City planners to shape Hill-to-Downtown area

New Haven took the next step into a new era of urban planning Wednesday night.

Nearly 70 community members gathered at Hill Central High School for a meeting concerning New Haven’s largest redevelopment project since the 1960s, which will encompass an area from New Haven’s Union Station to the Oak Street Connector. The so-called “Hill-to-Downtown Project” seeks to connect the Hill Neighborhood, Yale Medical School and Union Station, extend New Haven’s downtown and move the Yale School of Nursing to a less entrenched area.

The change would most notably remedy the problems arising from the construction of Route 34, a legacy of the 1960s-era city planning philosophy known as “urban renewal.” Route 34’s construction was, and remains today, highly controversial.

“They essentially destroyed a neighborhood — what they thought was a slum,” said Josh Isackson ’15, the co-president of the Yale urban studies student group Urban Collective. Isackson likened the displacement to the Cross Bronx Expressway, another infamous project that disproportionately affected New York City’s poor due to their lack of political power.

The scene at Wednesday night’s presentation was supposed to tell a different story. Titled “Church Street Redefined: A Vital Main Street for New Haven’s Hill-to-Downtown District,” the presentation went further than simply dealing with Route 34’s lasting destruction of the city’s urban fabric.

Livable City Initiative Director Erik Johnson and David Spillane, director of urban planning and design for the city-hired architecture firm Goody Clancy, both spoke about an extensive three-part plan to redevelop the area across from Union Station and on the other side of Route 34, which is now a parking lot.

Their three-part plan also includes increasing retail in and accessibility to Union Station, redeveloping public housing-laden Church Street South into a shopping street with mixed-income housing, and “Neighborhood Square,” transforming the current maze-like street system at the convergence of Columbus Avenue and Church Street into something resembling the New Haven Green. Johnson and Spillane also discussed the anonymous feedback they had received for each part of the plan in previous community meetings.

Much of the discussion following the presentation revolved around the Sacred Heart Church site, as well as the new developments in city traffic lanes that the proposed reconnecting of streets would bring.

Paul Larrivee, a former worker at the New Haven Police Department, expressed concern about the tenuous life expectancy of religious buildings in the area, citing the unsuccessful effort to get the St. Peter’s Church — which was eventually demolished — declared as a landmark. Johnson answered that the Sacred Heart Church was “part of the planning body” involved in redeveloping the area and that he “recommended there was going to be some change.”

Meeting attendees also raised concerns regarding development across the street from Union Station, which was likely to displace residents. Johnson responded by exhorting the attendees to think of a more long-term approach, explaining that the redevelopment is projected to create 3,300 jobs.

“Part of the conversation is, how do we make this district better to accommodate those future investors?” he said. “We can work to make the lighting better, we might even be able to make the traffic better. But to get to that point, we have to get to this first step and set the table to get that first $182 million investment.”

Johnson said that he and his colleagues would aim for that first goal “instead of making a commitment to you about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

At the meeting, Spillane and Johnson also announced the creation of a steering committee that individual residents could sign up to be on. The committee, headed by Project Manager Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, would “make sure there’s a community voice” to “make sure [the stipulations of the project] get done,” Neal-Sanjurjo said. He explained that, as the plan expanded, the “community conversation” would become a “city conversation.”

Urban Collective Co-President Isackson said that, while he enjoyed the meeting, it had its drawbacks.

“It was misleading how many people were here, because the front was all city workers and consultants,” he said. Isackson estimated that “around half” of those present were city residents with no ulterior connection to the project.

Johnson said that the student presence at the meeting was encouraging.

“I think that more or as much diversity as we can bring to the planning process is a good thing for the city’s future,” he said.

The Hill-to-Downtown project has received funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as various Connecticut institutions of economic development.

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