When Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced in July that the New Haven Coliseum would close this September and be demolished shortly thereafter, few questioned the city’s choice. The decision ended an era in which the structure transformed from a state-of-the-art arena into an unquestioned financial burden on the city and, to many, an obsolete eyesore in the heart of New Haven’s downtown.
Officials have few options but to raze the 31-year-old entertainment complex, which loses money every year and would cost $30 million to renovate. But that leaves the thornier question of what to do with the 4.5-acre site once the Coliseum is gone. The city has suggested building a hotel and conference center on the property, and officials have said they are also considering relocating the Long Wharf Theatre to the site.
It is only natural to view a proposal aimed at improving the aesthetics and accessibility of the city’s downtown with optimism, but New Haven’s record of completing major development projects has been suspect lately. The city’s plans to construct the Long Wharf Mall failed in late 2000, and the former Macy’s and Malley’s sites downtown have languished as blighted properties. Even the more recent rehabilitation of the Chapel Square Mall has run into a lawsuit filed by evicted tenants.
If New Haven hopes to be a regional leader, then the city’s leadership needs to progress in its efforts to revitalize downtown. This means following through on previous plans to utilize Macy’s, Malley’s and the Chapel Square Mall sites. It also requires an immediate and decisive plan for the Coliseum property. By tying together these new developments to form a cohesive retail and arts district, the city can significantly upgrade its tourist appeal and make downtown a more welcoming area for residents and new businesses.
A hotel and conference center and the addition of the popular Long Wharf Theatre could help to accomplish these goals. A well-designed and managed hotel, similar to the Omni hotel, would be an attractive downtown destination for business travelers, and it would create far more jobs than the Coliseum. And the Long Wharf Theatre would complement the Shubert Theater and the Yale Repertory Theatre to further enhance the downtown’s arts scene. Other plans, properly considered and designed, could also succeed.
An alternative that is entirely unacceptable, however, is for the site to deteriorate either as an empty, unused edifice or as a vacant lot following demolition. If DeStefano and his economic development team allow the area to remain unoccupied in either form, they will have failed in their most important task, as the savings from merely closing the Coliseum will not outweigh the effect of allowing such a vital section of the city’s downtown to stagnate.
The decision to demolish the Coliseum presents New Haven with an opportunity to improve and prepare for a more lucrative future, but none of these goals will be achieved without timely action. An active Coliseum may be little more than a memory, but its legacy should not be one of contributing to the overall decline of downtown New Haven.