Urban planning prompts debate

In 20 years, New Haven could be a city of skyscrapers, a network of small-scale shops and offices or a conglomeration of nonprofit organizations. According to those heavily involved in local development, new construction — including two major projects currently in the pipeline — may give the Elm City a significant push in the direction of one of these extremes.

With an upswing in downtown retail and residential development in recent years, the consensus among locals appears to be that downtown New Haven is headed in the “right direction.” But recent battles over new development proposals indicate that city officials, developers and commentators hold divergent ideas as to what will keep the city on a positive course.

Debates over the appropriate way to incorporate residential housing and public-use buildings into the downtown area have come to the forefront of discussions about two ongoing projects spearheaded by the city. Plans for the Shartenberg site at the corner of State and Chapel streets — which call for a residential tower of up to 32 stories with street-level retail — have sparked concerns about downtown New Haven’s ability to absorb an ever-increasing supply of residential stock. And the city’s decision to relocate Gateway Community College’s campus and Long Wharf Theatre to a site one block south of the Green has called into question the extent to which public institutions should occupy prime downtown space.

Though the projects stem from two different conceptions of how to develop downtown New Haven, Town Green Special Services District Executive Director Scott Healy ’97 said, they will both recycle underused space, breathing new life into New Haven’s aged urban core.

“One has been the most publicly driven project in the city, and the other represents the triumph of the marketplace,” Healy said. “Any well-developed city should have a mixture of the two … and they will transform New Haven’s landscape so that it will attract further development.”

But others, like real estate developer Joel Schiavone ’58, are not so sure.

“These developments are a disaster,” he said. “New Haven was making great progress, but [the developments] are going to destroy the feeling of the town, and it’s going to go right down the drain again.”

Shartenberg: Too much of a good thing?

The amount of residential development the city can — or should — accommodate downtown and the amount of retail space that should accompany it is at the heart of the debates surrounding the Shartenberg development.

Yale architecture professor Alan Plattus said though the design could use a few changes, the idea of putting a high-density residential tower in the city is a good one, especially given the Shartenberg site’s proximity to public transit hubs like the State Street Railway Station.

“Reasonably high-density development is what downtowns are all about, if they can take it,” he said. “It’s the residential development that has fueled the retail expansion downtown.”

Plattus said the positive effects high-density residential development could have are exemplified by the high occupancy of the apartments and condominiums that have opened in the Ninth Square in the past few years. During this time, demand for housing in New Haven, particularly among young professionals and “empty-nesters,” has pushed prices up significantly.

Not only will residential development help the growth of downtown retail, Healy said, but it will also encourage “smart growth,” which aims to restore vitality to city centers and reduce urban sprawl.

“Having a dense urban neighborhood if there’s solid infrastructure actually adheres to the principles of smart growth,” he said.

But Philip Langdon, a senior editor at New Urban News, a national newsletter focusing on community design, said he was concerned that the tower, whose construction will be overseen by the Fairfield-based developer Becker and Becker, would concentrate too much of the downtown residential market in one place.

“For a city the size of New Haven, it could be dangerous to put so much of your emphasis on building up into the sky when what you really want is an appealing network of streets and blocks,” he said.

Because New Haven is a college town, Schiavone said, high-rises are out of place. He said the city should instead be redeveloped with buildings of three to four stories that have pedestrian access because tall buildings would create an intimidating atmosphere that would set back what he described as a movement toward a more welcoming downtown.

In part as a response to these concerns, Becker and Becker plans to reduce the size of the tower before the development agreement is signed in the next couple of months, the developer’s president Bruce Becker SOM ’85 ARC ’85 said.

But city officials maintain that incorporating significant amounts of residential development into the downtown area is vital for the town’s long-term economic health. New Haven Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said putting up a tower should not elicit knee-jerk negative reactions because it is important to consider the way the base of the building will interact with the surrounding area. Because having a pedestrian-friendly streetscape is a priority for the city, Bialecki said, there will be “significant changes” made to the two-story base for the tower initially proposed by Becker and Becker. Community members have expressed concern that the base will not fit in with the surrounding buildings, which are significantly taller than the proposed base.

The base will most likely be four to five stories tall in order to incorporate more retail space, Becker said. The firm currently plans to put a grocery store and a childcare center, among other things, in the base.

The city will continue to meet with Becker and Becker to refine the design for the Shartenberg project in the coming months. Becker said he hopes construction will begin on the site by the end of the year.

New Haven was not always hospitable to construction projects like the Shartenberg development, Healy said. In the past, he said, developers renovated older buildings and converted existing office units into residential space rather than starting from scratch. Becker and Becker’s plan to construct the Shartenberg building from the ground up is an indication that the city now offers rental rates that make new construction fiscally advantageous for developers, Healy said.

“Right now, the city overall has a better reputation,” Healy said. “New Haven has become a much more viable city for developers to invest in.”

Gateway: The public good or a waste of space?

The Gateway project, on the other hand, was started under a very different set of assumptions. When the city committed to underwrite a large part of the $230 million project in 2004, Healy said, developers were not knocking on the door to develop the parcel.

The redevelopment of the sites currently occupied by the now-demolished Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum and Macy’s and Malley’s department stores was therefore less market-driven, Healy said. The site will soon be home to Gateway Community College, Long Wharf Theatre, the Knights of Columbus and assorted retail and residential units.

Bialecki said the Board of Aldermen believed that having an institution of higher education downtown would reinforce the city’s commitment to education.

“The college itself is in the forefront of what education and training is all about,” he said. “Education clearly is one of the city’s strongest assets, and [the relocation of the college] will pay off in the long run.”

Bialecki said the hundreds of faculty and thousands of students coming into the neighborhood for classes would boost sales at the surrounding retail outlets, giving a boost to area’s economy.

But Schiavone said he wondered whether Gateway would actually provide as much additional revenue as city officials have said, pointing out that community college students might not stay downtown after class to patronize shops and restaurants.

“Many of the people going to the college have a job and three kids, so they drive in and out of there as fast as they can,” Schiavone said. “They don’t spend any time in the city and don’t spend any money.”

Healy said relocating the community college to prime downtown real estate also carries a significant opportunity cost to the city in the form of lost tax revenues — as a public institution, the college is exempt from paying taxes.

But Bialecki said this opportunity cost was not as significant as many had made it out to be because the city will receive a PILOT payment — a percentage of the taxes it would have received had the building been private — from the state annually. In this case, Bialecki said he expected it to be between 40 and 60 percent of the cost of building the community college, currently at $140 million.

But beyond the financial debates, Plattus said, the city should appreciate the significance of moving another college into downtown New Haven.

“[Moving Gateway downtown] says that the people who are at the center of the city studying are not just Yale students, but also students who in many cases are coming from very different backgrounds,” he said. “The symbolism of that is important, that there are two institutions of higher learning in downtown New Haven.”

As an alternative to purely public construction projects like the Gateway campus, Healy said he would like to see the city consider public-private partnerships that would generate more mixed-use buildings in the future. If the city had followed this strategy with Gateway, he said, the college could have occupied first few floors of a residential tower — a strategy that would have generated tax revenues while simultaneously providing public-use space.

“The market doesn’t necessarily yield the most responsible form of development, but the government doesn’t necessarily yield the most vital urban spaces either,” Healy said. “The benefit of mixing the private market with the public realm is that every time the private market acts in order to yield as much profit as possible, the public sector can step in and say, let’s set aside something for public use.”

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