Behind tower plan, an Elm City devotee

As the city looks to increase its downtown population and attract new retail, Bruce Becker ARCH ’85 SOM ’85 wants to be the man to do the job.

Becker is the president of Fairfield-based Becker and Becker, the developer selected by the city last month to give new life to the Shartenberg site — currently a 1.5 acre parking lot on the corner of Chapel and State streets. Becker’s firm, one of nine developers to submit proposals, suggested a 32-story tower that would be the tallest skyscraper in the city, although the actual tower will likely be shorter by about 10 stories.

Becker’s fascination with New Haven runs deep. As an undergraduate at Amherst College, he wrote his senior thesis on the nine-square grid that organizes New Haven’s downtown. Becker describes the grid, which was originally designed by the city’s colonial-era founders, as one of the finest in the American landscape. He said the Shartenberg tower will bring new life to downtown while offering him a chance to interact once again with the city’s center grid.

“There is an idealism that is evident in the city plan that has always been part of New Haven, and I want to honor that,” he said. “I am eager to build in a way that is consistent with ideals.”

Some community members have criticized Becker and Becker’s design for the Shartenberg site, describing it as overwhelming and out of synch with the surrounding buildings, few of which are more than five stories tall.

But Becker said he thinks his critics have pre-judged his firm’s bid to redevelop the site. The original proposal was drawn up on very short notice, he said, and the final design is likely to be very different from the plans delivered in September.

“There are aspects of all of those other proposals that we would like to incorporate in our plan,” he said. “We don’t have a pre-conceived notion of what we are going to build in terms of its style, [but] we will still have a tower that will be visible in the skyline.”

The Elm City’s towers cover both extremes of the aesthetic scale, he said, with some of the most beautiful towers in the state — such as the Kline Biology Tower and the Knights of Columbus building — as well as some of the worst. He said he hopes to construct a tower that will meld in with the rest of the city’s landscape.

Despite the existence of a few other towers in the Elm City, developer Joel Schiavone ’58 said high-rise buildings do not fit with the character of New Haven, which he described as first and foremost a college town. The city should focus instead on building three- to four-story buildings that could help foster a friendlier and less intimidating downtown than the skyscrapers would.

But Becker said he thinks that the placement of the Shartenberg site at the corner of State and Chapel streets and next to the State Street Railroad Station strengthens the case for constructing a tower.

“It is important to create density at location where mass transit is available, otherwise you can have a sprawl,” he said. “In Fairfield County, you are seeing a sprawl. The traffic is a major concern for anyone who lives here.”

Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said although she has heard concerns from a number of residents about the size and scope of the tower, she thinks Becker and Becker had a very strong proposal, especially with their financing and organization.

Becker studied at the School of Architecture and School of Management between 1981 and 1985, during which time he lived on Lynwood Place. He said one of the things that struck him most was the small number of professionals living in New Haven, but he hopes the diverse housing units in the tower will encourage more to stay.

“I think a lot of the corporations that would typically be in New York or Stamford could be in New Haven,” he said. “I am hoping that our work with the Shartenberg site helps the city become more self-sustaining so that the people that become more affluent do not move out of the city.”

A critical mass of residents in the downtown area, Becker said, would also attract some much needed retail. In particular, additional residents could help attract a local supermarket, for which some city officials — including Clark — have called for for several years.

Once plans for the site have been finalized — hopefully by the end of the year — he will be able to start construction quickly, Becker said.

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