviting place to be at all times of the day.
“The administration feels that what makes a great and exciting city is when you — come to city and just walk around the area, and there’s something to do,” Slap said. “At night in New Haven we’re kind of there; in the day we’re still getting there.”
But there is some skepticism as to whether the city’s intentions will draw people back to those blocks of Church Street. Although the addition of the 11,000 Gateway students will increase the number of people in the area, critics of the city’s approach say the site should, and could, do more than that for New Haven.
Farwell said the city should be focusing more on mixed-use planning that would add complexity and interest to the streetscape. Although she acknowledges the Coliseum was not viable, she questions whether its proposed replacements — a convention center and Long Wharf Theatre — can draw any more users to the space.
University of Texas at San Antonio professor Heywood Sanders, author of a recent Brookings Institution report on convention centers, said similar centers across the nation are struggling with dwindling attendance and a new convention center in New Haven is not likely to draw large crowds.
“It does not strike me as a terribly plausible investment,” Sanders said. “The last thing New Haven should do is do what everyone else has done and pretty much failed at.”
Colin Caplan, the chair of Alliance for Architecture, who moderated an October debate for the Arts Council for Greater New Haven on the Coliseum’s future, is likewise skeptical that the city’s plan will achieve the desired density and variety in the downtown.
“The current plan is going to be used for a select few people,” he said. “To make a more lively place, you want more things. There’s a lack of liveliness in the city’s plan.”
If the aldermen vote today to take up the city’s redevelopment proposal, they will hold the first public reading of the city’s plans on Feb. 7 and have the final vote on Feb. 22.