While Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s most immediate concern Wednesday afternoon might have been flooding in parts of New Haven, by last night the mayor’s attention had turned to the city’s long-term well-being.
DeStefano spoke Wednesday evening at the Celentano School library about his proposed “framework” for economic development in New Haven over the next 10 to 15 years. In the second of four community meetings designed to inform city residents and allow them to offer feedback on the mayor’s plan, DeStefano explained to an audience of about 60 people his “infill strategy” — a proposal to expand what is now considered downtown New Haven by increasing the density of urban development, particularly in five city districts.
The mayor began his talk and PowerPoint presentation, during which he periodically took questions from audience members, by sharing general fiscal data for the city. Pointing out that property taxes make up 42 percent of New Haven’s revenue, DeStefano explained that downtown is “very small in land area but very rich in yield” in terms of both property taxes and jobs. As a result, the mayor said, the city should seek to maximize its financial benefits by expanding urban development within what land space is available.
“When you have a compact downtown, it argues for density,” he said.
One of the key elements of his plan, DeStefano said, is encouraging people to expand their current understanding of the geographical area that constitutes downtown New Haven — the traditional “nine squares.” The mayor said that, in order for this expansion to occur, the city should make use of unused or misused land, such as vacant lots or inapt highways, to fill in the spaces that break up urban New Haven. DeStefano likened the process to gardening — several small new developments would need to be planted in order to produce a continuous plot of economically fruitful districts.
DeStefano identified five major areas he said called for urban infill: the former site of the New Haven Coliseum, Downtown Crossing and Route 34 East, Route 34 West, the Medical District and Union Station, and Long Wharf. For each district, DeStefano recommended organizing streets into a grid pattern. He said such a move would facilitate economic activity within the area by connecting it to downtown, which would consequently lead to retail development and business growth.
In the case of Route 34 East, the mayor called for removing the highway, which he said creates a dead end, and replacing it with an “urban boulevard” that would suggest “connectivity, activity, interest and safety.” An urban boulevard, he said, would include a median with plants and would encourage businesses to move to the area, contributing to further commercial and residential growth.
When asked by an attendee how such projects as the conversion of Route 34 would be funded, DeStefano said he anticipated they would require funds from both the city and outside sources.
“The state and federal government, who created the mess [of Route 34], should pay for the mess,” he said.
DeStefano added that many of these projects would require the cooperation of the state Department of Transportation.
The mayor said commercial and medical developments would largely pay for themselves, but housing would have to be subsidized by the city.
The meeting’s attendees said they generally supported the mayor’s template for development — one audience member even called the idea for such a framework “brilliant” — but, in a moment of confrontational dialogue with the mayor, New Haven resident James Washington expressed concern that with the development of retail sites downtown, the amount of existing affordable housing, which he said is already insufficient, might be reduced. Affordable housing should be part of the city’s long-term plan, Washington said.
Shana Schneider ’00, a resident of East Rock and the communications director for Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, said she was intrigued by the mayor’s plans to take advantage of New Haven’s economic potential.
“It’s very interesting to see … a broad conceptual framework,” she said.
For New Haven residents Mary and Richard Lee, the mayor’s talk of economic development brought to mind Tweed Airport’s plans for expansion. Although Richard Lee said he thought the mayor’s plan was thoughtful, he expressed concern about DeStefano’s involvement in the lagging airport’s revival. Mary Lee suggested the city build better rail service to Bradley International Airport in Hartford instead of revitalizing Tweed.
“We’ve fought the battle long enough,” Richard Lee said.
But DeStefano welcomed the feedback of attendees like the Lees.
“I don’t see it as a master plan,” DeStefano said, referring to his proposal. “It’s a matter of convincing people and engaging them.”