Months of contentious sparring in public hearings over the downtown-development project proved to be of no avail last night, as the Board of Aldermen voted overwhelmingly to approve and fund Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s plan to bring Gateway Community College to downtown New Haven and to tear down the Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum.
The plan will use state funding to consolidate Gateway, currently located on two separate campuses, to one downtown location on the site of the defunct Macy’s and Malley’s stores. In addition, the proposal includes demolishing the Coliseum, eventually replacing it with a hotel and conference center, and bringing in the Long Wharf Theater.
In contrast to previous meetings, there was scant debate yesterday, with a handful of aldermen voicing their support for the project and only one, Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01, expressing any reservations. Even Chen voted for the overall plan, though she then symbolically voted against appropriating funding for the Coliseum demolition she had just voted to approve.
The overall vote was unanimous, excepting the abstention of Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack, who sought to avoid a potential conflict of interest resulting from her status as a Gateway employee.
Prior to the vote, several aldermen voiced their excitement about taking part in a decision that will significantly affect the way the city will look for decades to come. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, who represents most of Yale’s campus, said he saw the plan as part of an overall effort to rejuvenate the city, a process that includes initiatives like public school construction and work on Interstate 95.
“This is a momentous occasion,” he said. “I just imagine this transformation of our city from downtown down to the water’s edge.”
After the board unanimously passed the overall proposal, Chen got up to explain her following vote against funding the demolition due to her concerns about the relevance of the proposed hotel and conference center to her constituents.
“The conference center in my opinion will serve special interests: biotech companies, corporations that need a place to have big conferences,” she said. “I don’t really see people in the city really making use of the convention center, with the exception of perhaps a few jobs.”
Last month, there was some controversy in the board’s meeting as a committee of the whole on the issue. During that meeting, Chen and Ward 16 Alderwoman Migdalia Castro raised concerns about the Coliseum portion of the plan and attempted to split the project into several parts for separate votes, a proposal the board rejected.
At yesterday’s meeting, Castro said her concerns had been assuaged after she spent over six hours reading about the Coliseum’s history, in particular the fact that the building had run short of funding, preventing the garage from being completed as originally intended.
“It helped me make sense to say that even if we had the money to fix it, it wouldn’t be standing the right way because it wasn’t made in that time the right way anyway,” she said. “I welcome the rebirth with the demolition of the Coliseum.”
Concerns about the Coliseum came forward during a series of public hearings and were made clear in a number of letters sent to the board from concerned community members. During yesterday’s meeting, Ward 12 Alderwoman Shirley Ellis-West specifically thanked New Haven’s residents for their participation in the process.
“I’ve been on this board for almost six years, and this process was the first time that I’ve seen the public so intimately involved in something,” she said.
But Yale political science professor David Cameron, who has been vocal throughout the process about his concerns with the plan, said many of the aldermen did not exhibit such an appreciation for public opinion during the hearings.
“There were a lot of flaws in this process,” he said. “I think it was a done deal to begin with … Everyone knew what the vote would be from day one.”
DeStefano is holding a press conference today at Gateway’s future site to celebrate the vote.