Despite a recent disclosure that New Haven expects to proceed with the demolition of the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the building’s fate remains unresolved. Razing the structure requires state financing. In the absence of a solid redevelopment plan, Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland has yet to commit funds to the project. The uncertain fate of the Coliseum demands that we revisit the issues surrounding the building’s future.
Since the Coliseum closed its doors over 14 months ago, various organizations have pushed for the city to reconsider its decision to demolish the building. This movement reached its peak this summer, when architects and interested citizens presented numerous alternative development schemes at a June 16 symposium.
Despite the opposition, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. appears determined to push forward with his redevelopment plan. While the building’s destruction seems uncertain, it is nonetheless critical that we understand the implications of this proposal. The real significance of this issue extends beyond the fate of an arena to our understanding of how we shape and preserve the public space of our cities. The debate over the future of the Coliseum can be articulated through five points about the Coliseum and contemporary urban development.
1. Quality of the city
A city is defined by its buildings and the memories associated with these physical spaces. As a city gains layers of use and structures over time, its richness and authenticity increases. A city that erases its history becomes indistinguishable from suburban developments — sterile and soulless.
Urban renewal in the 1960s razed those parts of the city which, at the time, were considered derelict or superfluous — ironically, this movement cleared the way for the Coliseum. The subsequent 40 years revealed such large-scale, unilateral action upon the urban environment to be a deleterious policy.
Designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, the building is an important work of late modernism. While this does not ameliorate its intimidating presence to pedestrians on the sidewalk, it means that the building resonates within the architectural community on a national level. It is a singular building that creates an identity for the city in a way that the proposed replacement, a normative hotel/parking garage/convention center, never will. New Haven’s future viability lies in its ability to maintain and cultivate a distinct character.
2. Potential re-use
Intelligently redeveloping the Coliseum would strengthen New Haven’s reputation as a distinct city. Proposals for re-using the structure should be more fully explored. The plans presented at the June 16 symposium offered glimpses of active streetscapes, rooftop athletic facilities, movie theaters, hanging gardens and outdoor amphitheaters. This type of visionary re-use deserves investigation. A creative rethinking of this building could provide a unique destination, a substantial tool to fight the drab monotony of suburban sprawl that originally sapped the downtown of its vitality.
3. Future of the city
The only civically responsible way to remove the Coliseum is to guarantee its replacement with a better environment.
“Don’t blow it up, unless you know what you’re doing,” said Julie Cammarata, of the Connecticut State Office of Policy and Management.
The current development proposal lacks vision and clarity. Loosely based on Rome’s Piazza Navona, the plan calls for a parking garage, hotel, conference center and apartments arrayed around a linear courtyard. Not only does this proposal lack the quality needed to make a memorable urban environment, but the central courtyard ensures that the buildings turn their backs to the street, replacing one dead streetscape with another.
Irrespective of the quality of the project, there might not be any redevelopment at all. The city’s proposal requires $100 million in state funds, in addition to $300 million of private capital. This money has neither been allocated nor guaranteed. A shuttered Coliseum that allows for the possibility of redevelopment is preferable to a hole in the ground.
The city is also requesting $139 million for a new Gateway Community College campus to be built downtown along Church Street between Crown Street and Frontage Road. This is a more important and more viable project. It will locate an established institution downtown, bringing with it 5,000 students a day who will diversify and activate the neighborhood and its businesses. This project guarantees a new constituency downtown, and it should take precedent over tearing down the Coliseum. It seems unlikely that the state will provide the city with funding for both projects.
4. Public debate
The public should have a voice in the fate of public space — or at least be privy to the debate. The mayor denied people this access by acting unilaterally. The decision to shut the building and replace it must result from a real investigation of all options. This information must be presented to the public, whose tax dollars and urban surroundings are at issue.
An international architecture competition would offer the ideal forum to publicize the Coliseum debate. A competition would generate innovative — and inexpensive — ideas for the city, exposure for architects eager to work on a renowned building, and great positive attention for the city. New Haven’s aspirations to be a forward-looking “City of the Arts” demand that it hold a public competition.
5. Perception of the city
Public perception is the ultimate determinant of downtown revitalization. Destroying a 30-year-old building of urban infrastructure poses a public relations disaster. The city’s vitality depends on a public view of New Haven as a unique and exciting place, and the Coliseum presents an opportunity to work towards this goal. A recycled Coliseum builds on the city’s history, engages the public through a design competition, and results in site-specific and exciting architecture. Such a project demonstrates great faith in the resiliency of our urban centers and strengthens the image of the city.
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