Downtown Crossing raises concern from residents

As the New Haven Board of Aldermen gears up to officially sign off on a project to restructure a major downtown roadway, two aldermen registered community concerns with city officials that only one party will benefit from the transformation: Yale University.

Ward 5 aldermen Jorge Perez and Ward 23 alderman Yusuf Shah, the only two aldermen to attend a meeting with city officials last week, brought serious questions and concerns about the benefits of demolishing the Route 34 Oak Street Connector near the Yale School of Medicine in favor of two urban boulevards. Local residents feel the plans for the project were pulled together without the input of the community it would be affecting, and are worried it is one more example of Yale’s concerns being placed ahead of the community’s, Perez and Shah told city officials in the meeting.

Both Perez and Shah said they are excited about progress for downtown, but Perez said he has yet to receive the specific information he needs to support the Route 34 plan.

“If all of a sudden you’re not going to be able to go the work the way you normally do, it’d be nice to know that,” Perez said. “We would like to know what we’ll get from this investment.”

Kelly Murphy, head of economic development for the city, said her office has been reaching out to the local community, highlighting a number of community meetings held over the course of the past year, including one two weeks ago at the New Haven Free Public Library. Murphy said she plans to continue engaging the community as the Downtown Crossing project develops — and it is a long way from being finalized, she added.

“There’s always opportunity with more engagement with folks,” Murphy said. “It’s more on the starting line than finish line.”

Shah, meanwhile, said he has heard many constituents express what he said is a common concern that this project will serve the needs of Yale and not the community. Murphy says that while the University stands to be a major beneficiary of the project, it is certainly not the primary driving force behind the development. She said that although Yale may end up using the space at some point, the primary tenant will be a private, taxable business.

While Shah agreed with Murphy that much of the concern is unfounded, he said he thinks the city would be wise to continue reaching out to its citizens on these sorts of projects.

“There is a feeling in the community that when something like this gets done, no one has come to the community first,” Shah said, adding that city officials should reach out to oft-frustrated citizens in each neighborhood “before they start stirring that cauldron.”

Still, Shah added that constituents often voice concerns about being left out of the process, sometimes without much basis. He pointed to the community’s response to the plan to construct Smilow Cancer Hospital in his neighborhood as evidence — though the need for a center for cancer treatment was evident, he said, some in the community saw it as a way to push people out of the Hill, the neighborhood Shah represents and one of the most crime-ridden in the city. In addition, he said, the bad economic climate leads to more discontent and “squawking” among city residents.

The Route 34 connector has long been seen as an obstacle to the city and University’s growth, cutting directly through downtown and separating the Medical School’s campus from the University’s central campus. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has called it an inefficient use of space that separated the “action and juice” of the biotech industry developing around the Medical School from the city’s central business district. In October, U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, Representative Rosa DeLauro and other city officials joined DeStefano in the lobby of Smilow to announce that the city had received $16 million in federal stimulus dollars to replace the connector with urban boulevards that will open up 11 acres of land currently occupied by roadway. The federal funding, which DeStefano called a “big f-ing deal,” is $7 million less than the city requested in its application for the TIGER II grant. The Board of Aldermen must vote to chip in an additional $7 million for the project to begin in earnest.

The Board of Aldermen is set to vote on changes coming to Route 34 at its meeting next Monday.

Correction: December 1, 2010

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that developer Carter Winstanley has already purchased land that will be available when the project to replace Route 34 is complete.

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