Prof. Rae talks Elm City development

Douglas Rae, the Richard S. Ely Professor of Management & Professor of Political Science at the Yale School of Management, got “caught up in the city” when he started a volunteer organization, New Haven Youth Soccer, in the early ’80s. Having seen the city evolve since then, Rae said bolstering and rethinking transportation — primarily to New York City — will prove to be key to the growing the city’s wealth.

QIn your class “New Haven and the American City,” what is your main theory regarding development in New Haven?

AIf I have a business related hobbyhorse, it’s transportation. Notably: trains and planes.

I believe with all my heart that the most important thing Yale and the city of New Haven can do for themselves is to press for a radical improvement in the performance of Metro-North between New Haven and New York. For Yale it’s very important, because against competitive institutions like University of Chicago, Harvard, Columbia or NYU, New Haven’s transportation can’t compare. Almost every smart person we want to hire is married to or partnered with some other person who needs a job. In a big metropolitan market, it’s usually possible to find two jobs. But in a small regional market it isn’t. The solution has to be that Yale needs to be more closely integrated with the New York City labor market, and better commuter rail is the most promising way to do that.

I also think Tweed is important, but for different reasons. I was president of its board during the mid ’90s, but I accomplished very little. The problem there is that it’s a local board, and therefore local interests are predominant. Local interests are, by definition, interests based around antagonism of the noise of airports. It’d be great if you could establish it as Connecticut’s airport “B.” While I was president of the board, SWA wanted to run 35 flights a day out of it, the neighbors and the politicians didn’t think it was a good idea, but I did. Passenger interests need to prevail.

QAre there any new development projects in New Haven that seem particularly promising or interesting?

AI think of the new projects, specifically the ones that involve substantial housing, as promising projects — for example, the project on 360 State Street, which is actually under construction right now. This comes back to the rail service, though. Its success will hinge on the quality of rail service that’s available. Downtown grew up, historically, because of the rail service. In today’s era, with the constraints on energy consumption, it’s the perfect time to restore rail.

QWhat about other projects?

AThe Gateway Project. I’m unsure if it’s going to be a success for the city, but I think it will be a success for Gateway. The fear that many downtown businessmen have is that Gateway will take up a lot of parking and not generate much revenue, which might be true.

Of things going on in New Haven, Yale’s homebuyer program is a clear-cut winner. The University provides a $25,000 subsidy for people to live in “grey areas” around the University.

I also think what’s going on with the restaurant and club scene downtown is fabulous and heartening. There are a lot of improvisational projects that you wouldn’t think of as spectacular but they work — the redevelopment of Chapel Square mall for housing — it just works. It’s architecturally hideous, but it works. They’ve created a plaza in the middle and created facades on what otherwise would’ve been stores.

But the aggregate of housing units — if both North Gate and 360 State Street projects went through — may be too big. The 360 State Street development is 32 or 36 levels high, depending on who you listen to, and I don’t think there is justification for that kind of vertical density in this city. It’s hard to believe that that makes economic sense.

QHow will the “10th Square” (the old Coliseum site) benefit New Haven? Was it a good idea to tear it down?

AThe Coliseum didn’t work very well as a building; I didn’t oppose tearing it down. The idea of mixed-use retail with housing dotted through makes sense to me. The idea of Long Wharf Theatre makes sense to me. A convention center, though, doesn’t make sense. In second tier cities, convention centers are almost all failures; ours would also be a failure. Before urban renewal that area was a dense mixed-use retail and housing neighborhood, and if we could get that back, we should. Everything connected to urban renewal was done at a scale too large for New Haven, so I hope they’ll reconstruct some urban texture down there.

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