An offer of $180 million is hard to refuse. When New Haven stands to receive that sum in state funding for an ambitious redevelopment plan that includes moving Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theatre downtown, it may seem petty to engage in hand-wringing over the specifics of the project. But as the city’s proposal to reshape the area surrounding the New Haven Coliseum moves forward in Hartford and in the city’s Board of Aldermen, we see some reason to be cautious in our optimism about the project.
To City Hall’s credit, the plans, which would revamp an all-but-lifeless area of downtown, present some exciting possibilities for the future of the Elm City. Moving Gateway has the potential of creating a critical mass of students in central New Haven, attracting businesses, restaurants and nightlife that cater to a college audience. The city’s downtown, not the Long Wharf area, should be the central destination for entertainment in the city, and we have little doubt that bringing new shops and eateries to downtown will make New Haven’s streets safer and more vibrant. Building a mix of market-rate and affordable housing in the area, as city and state officials hope to do, is also an important step towards making downtown more livable.
But while we admire the willingness of the city and the state to embark on a bold project, we worry about how easily this ambitious vision can be translated into reality. For every new possibility the redevelopment plan creates, we also see reasons to be skeptical. Bringing more people downtown — whether to take classes, eat or see a play — is good for New Haven, but will those visitors explore the rest of the area, or will they simply drive in and drive out? In a city already dominated by cars, how bad will traffic become if the project succeeds? Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and other proponents of the plan say they are optimistic about adding a new hotel and convention center, but will businesses actually see opportunities in the revamped area, or will we see a repeat of the challenges faced by the nearby Chapel Square Mall?
These concerns, however serious, do not mean that New Haven should abandon or even radically rework the plans announced this summer for Gateway and Long Wharf. But they do suggest that the city must approach the redevelopment in a way that is both realistic and inclusive. Over 30 years ago, the late former Mayor Richard C. Lee embarked on a similarly ambitious set of plans to reshape New Haven. But Lee’s revitalization failed — not because he lacked the vision or resources, but because he attempted to accomplish goals that were not consistent with what area residents wanted or needed. As the city prepares to tear down one of Lee’s legacies, the Coliseum, we hope it does all it can to engage local citizens, businesses and civic leaders in these newest efforts.
New Haven needs new ideas, and this one is certainly ambitious. It appears the city has the money to match those ambitions, too. But as New Haven has discovered time and again, big money and big ideas do not always translate into better cities. If New Haven learns the lessons of the past, it has the opportunity to revitalize downtown. This time, we hope it is an opportunity the city does not miss.