On Oct. 31, Governor Dan Malloy allocated $21 million in state bond dollars to the redevelopment project “Downtown Crossing,” an effort to reunite downtown New Haven with the Hill neighborhood. Last year, the city hired the Canadian firm LiveWorkLearnPlay to design a “vibrant urban village,” in the words of the developers, that will occupy the former site of the Coliseum.
The site, located along George Street near the Knights of Columbus museum, will include 77,000 square feet of retail space, 200,000 square feet of office space and 53,000 square feet of public space. I fear the potential local disruption outweighs the convenience of a new commercial venture. LiveWorkLearnPlay’s project could irreversibly gentrify the culturally diverse, albeit struggling, Hill neighborhood.
The walk from campus to the medical school is no easy feat. Cars zip over the College Street overpass, sidewalks narrow and intersections grow dangerous. You can thank Mayor Richard C. Lee for one of the most hostile pedestrian routes in the city. In 1959, Lee approved an ambitious attempt to improve the Elm City’s commercial sector: the Oak Street Connector, a highway stretching from I-95 to downtown New Haven. Designed to channel traffic toward downtown, the Oak Street Connector ended up disemboweling central New Haven and isolating the Hill’s 15,000 inhabitants. An aerial image of New Haven reveals the damage — the buildings are divided by six lanes of asphalt. Now, urban planners aim to revitalize underutilized land in the wake of the Connector through the Downtown Crossing project.
The project began in 2007 after the demolition of the old Coliseum. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. received initial federal funding to bandage the area, but the area remained unoccupied for many years. Just before the end of his term, DeStefano gave LiveWorkLearnPlay the go-ahead to construct a plaza. The plaza’s early blueprints manifest New Urbanism, a recent architectural movement that promotes urban walkability and multiuse real estate. After all, who could dislike a trend that encourages eco-consciousness and beautifying urban landscapes?
According to the evidence, residents of the Hill neighborhood beg to differ. At a neighborhood council meeting in 2012, some inhabitants of the Hill were skeptical that the amenities of the project would be useful, according to the New Haven Independent. Ann Greene, a local from the West River neighborhood, dubbed the Coliseum redevelopment a “Golden Ghetto” that would only cater to the needs of yuppies.
I attended a lecture delivered by York Street architect Herbert Newman on Nov. 6 at the First Church of Christ. Newman lauded LiveWorkLearnPlay for its effort to bring the epicenter of commerce to the geographic heart of the city. Yet he seemed too enthralled with the new ice skating rink to mention the project’s benefits for the 40 percent of Hill residents who live below the poverty line. LiveWorkLearnPlay’s director of programming, Kiran Marok, shrugged off my concern that her company’s vision would engender dislocation. She seemed certain that “in the long term” this project would foster community.
Perhaps Marok is misled in her belief that community is the antidote to socioeconomic tensions in the area. Her firm’s project operates on the assumption that everyone in this city can put aside social tensions and interact positively with one another. Will shop owners mind homeless people sleeping on plaza benches? How will they respond to cases of petty theft?
One side of New Haven has concentrated wealth, white-collar jobs and real estate. The Hill neighborhood, however, is on the verge of becoming a food desert, an area where only fast food or convenience markets are within walking distance.
You don’t need a degree in urban design to realize that the Oak Street Connector did more to disconnect local communities than to reunite them. But LiveWorkLearnPlay’s vision is not a fitting correction for this problem. An additional $1 million in annual hotel tax revenue does not outweigh the wellbeing of New Haven’s oft-forgotten low-income citizens. New Haven’s political and civic elite ignored community criticism of the project and turned it over to a foreign entrepreneurial group. Only the upper-crust of New Haven will benefit from this blatant act of gentrification. I encourage Kiran Marok and her team to reevaluate the ability of the plaza to create local and regional connectivity.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.