With Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and a 175-ton excavator on hand, demolition crews began tearing down the New Haven Coliseum Monday, taking the first step toward completing a $230 million downtown redevelopment project.

DeStefano, with the help of Stamford Wrecking President Irving Goldberg, tore off a piece of the coliseum’s masonry with an excavator, ceremonially beginning a process to prepare the building’s superstructure for implosion some time next year. Although demolition appears imminent, some community members said they are disappointed with building’s demolition and are concerned with future plans for the sit.

DeStefano said the city will lament the loss of a New Haven landmark, but he said he is looking forward to the opportunities that redevelopment will bring to the downtown district.

“As much as we say goodbye today, it’s a new beginning,” DeStefano said at a press conference held at the demolition site and attended by approximately 20 community members. “It’s a farewell, but with the same optimism of 35 years ago.”

Demolition crews are expected to use one of the world’s largest metal shears to help take down the building, he said, leaving a skeletal superstructure that will resemble a “Roman coliseum,” Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said.

“All of the arena building … all the locker rooms, offices, dressing rooms, bathroom areas, waiting areas, elevator, stairwells … will be taken down,” Bialecki said. “Essentially, you be able to see from one side to the other.”

To prepare for the demolition, an independent firm ran environmental tests last Wednesday and removed potentially hazardous materials that could become airborne during demolition, Bialecki said.

Once the coliseum is completely torn down, the site will be initially filled by a parking lot to accommodate increased downtown parking demand, but a hotel and conference center as well as a new building for the Long Wharf Theater are slated for construction on the space as part of the Gateway Redevelopment Project.

The Gateway Project, which will bring both Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater downtown, has been controversial ever since its inception. The project is still in the planning and design phase, and the demolition of the coliseum is the first step in plans to revitalize New Haven’s downtown, which were approved by the Board of Aldermen in February.

Although some groups opposing the demolition have said that little can be done to save the coliseum at this stage of the process, President of the Urban Design League Anstress Farwell said her group will continue to push the city to make responsible planning choices.

“The city has made it seem like it’s just a bunch of hockey nuts upset about hockey games … that’s not what the argument is all about,” Farwell said. “[The coliseum site] might become the parking lot on steroids from now until forever. If the hotel conference center doesn’t come through, what are they going to do?”

Community member Stan Capp, who grew up in New Haven, said he is disappointed that the coliseum is being torn down, but he hopes that the new development project will create a new downtown gathering place.

“I grew up coming to the games so it’s a touchy subject,” Capp said. “It doesn’t fit in the mayor’s plans because it’s too old or ugly or whatever, but it should be replaced with something smaller so people have a place to hang out.”

Though the exact date of the implosion has not yet been determined, full demolition is slated some time in January, Bialecki said. Crews will charge the coliseum’s super columns with explosive charges, and the entire structure should collapse in about 15 seconds, leaving a pile of steel and concrete, much of which will be sold to scrap yards, he said.

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