Town and gown dispute closed streets

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Photo by Alon Harish.

Town and gown met uncomfortably at a busy campus intersection today.

In the fall of 1990, the University entered into a 20-year agreement in which it paid the city $1.1 million and committed to increase its investment in the city in exchange for the closure of portions of High and Wall Streets to general vehicular traffic. Twenty years later, city union leaders want Yale to pay to keep the streets closed.

At a press conference on the corner of Elm and High Streets, union officials clashed with University representatives about whether Yale is fulfilling its financial obligation to New Haven. While representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which includes five city unions, said the agreement was never meant to be indefinite, Yale officials said it was a one-time payment only subject to a traffic-based review.

“Yale is using hardball corporate tactics on the city’s taxpayers,” said Local 3144 vice president Elaine Braffman, the Ward 28 alderwoman at the time the agreement was signed. “To claim that the city has no right to thoroughly review the agreement is inaccurate, intellectually dishonest and immoral.”

But Braffman was a co-sponsor of amendments that would have converted the deal from a sale to a lease subject to renewal, said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, who at the time represented Ward 1, home to most of the central campus. That effort failed, Morand said, and the deal, including the provision calling for a one-time donation from Yale for the traffic rights, passed the Board of Aldermen 19 to 7.

In a letter to the Board of Aldermen two weeks ago, Morand, who recently left Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs for the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, said the deal came at a time when the city was looking for one-time revenue to help fight its budget woes. Yale was in the process of developing a formula it could use to make annual voluntary payments to the city, but the project closing four blocks of High and Wall Streets was a way to generate immediate revenue for the city’s budget.

“It was an early traffic-calming, pedestrian-friendly development – a precursor for safe streets that are such a high policy priority now,” Morand wrote. After the press conference, Morand added that the city’s Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking completed a positive review of the closed streets late last year.

Regardless of the original terms of the agreement, however, Matthew Brockman, an AFSCME representative, said Yale and the city should come to a new agreement by which the University leases the streets rather than hold onto them in perpetuity.

One issue of contention between the union and University officials present was symbolic.

According to Braffman, the closure of the streets is an effort by Yale to “retreat behind a fortress” and isolate itself from the New Haven community. But Lauren Zucker, Yale’s Director of New Haven Affairs, said the press conference, which forced student passersby to divert their paths on High Street, was proof enough that the streets are open to the public.

But Ben Crosby ’13, a Pierson sophomore, joined union leaders in criticizing the University’s approach to the streets.

“These streets belong to the people of New Haven,” Crosby said. “I don’t want the institution I care so much about to use its power and influence to get special treatment from the city. The city should not give its streets away for free.”

Still, New Haven reaps more financial rewards from Yale’s presence than any other city does from a university, Morand said.

“Yale is one of only a handful of places that makes any voluntary payment, and it makes the biggest of any university anywhere, even though there are plenty of universities with much larger budgets and student bodies, not to mention plenty in cities with larger problems and issues,” Morand said.

While the University’s payment to the city started at $1.1 million in 1991, it is now $7.8 million, a 54 percent increase from last year’s $5.1 million. Yale committed in November to fund New Haven Promise, which provides college scholarships to New Haven public school students.

Still the city suffers financially from Yale’s presence, because the University takes up a vast amount of land exempt from city property taxes, Braffman said. Using a refrain of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who often calls union-won benefits and pensions for city employees the “Pac-Man of the budget,” Braffman called Yale’s expansion the “Pac-Man” of the city.

But the non-taxability of hospitals, churches, and universities is a long-standing principle, Morand said. Further, the state compensates the city for its tax-exempt properties through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program. New Haven received $27.3 million in PILOT money this year.

Taxpayers, including those in New Haven, fund the PILOT program, though, countered Braffman.

“Yale is like the rich friend you bring out to dinner, who when the bill arrives, says his pockets are empty,” Braffman said, adding that Yale’s unwillingness to make a further financial payment for the street closure is particularly disgraceful at a time when the city is in the midst of laying off dozens of employees and making deep cuts to services. “What does it say that in New Haven’s hour of need, Yale is more interested in protecting its loot?”

Though charged words pierced the cold, rainy air, the press conference — attended mainly by union officials, Morand, Zucker, and reporters — was not uncivil. AFSCME spokesman Larry Dorman even posed for a photo with Morand, who said he is generally supportive of AFSCME’s causes but feels a need to correct the record.

“I like high rhetoric,” Morand said. “But not the kind that soars unburdened by facts.”

Morand added that the unions’ fight with DeStefano over benefits, pensions and layoffs is not one in which Yale should be asked to intervene.

A letter to University President Richard Levin urging Yale to convert the street closure agreement to a lease with a “fair rate” has the signatures of 12 alumni, including former Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healy ’04.

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