The now-approved demolition of the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum will not itself be dramatic — the city is dismantling it, not imploding it — but the emotions surrounding the building are only slightly less explosive than they have been throughout the two-year debate on the Coliseum’s fate.
Speaking at a press conference held Wednesday morning on the future site of Gateway Community College, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. spoke of how the redevelopment of the downtown blocks near the Coliseum’s George Street site will be crucial for the future economic development of the city. The New Haven Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday night to go ahead with DeStefano’s proposal to redevelop the site, capping off a protracted debate between those who value the Coliseum as a New Haven landmark and those who see it as dragging down blocks that could be made more profitable and lively.
“I think a lot of folks in the community have good memories of the blocks around us, but those are memories of New Haven’s past,” DeStefano said. “What we’re doing on this block is essential to the future of the city.”
DeStefano said New Haven’s tax base has grown with the continued expansion of the city’s biotechnology sector, and he cited the recently opened IKEA as an example of the progress that the downtown redevelopment will facilitate. Such development, he said, would be essential to the future of the city.
Skepticism regarding the city’s plan linger, however, for some New Haven residents, many of whom mobilized over past months to protest the Coliseum’s demolition and remain dissatisfied with how the city, they say, ignored or sidelined many of their complaints.
Dick Walsh, secretary of the Coalition to Save Our Coliseum, said the predominantly Democratic Board of Aldermen moved in “lock-step” with DeStefano, who is also a Democrat, and did not give serious consideration to how the current plan could have been improved.
“We just felt very frustrated because we couldn’t get our facts out — nobody would listen,” Walsh said. “We thought that we and the local architects had a much better plan for the area, but we weren’t listened to, and we expected the vote.”
Walsh said the organization would likely campaign for one or more of the three aldermen who abstained from Tuesday’s vote, which was otherwise unanimously in favor of the plan.
Thomas Holahan ’63 GRD ’72, a current mayoral candidate who had also been active in criticizing the city’s plan, said the aldermen should not have gone ahead with the vote, as he has lodged a complaint about the board’s procedure with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission which, if approved, would invalidate the vote.
“I think that the last public hearing they had was not properly held, and if the meeting leading up to the full meeting is defective, then the vote on the full board is also defective,” Holahan said.
He said he is presently looking into whether he as a private citizen has grounds to sue the city for going ahead with the vote.
“If I find out that I can, I’ll file suit on the spot,” he said, adding that he felt the demolition of the Coliseum was an ill-advised move.
City officials responsible for the plan remain confident that the redevelopment, which will begin this summer and finish in 2010, will proceed without delay and will benefit New Haven by reinvigorating its downtown and establishing the city as a center for arts and education in Connecticut. City officials specifically reaffirmed their support, moreover, for the plan to solicit private developers to build a proposed small-scale conference center.
“I don’t pass judgment on things before their time,” New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said. “[But] I wouldn’t be an advocate of taking that shot if I didn’t think it was a good opportunity.”
The city currently intends to request proposals from developers for a hotel, the conference center, retail and residential construction this summer.
Ward 12 Alderwoman Shirley Ellis-West said the board has always been in favor of moving the Long Wharf Theatre and just needed time to debate issues of how the demolition and construction would be funded.
She also said the board paid close attention to the issues raised by the community and included in the final bill a clause that would send the plan back to the board for another vote if there were any substantive changes in the plan’s proposed design or any changes in the amount of parking that would be created. The plan must also be referred back to the board if any extra funding is needed.
“We moved quickly, but we didn’t move as quickly as some people thought we did,” Ellis-West said. “We paid attention to what the public was saying to us.”
The two institutions which will be most affected by the plan — Long Wharf Theatre and Gateway Community College, both of which will be relocated downtown — say they are optimistic about the move, especially considering the near unanimity of the aldermen’s vote.
“We will be able to serve hundreds of thousands more [patrons] for generations to come,” Michael Stotts, managing director of the Long Wharf Theatre, said.
He praised the Board of Aldermen for what he called a “vote of confidence” in Long Wharf’s contributions to the city.
Long Wharf needs to raise $30 million to fund the move, in addition to $30 million provided by the state. Stotts said the theater hopes to have the money, most of which the theater will solicit through larger “leadership gifts,” by the time construction begins in 2007.
“Of course it’s a challenge, but everything is anticipated to be on schedule,” Rob Finn, Long Wharf’s public relations manager, said.
Robert Miles, director of Career Services at Gateway, said he was impressed at how the city was generally able to agree on the plan, which he contrasted with protracted debates in Hartford and Bridgeport over renovating their community colleges.
“At a certain point the aldermen have to make a decision for the city, and that’s what they did,” Miles said.
The city’s next steps will be to demolish the Coliseum and the old Macy’s building and to also continue talking with private developers about potential plans for constructing the conference center and hotel.