Stalled construction prompts discussion of Newhallville’s future

Nearly three weeks after Yale’s withdrawal from its plans to build a low-income home in Newhallville, the neighborhood has been given a second chance.

During a press conference held at the construction site on 32 Lilac St. last Wednesday, University President Richard Levin announced that Yale will split the costs of the building project with the City of New Haven in order to see it to completion. The house was originally slated for construction by first-year students at the Yale School of Architecture as a part of its annual Vlock Building Project, but work on the site was abruptly put to a halt after Paul Brouard ARC ’61 — a supervisor who had arrived to oversee excavation — was attacked and robbed on the morning of May 9.

Following the incident, the University announced that it would be pulling out of Newhallville, and that the Vlock project would instead be undertaken at a new location at 116 Greenwood St., in the city’s West River neighborhood. Now with funding from the city and from Yale, Neighborhood Housing Services will complete the original work in Newhallville started by students and faculty from the School of Architecture. Three students and faculty interviewed said they were glad to hear the house would be constructed — though they will not be the ones to build it.

“We were of course upset when [Brouard] got hurt, but we thought we were just going to be more careful,” said Meghan Lewis ARC ’15, a member of the Vlock building team. “When they told us we were moving the project, it felt like we were letting down the neighborhood.”

Lewis said compared to previous years — the Vlock building project began in 1967 — she and her team members made a more concerted effort to reach out to the neighborhood during the project’s early stages. She said they held events that allowed them to form relationships with Newhallville residents, who she said appeared to be “mobilizing” to making their neighborhood safer.

While the decision to move out of Newhallville was out of the School of Architecture’s control, architecture professor Adam Hopfner, director of the Vlock Building Project, said he will advocate for returning to the neighborhood next summer.

“The decision was made given the circumstances on that particular street, at that particular time,” Hopfner said. “It wasn’t a blanket statement to say that we’re not going to be working [in Newhallville] again.”

He added that the 2012 Vlock house had been constructed on a corner lot on Newhall Street, just two blocks away from this year’s originally proposed location.

The executive director at Neighborhood Housing Services, James Paley, said he had been “very disappointed” by Yale’s initial decision to leave the Lilac St. site. He attributed some of the negative stereotypes surrounding Newhallville to a lingering reputation for crime that does not accurately reflect the neighborhood in its improved state.

Newhallville has been a historically challenged neighborhood, Paley acknowledged, outlining its past incidents of homicide and drug dealing. But thanks to the New Haven Police Department’s increased community-based policing efforts, he said, much of that has changed.

“When you’re thinking of buying a car, you look at consumer reports and the recommendations are based on models from a couple of years ago,” Paley said. “It takes a couple of years of ratings to make new recommendations — you have to give the neighborhood a chance to get back on its feet.”

In an email to the News, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. highlighted some of the progress that Newhallville has made, noting community improvement initiatives such as the installation of energy-efficient street lights, the establishment of the city’s most active community gardening program and plans to build a community greenhouse this summer.

Newhallville Community Matters Residents Association Member Tammy Chapman, who runs a blog documenting the neighborhood’s improvement initiatives, said while residents are grateful that the house will be built with funding from the University, they miss the students who were working on the site.

The community members and Vlock Building Project team had formed a strong connection in the short time they were in Newhallville, Chapman said. For a neighborhood striving to right the wrongs of its past, Yale’s “abrupt” reaction to the mugging was disappointing.

“It made the residents feel like we were not worthy of the project,” Chapman said. “As one of our residents stated quite eloquently, we will take the money, but we prefer having the energy of the student bodies here.” She added that she thinks Newhallville continues to suffer the consequences of its former reputation — stereotypes from a time when Lilac Street had truly been a “hot bed” for crime.

But Chapman expressed optimism for the neighborhood’s future, noting that it is a “beautiful time to see the transition” between the old Newhallville and the new Newhallville.

And while Lewis said she wishes Yale’s response to the mugging incident had not been so “extreme,” she is grateful for the opportunity to continue the Vlock Building Project on a different site. The challenges of a change in location and a reduced time frame have provided valuable learning experiences for them as architecture students, Lewis said.

For a while after plans for Newhallville were originally called off, Lewis said she and other team members had feared this year’s Vlock Building Project would be canceled altogether.

“Even though it was just a string of bad luck, we worried that it would reflect badly on Vlock as a whole,” Lewis said. “We’re extremely thankful for Adam for finding the site [on 116 Greenwood St.].”

She added that since many students enroll at the School of Architecture precisely because of the opportunity to build an affordable home for low-income residents in New Haven, they are treating the site change as a useful challenge.

School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern said the turn of events has provided a valuable lesson about the realities of working in the architecture industry, where it is common for plans to be rearranged at a moment’s notice. Hopfner noted that the blueprints for the house had been designed to be “prototypical,” so the relocation has given students the chance to test the pliability of their plans.

While Stern declined to comment on whether the School of Architecture would be returning to Newhallville any time soon, he emphasized the Vlock Building Project’s mission of working with troubled neighborhoods.

“All of these locations are tricky,” he said. “That’s why we’re there: to build up the neighborhood in its fight against wrongdoers.”

It is a fight that Chapman said she is confident her neighborhood can win. Listing off the resident’s slew of recent projects — monthly clean-ups, a mobile food market and beautification projects for Lilac Street — she said the good aspects of the community far outweigh the bad.

And although the Vlock Building Project may have officially left Newhallville for the summer, Chapman said she and her neighbors have been staying in contact with the students.

“Those things don’t get in the way of real bonds,” she said.

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