City may modify downtown project

City officials issued a set of proposed changes addressing community concerns to the Gateway Redevelopment Project this week, completing a public input process begun in late October. But reaction to the proposed amendments from community members has been mixed.

The set of recommendations includes alterations to the project’s design guidelines, which will provide a framework for the $230 million plan to bring Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater downtown. The suggested amendments call for the inclusion of numerous small plazas instead of a large central plaza. Other proposed changes include underground parking, smaller development units, a diversity of architectural styles and facades, and the possibility of replacing the originally proposed hotel and conference center with a supermarket or small department store.

The set of recommendations will be considered by the city’s development commission in February, New Haven Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said.

Partly in response to criticism from community members who said the planning process was not sufficiently inclusive, officials have held public hearings and a design workshop to facilitate community participation over the last months. The public input process has been a groundbreaking step in a city that often shrouds its development projects in mystery, Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsy Clark said.

“The most important thing is that the public was involved in this, and not just disaffected somebodies, people who were architects, people who had good ideas,” said Clark, who is the aldermanic representative for the city’s development commission. “This is a real turnaround, and it’s really terrific.”

But Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said the recommendations were neither concrete nor adequately inclusive of community members’ concerns.

“It’s so rudimentary and the project is so huge and they’ve had so much time to be working on this,” Farwell said. “I’d have thought they would have had something more substantial and more polished.”

In the hearings, making the design more pedestrian-friendly and open to New Haven’s street grid was the most common suggestion from community members, Bialecki said.

“I think it was very clear throughout all the public discussion that people would rather not see one public open space,” Bialecki said. “They would rather see smaller private spaces where you’d have plazas, mini-parks, and outdoor cafes that are more to scale with the streetscape.”

Scott Healy ’91, the executive director of Town Green Special Services District, said design guidelines may be useless unless they are adequately enforced by the city.

“Asking City Plan to enforce these guidelines is asking too much of an overburdened office,” Healy said. “The set of design guidelines is only as good as the body that enforces it.”

Local architect Ben Ledbetter, who suggested the inclusion of a design workshop in the public hearing process, said he applauded the city’s efforts, but thinks planning is not enough to ensure successful development.

“Most of the guidelines are vague and formal and are really just ideas that are going to depend on the real nuts and bolts and the real estate questions that are going to cause these things to come into play,” Ledbetter said.

Officials rejected some of the community members’ suggestions that could not be implemented due to pre-existing agreements, Bialecki said. Although some community members wanted the city to require Gateway Community College to include ground-floor retail in its building, officials said the city has little authority to require the college to do so.

Healy said the failure to require retail on the ground floor of a building otherwise unusable by the general public may jeopardize the vitality of New Haven’s downtown.

“No development of the Gateway site will succeed if we do not have ground floor retail,” he said. “We’re absolutely shortchanging the future of downtown New Haven by not demanding retail put there … It has to be real, open to the public, retail.”

Other suggestions rejected by city officials included moving Gateway Community College elsewhere and refurbishing the parking structure that sits above the New Haven Coliseum to exacerbate rising parking demand downtown.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the proposed amendments reinforce principles necessary for effective urban planning, Associate Vice President of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said.

“It was a good public process for a public project,” said Morand, who is a member of the city’s development commission. “The guidelines have heightened focus on the importance of having an active streetscape so that the project contributes to the vitality of downtown overall.”

The demolition of the Coliseum, the first concrete step of the Gateway project, has been delayed until late winter or early spring. Construction on Gateway Community College is expected to begin in 2008.

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