The vast steel and concrete structure which used to host hockey games and concerts sits empty along I-95 but continues to spark frenetic debate over its future — or if it even has one.

The two sides of this debate over the future of the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum, closed in 2002 by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., confronted one another Wednesday evening at City Hall, where the Board of Aldermen held an open hearing on the decision to demolish the Coliseum.

Nearly 70 people, many wearing stickers that read “Coliseum No Demo,” packed into the second floor chamber to hear New Haven’s Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 address the board. Attendees were also invited to speak to the board for three minutes each.

The city has derided the Coliseum as a money-draining derelict, unable to compete with the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. New Haven officials said they hope to redevelop the Coliseum’s site with a new hotel, in addition to a relocated Long Wharf Theatre and Gateway Community College.

But groups including the New Haven Urban Design League have been lobbying the New Haven government to reconsider its demolition plans and instead call for further design proposals for the site. Dick Walsh, the secretary of the Coalition to Save Our Coliseum, said his coalition wants to reuse the existing structure to build a “smaller, newer, brighter Coliseum” that would include a new arena, ground level stores, and a pedestrian friendly exterior.

“We basically don’t see just reviving an old monolith, we envision something very exciting there,” Walsh said.

Last spring, the state denied New Haven the funds necessary for demolition, and the Board of Aldermen must vote on whether to spend the six million dollars necessary.

If this capital budget amendment passes, the city expects to begin demolition this summer and to complete construction of Gateway Community College, Long Wharf Theatre, and new parking facilities by 2008, Fernandez said.

Although opponents of the city’s plan criticize spending money to demolish the building, the mayor’s office defends the expense as necessary in light of the high maintenance costs required for the Coliseum’s upkeep. Fernandez said the parking garage alone would have cost $14 million to repair as of 2002, and the arena’s unique construction continues to deteriorate.

“The mayor feels that the city should be investing in neighborhoods and schools,” DeStefano spokesman Derek Slap said.

Furthermore, Slap said removing the Coliseum to make room for the Gateway Community College would allow New Haven to expand its reputation as a city centered on academics, with both Yale’s and Gateway’s campuses located near its downtown.

New Haven residents criticized the city for not involving the public more in the decision-making process and for its reluctance to consider possible alternative plans.

“This entire downtown project is being rammed down the throats of average tax payers,” said Gary Ferdinand, a New Haven resident.

Fernandez said, however, the city had frequently opened up the decision-making process to public comments.

“I think we’ve had some eight public hearings on issues related to this,” Fernandez said. “Comments have changed the plan. We actually do listen.”

Echoing Ferdinand’s frustration with the city’s handling of the matter, other attendees questioned the figures Fernandez and the administration quoted to illustrate the costs of the Coliseum’s upkeep.

“The presentation by the city is full of misinformation about the status of the parking garage,” New Haven Urban Design League member Henry Dynia said.

The parking garage is a particular flash point among the plan’s critics, who say that eliminating the garage over the Coliseum’s arena would result in a parking crunch in New Haven’s downtown area.

Fernandez defended his testimony to the board, saying that because he handles issues of public finances and bonding, supplying inaccurate information would be criminal. He said he his testimony is supported by engineering reports and audited financial statements.

Fernandez said the Board of Aldermen will vote on the funding by February.