Controversy is heating up over the mayor’s development plan for downtown New Haven, as residents and activist groups come out to voice their complaints about the proposal in public hearings before the New Haven Board of Aldermen.
Developed by the administration of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in cooperation with the state, the project involves the relocation of the Long Wharf Theater and the consolidation of Gateway Community College — currently based in separate locations in North Haven and in Long Wharf — on a site in downtown New Haven. A hearing to be held tonight will focus on the Long Wharf Theater, and another hearing will be held in January on the future of the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which the administration has said it wants torn down.
While the project enjoys broad support from the Board of Aldermen, the hearings brought forth criticism from the public. People have raised objections to the project as a whole and several details of its implementation, such as the choice of the site and parking and traffic concerns.
But DeStefano said the community college in particular will bring in money by drawing thousands of students to downtown New Haven.
“I think a community college is an essential piece of developing a trained and prepared wealth force, so I think it has everything to do with development and economic success,” DeStefano said.
But critics of the plan have said the city, already struggling with chronic budget problems, should not give away millions of dollars in land to a tax-exempt organization such as Gateway. New Haven already has one of the state’s highest levels of tax-exempt property, including Yale-owned property, which contributes to the city’s reliance on state aid.
DeStefano’s administration has said the state’s contribution to the project — $180 million to fund the community college, the theater and parking — will counterbalance these losses.
But David Cameron, a Yale political science professor and a member of the New Haven Urban Design League, said the state funding still comes from taxpayers and is problematic for a state struggling with budget problems of its own.
Cameron sent a letter to the Board of Aldermen and spoke before the board about his concerns with the project at a hearing last week. In particular, he argued the valuable land — assessed at $4.5 million — should be developed for tax-paying commercial use. He also expressed concern about the traffic and parking problems that would result from bringing in thousands of students to the downtown area. He suggested the Coliseum, with its 2,400 existing parking spaces, as a possible alternative site to the proposed location on the former sites of the Macy’s and Malley’s stores on Church Street.
Beyond the specifics of the project, Cameron said his main problem with the way the project has been handled was the lack of public consultation during the planning stages. For example, he said the state suggested seven possible locations for the Gateway consolidation, but these alternatives have not been discussed with the public or the Board of Aldermen.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the public had no input on this,” Cameron said. “We should’ve had hearings before the Board of Aldermen while [the project] was being formulated. We’re now having these hearings on Gateway and the Coliseum and Long Wharf several months after the state funding commission has already started working on funding the projects.”
But DeStefano said he followed procedure by formulating the project first and then presenting a plan for approval to the Board of Aldermen.
New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said public opinion has been consulted through six scheduled public hearings, the fourth of which will take place today.
“Our job is to put together development projects that make sense and then subject them to public scrutiny, not the other way around,” Fernandez said.
Jorge Perez, the chairman of the Board of Aldermen, said he thought Cameron made some good points and it might have been helpful for the Board of Aldermen to have been consulted earlier in the planning process. But he said there is no doubt the board supports the project overall.
“You can always argue that there’s never enough discussion on things like this,” Perez said. “I think the city tried to reach out toward the end, but at the beginning they could’ve done a better job — Personally I would [have liked] that they talked to the board as a whole at an earlier stage.”
The Board of Aldermen will most likely deliberate on the project in mid-January and have a full vote in February, Perez said.