Lawmakers weigh street closures

The New Haven Board of Aldermen is set to consider the continued closure of Wall and High streets in coming months.

City lawmakers have begun re-examining the 1990 Yale-New Haven agreement that cleared the streets of vehicular traffic. While the original agreement was to review the closure arrangement after 20 years — a period of time that elapsed over two years ago — aldermen say they are intent on keeping the streets closed.

As terms of the 1990 agreement, the University paid a lump sum of $1.1 million to the city, committed to yearly voluntary payments as a “fire services use charge” and agreed to allow the city to tax the University golf course. While some aldermen previously proposed using the review of street closures as a bargaining chip to demand further monetary contributions from the University, current city officials interviewed shied away from such a strategy.

“Pushing Yale to pay more money is not the best way to engage the University and strengthen our relationship,” said Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, who chairs the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee (CSEP) that will oversee the Board’s handling of the street closures.

“By and large, the public wants the streets to remain closed,” Elicker added. “We don’t want to be calling Yale’s bluff and threatening to open the streets to make them, say, pay an additional million dollars.”

According to Elicker, the Board of Aldermen’s precise authority over the streets is unclear. The document outlining the agreement does not specify whether it represents a 20-year lease that now needs to be renewed, which could involve the University paying additional money to the city, or a one-time agreement that holds for perpetuity. City corporation counsel Victor Bolden previously testified before the board on that question, arguing that the agreement did not constitute a renewable lease but an indefinite settlement, Elicker said.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. praised the closure deal in a statement to the News Monday and called for a permanent agreement between the University and the city.

“I think the closures have been a good thing and worked well,” he said. “I think its time the transfer be made permanent on terms that are equitable to both Yale and the City of New Haven.”

Yale officials have previously argued that the city cannot legally dictate the financial terms of the agreement.

In a Sunday email to the News, Yale’s Director of New Haven Affairs Associate Vice President Lauren Zucker deferred the question of the street closures to the Board of Aldermen.

“The issue is in the hands of the Board of Aldermen,” Zucker wrote. “There isn’t anything else to say at this point.”

Zucker and University spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment further.

In December 2011, the Board hired a private attorney to get a second opinion on the question of the board’s jurisdiction. According to Elicker, the legal judgment reaffirmed the language of the board’s charter in determining that it had authority over the city streets and the power to renegotiate relevant agreements.

“We have the authority to cancel this agreement — that’s clear,” Elicker said. “What remains very ambiguous is what a mutually agreeable process for doing so would be, as the document does not specify responsibility for operation costs and other important details.

“We could conceivably decide as a board that we want to open the streets to cars. I just don’t see that as likely because we’ve seen that they’re a public asset that serve both Yale students and community members,” Elicker added.

As a member of the CSEP Committee, Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison said she is looking forward to taking another look at the two-decade-old agreement.

“I’ve said in the past that Yale should be paying more. As a city, we’re definitely struggling. We need resources,” Morrison said. “The whole reason this agreement included a requirement for re-evaluation is because times change and maybe the terms of the deal should reflect that.”

But Morrison said she is not interested in opening the streets back up, as she sees the walkways as an asset to her student constituents. Instead, she said Yale could offer the city more “in-kind services” as an alternative to cash payments.

Elicker also said increased collaboration between Yale and New Haven could take the place of additional monetary contributions. He suggested combining public transportation services and offering Yale’s entrepreneurial incubators to city residents.

Describing the street closures as a “hallmark location for the City and the University,” Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 said he hopes to initiate a larger discussion about closing additional streets to traffic. He said parts of Crown and Orange streets might make for ideal locations.

The Board of Aldermen will hold workshops in February to inform its members about the street closures deal before it schedules public hearings to gather community input.

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