Since Mayor Richard Lee’s unsuccessful redevelopment schemes of the 1950s and ’60s, New Haven has been a laboratory for inventive and well-meaning city planners. And though the redevelopment of the downtown moves forward steadily, one question has yet to be fully addressed: How can we build a downtown to serve the entire city?
The two plans currently under discussion are the Shartenberg 32-story residential and commercial tower and the plan to move Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater to the site of the old Coliseum. The architects working on the downtown projects know their history; no one seriously thinks, as Lee had, that downtown can be a commercial center, and developers know the importance of small-scale, mixed-use development.
But while the News applauds the emphasis on building a dense downtown with appealing street-level retail and convenient pedestrian access, the question remains open as to who exactly will be welcomed by the small storefronts and restaurants. Broadway is an appealing pedestrian-friendly mix of local and chain establishments, but no one would argue that Broadway’s J. Crew and Urban Outfitters should serve as a ideal model for the rest of the city. It’s a very small segment of New Haven that can afford $80 cashmere sweaters.
What sets New Haven apart from so many other cities is the incredible economic diversity of its residents. From the mostly middle- to upper-middle-class Yale students and professors to the lower-income residents of the Hill and Dixwell neighborhoods, there is no “typical” New Haven resident.
The News has commented previously on the need for inclusive downtown planning, noting that many of those at the Coliseum demolition were from the suburbs. But the issue is still pressing: While there is talk that some of Shartenberg’s apartments would be priced below market rate, affordable housing in Shartenberg will be meaningless if those residents still must trek to Dixwell’s newly opened C-Town for affordable groceries.
The ideal urban downtown would serve as a centering point for a whole city, a neighborhood for all neighborhoods. Lee’s work failed in part because his planning did not reflect the on-the-ground reality of New Haven as a city centered around neighborhoods and their small businesses; he tried to build a city that would conform to his view of it, not the city’s view of itself. Today’s work could fail in the same way if the plans drawn up do not reflect our city’s actual makeup. Building a successful downtown takes more than building a certain square-footage of ground-floor retail or a certain number of parking spaces. It takes putting in a wide variety of stores — why not use this as an opportunity to foster local entrepreneurship? — and then ensuring the whole city has access to convenient public transportation to take them downtown.
Downtown done right will keep New Haven on its upward trajectory. Downtown done wrong will exacerbate all city’s socioeconomic tensions and ensure that, 50 years from now, scholars will be writing about the unsuccessful redevelopment schemes of the 2000s and ’10s.