City unveils plan for Oak Street

After decades of stalling construction plans for the redevelopment of the Oak Street neighborhood — a thriving immigrant community that had been razed in the 1960s to make way for a highway that was never built — city officials announced a $342 million conceptual plan this month to turn 26 acres of bare land into a bustling commercial and residential area.

City officials said the proposal for the zone — which will combine residential, retail and office uses with a large parking lot — will create jobs and repair the urban fabric of the area. But critics said the city is not soliciting enough community input and is not using good urban-design principles to guide its redevelopment of the area, which lies southwest of the central Yale campus and touches the Yale-New Haven Hospital on its eastern end.

Executive Director of the City Plan Department Karyn Gilvarg ARCH ’75 said the conceptual plan proposes 608 new residential units, a 1,958-space parking lot, and retail and biomedical facilities. The residential units will be housed in mixed-use buildings, which will incorporate ground floor retail with apartments on upper levels. The parking lot would be located near the Yale-New Haven Hospital to alleviate a parking shortage in the area, which may be exacerbated by the opening of Yale-New Haven Cancer Center. 32,600 square feet would be allocated for retail, and another 229,000 square feet for biomedical uses.

Gilvarg said New Hampshire-based RKG Associates Inc. focused on the needs of local residents and businesses when designing the conceptual plan, which will act as a set of guidelines for future developers of the site.

In response to growing traffic congestion on Chapel Street in the 1950s, former New Haven Mayor Richard Lee had set out to create a six-lane limited-access express route through the city with a bridge spanning Western Memorial Park, Gilvarg said. The city used eminent domain to purchase 26 acres of land to construct the corridor, but the plan quickly suffered financial setbacks and opposition from environmentalists and community members, she said. The plans never moved forward, and the land has remained an empty, unused lot ever since.

Critics of the proposal said they are pleased the city is finally moving forward on plans to redevelop the area, but that there are major problems with the proposal as it stands.

President of the New Haven Urban Design League Anstress Farwell GRD ’78 said she thinks the city’s plan for Route 34 should focus on residential and commercial development rather than the creation of a new parking lot, which would increase pollution and crime in the neighborhood. She said expanded commerce in the neighborhood would reduce traffic by offering incentives to commuters to live in the local area rather than commute.

“I think in looking at this kind of plan, the city is missing a huge opportunity,” Farwell said. “The area is really struggling up to this point, and if you build it up with good public amenities, you would be more likely to get the nurse who lives in Madison to move here.”

But Gilvarg said the neighborhood does require extra parking space in light of the current shortage, and that overlooking this need would drive many businesses out of the area.

“One of the things we heard during the approvals for the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center was that if the Hospital does not supply adequate parking for staff and visitors, it overflows into local neighborhoods,” she said. “Not supplying the parking would make the site unmarketable.”

Gilvarg said that while she would like to decrease car traffic with an expansion of public transportation, this would not be feasible because of the high costs involved and the low population density of the area.

“We can’t move to that more transit-friendly environment without some kind of investment, [and] the state is not making the investments for transit,” she said.

Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah, who represents the area being redeveloped, said he was disappointed with the lack of input the city has solicited from the local community. He said many local residents feel they have been left out of the planning process and are skeptical about the benefits it would bring to the community.

“I think that the plan did not have any of the elements [that] the West River community have proposed to the city,” he said. “I am trying to do whatever I possibly can to make all of this happen with the city and with the community bringing it all together, but it just seems like there are some things that still need to be worked on.”

Jerry Poole, who lives on George Street, which is adjacent to the targeted area, said he is concerned about the increased traffic the city’s proposal would create.

“The parking has been a very deep concern of all of us because of the amount of traffic that will be generated,” he said. “We need to cut down on the use of automobiles.”

The city will likely submit a Municipal Development Plan to the Board of Aldermen for the redevelopment plan to allow for better access to funding. Gilvarg said she hopes to solicit proposals from developers by 2008.

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