Sixty years ago, one of New Haven’s most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods was razed to make way for the Oak Street Connector — a portion of Route 34 that was transformed into an expressway. This Thursday evening, managers of the Downtown Crossing Project described their plans for the continued reclamation of Route 34 following the first phase of their plan’s successful completion.

After completing the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, South Frontage Road and 100 College St. — a 14-story building that houses Alexion Pharmaceuticals’ research facility — Downtown Crossing managers are looking ahead to phases two and three. By reconnecting Orange Street to South Orange Street and extending Temple Street to Congress Avenue, the managers hope to reclaim new land for residential and business use to bridge the gap between New Haven’s downtown and medical districts — a process repeatedly described as “healing a wound.”

“This was the area of Oak Street where immigrants came, where opportunities were created,” New Haven Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 said. “It was all taken away for the highway … 50 years later, we realized that wasn’t the right idea.”

Deputy Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli emphasized the continuity of Downtown Crossing’s goals since the project initially broke ground in 2013. From the start, he said, the infrastructure project was designed to support community interests like building affordable housing and creating environments welcoming to bikers and pedestrians.

Richard Pettinelli, project manager for Downtown Crossing’s second phase, noted that one of the plan’s highlights is the construction of Connecticut’s first protected bike intersection. Located near the junction of Orange Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the intersection will feature buffers and refuge zones for bikers, helping to increase safety and decrease the number of accidents.

“Bikers are going to be protected behind curbs in the intersection,” he said. “It’ll be easy to walk, easy to commute, easy to bike.”

Environmental and aesthetic considerations were especially important during project design, managers said during the Thursday’s meeting. Supervising engineer Ronan Shortt described how specialized plant-filled channels called “bioswales” could treat stormwater runoff and beautify the surrounding area. Similarly, Piscitelli said project leaders worked with urban design specialists and local artists to create “landscaping that’s made to last.”

Phase 2 of Downtown Crossing is scheduled to begin in mid-2018 and estimated to cost $18.5 million, Piscitelli said, while phase 3 is scheduled to begin in 2020 at a cost of $24 million. The city received $35 million for the project from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, which was initiated by former President Barack Obama and continued under President Donald Trump.

“In an age where we’re saying government can’t have great thoughts and can’t change the dynamic of the community, New Haven is doing the opposite,” Nemerson said.

Meeting attendees emphasized their concerns about how construction would disrupt traffic over the next few years. Ward 6 Alder Dolores Colón ’91 asked whether the new roads would have to be uprooted when businesses move into the reclaimed areas and utility systems have to be expanded.

Still, Colón told the News she was hopeful about the future of Downtown Crossing, but noted that the redevelopment could not match the old Oak Street neighborhood destroyed by the construction of Route 34.

“It feels bittersweet,” she said. “The [Oak Street Connector] could never replace what was taken away: a real neighborhood. When I talk to old Oak Street residents, they tell me, ‘Everything you needed, you could get in the neighborhood.’ The local butcher, the bagel shops, the tenements can’t be replaced.”

The Oak Street Connector was built in 1959 under Mayor Richard Lee.

Will Wang |