Yale pulls out of Newhallville construction project

The University has reversed plans to construct a low-income home on a nontraditional Newhallville lot at the behest of the Yale Police Department after a Yale School of Architecture professor was assaulted on the building site in early May.

The construction project, spearheaded by a group of first-year architecture students, is the fruit of a decades-old partnership between the School of Architecture and Neighborhood Housing Services, a not-for-profit housing developer that seeks to increase homeownership in low-income New Haven neighborhoods. Counted as required coursework for architecture graduate students, the Vlock Building Project affords students the opportunity each year to design and build a home that the NHS then sells to a low-income buyer.

The foundation for this year’s project was already laid at 32 Lilac St. when Paul Brouard ARC ’61, an 83-year-old School of Architecture professor overseeing the construction, showed up to the site on the morning of May 9 to supervise scheduled excavation work. After parking his car, he was struck from behind, knocked to the ground and robbed of his wallet. Brouard was hospitalized overnight but has since recovered.

After the assault, the University squashed the planned construction, and the project’s organizers have turned to a new site in the West River neighborhood to erect the quirky, 17-foot-wide, three-bedroom affordable home.

“Following the incident, the Yale Building Project and its community partner, Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, believed it would be best to move the project to another location,” Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the News in a Wednesday email. “It is unfortunate that someone was the victim of a crime while trying to serve the community, but the important fact is that a house will be built and New Haven will have another new, affordable home.”

Adam Hopfner, a critic at the School of Architecture who became the Vlock Building Project’s director in 2007, said that he, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 and Associate Dean John Jacobson ARC ’70 met immediately following the attack to address site safety and ban students from the premises until security measures, such as a shuttle service to and from the site and a fence lining the exterior, were put in place.

In the end, Hopfner said, the decision to withdraw from the building site was made in a closed-door meeting among Yale President Richard Levin, President-elect Peter Salovey, Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65 and Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins. Higgins advised pulling out of the project altogether, Hopfner added.

“In that meeting, the chief of police said he could not guarantee the safety of students on the site regardless of whether we shuttle them there or whether we provide security on the site,” Hopfner said. “Once that was said, the plug was pulled and the project was shut down. It’s effectively dead — and we’re talking about a course that is required for students to get their professional degrees.”

Since the University pulled plans for the Newhallville construction, Hopfner said he and his colleagues scrambled to obtain a new site. Hopfner said the new location at 116 Greenwood St. will test the mission of the project, as it will assess whether the design is “truly prototypical,” one of the chief aims of the students’ plans.

“We’re trying to teach our students technique but we’re also trying to address issues of housing in poor neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re working with Erik Johnson of the Livable City Initiative to develop these schemes that are prototypical ideas that could be developed throughout New Haven in sliver lots that don’t fall within current zoning regulations that demand a 50-foot average lot width but can still be made into something.”

Erik Johnson — the executive director of the Livable City Initiative, an anti-blight agency that governs issues of housing, community development and code enforcement in the city — said he was pleased with the original plans for 32 Lilac St. because they “paid homage to the surrounding architecture.” In past years, he added, some of the homes did not reflect the historical character of the surrounding neighborhood.

“There was still some willingness to try to trudge forward with the building but I understand why the decision was made,” he said. “We’re going to have to all do a better job of making sure our neighborhoods are safe so that we don’t lose investment opportunities.”

One of New Haven’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Newhallville, which sits just over a mile and a half from the downtown area, is no stranger to violent crime. Of 17 homicides committed citywide in 2012, four occurred in Newhallville, and 23 of 92 non-fatal shootings occurred in Newhallville.

New Haven Police Lt. Jeff Hoffman said four police officers are stationed in each of the city’s 10 districts — one of which is Newhallville — to walk beats on the evening shift, irrespective of varying levels of crime. When the next academy class of police recruits graduates this fall, however, the NHPD might choose to reapportion officers depending on crime hotspots, Hoffman said, giving the department “flexibility to say ‘oh, there’s more violent crime here, so we’ll put more cops here.”

Ward 10 Alderman Delphine Clyburn, who represents part of Newhallville, said she was saddened to hear of the violence. She called the designs for the planned home “beautiful.”

“We hate that they chose not to finish it, but we don’t have the last say about it,” she said. “I just feel bad about it. It hurts when someone is hurt, whether they’re coming into the community or live in the community.”

Yale’s Vlock Building Project was founded in 1967.

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