High St. reopening possible, says legal counsel

kang_highst
Photo by Victor Kang.

The debate over the closure to traffic of portions of High and Wall streets at the heart of campus is not likely to end soon.

A legal opinion released Monday by a law firm hired by the Board of Aldermen said the Board has the right to reopen portions of the two streets that were closed in a 1990 agreement between the city and Yale. The Board, which is considering asking for more money from the University for the continued street closure, has come under fire from University officials who have said that Yale has already paid the city more than the agreement required.

“We’ve always said that we felt this was a successful agreement,” said city spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04. “I think the key question is — if the Board of Aldermen decides to reopen the streets — what is the economic cost to taxpayers?”

The original agreement, reached in 1990, allowed Yale to close portions of the streets in exchange for a payment of $1.1 million and the University’s support on other matters, including voluntary payments to the fire department and assistance in economic development. Twenty years later, the agreement is up for a planned review as per the original agreement, and some members of the Board have called for additional concessions from Yale in exchange for continued closure.

Yale officials have argued in the past that the city does not have the authority to renegotiate any of the financial aspects of the agreement, as the parameters of the 20-year review are limited to traffic considerations. The legal opinion, solicited by the Board, said this interpretation is incorrect and that the 1990 agreement “virtually acknowledges [that] the city has the authority to reopen the streets,” adding that “there will be no adverse legal impact to the city” if it chooses to do so.

But Benton said this week’s legal opinion “added nothing new” to the debate over the streets’ closure, because “neither the city nor Yale has ever contended that the Board did not have the right to take back the streets.”

Beyond the legal implications, the city may face some negative financial consequences should it choose to reopen the streets, Benton said. Reopening High Street to general vehicular traffic would cost nearly $1 million, she said, because the street would have to be repaved. Reopening the streets would also place Yale’s annual voluntary payments — which totaled nearly $8 million in 2011 — in question, as they are officially tied to the 1990 agreement.

“What [the legal opinion] doesn’t answer is what would be the financial impact, the practical impact if the Board chooses to reopen those streets,” Benton said. “I don’t think anybody could say that it would be better for Yale or for the city to have cars driving on High and Wall streets.”

Yale spokesman Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, who served two terms as Ward 1 alderman starting in 1990, said he remembers the original agreement’s “intent beyond technicalities” was about promoting town-gown relations. Expectations for improvement in the relationship between New Haven and Yale as a result of the agreement, he added, have been “vastly exceeded” over the past 20 years.

Morand said that in the agreement Yale said it would make payments of just over $2 million a year to the city, but in practice the University has chosen to pay nearly four times that amount.

“Yale’s voluntary payments of more than $65 million since 1990 far surpass anything conceived then,” Morand said in an email Tuesday. “Yale’s $20 million investment in the homebuyer program, the million to support New Haven Promise and investments in downtown retail all exceed any commitments made in 1991 and show the partnership has been a great deal.”

Representatives from the Hartford-based law firm — Joiner, Ricketts, Andrews and Henry, LLP — will answer questions at the Board’s city services and environmental policy committee meeting this evening, at which aldermen will consider the streets’ continued closure. Ward 1 Alderwoman-elect Sarah Eidelson ’12, who said during her campaign that she supported the Board’s decision to seek independent legal counsel about the original street closure agreement, said she would be attending the meeting to develop a better understanding of the opinion’s details.

“I look forward to being a part of the process of determining how we move forward on this issue and come to conclusions that are beneficial to all of the parties involved,” Eidelson said in an email Tuesday.

The original 1990 agreement passed the Board of Aldermen by a vote of 19–7.

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