Sadie Bograd, Contributing Photography

With four lanes of cars, underused parking lots and fast-moving traffic, State Street can be unwelcoming to people traveling on foot or bicycle. 

A proposed redevelopment would change that, creating new housing, commercial buildings and green space, as well as a protected promenade for cyclists and pedestrians. With $5.3 million in state funding from the CT Communities Challenge Grant, city officials say they hope to reconnect neighborhoods and create a more inclusive, vibrant space. 

“It’s sort of a highway through the middle of the city, which is loud, it’s fast, crossing it is scary,” said Ward 7 Alder Eli Sabin ’22, whose ward includes much of State Street. “The idea of the redesign project is really to try to reverse that and reconnect Wooster Square and downtown, and East Rock and the Hill as well.”

More housing, walking and shopping

According to Sabin, State Street used to be more walkable, with shops clustered close together. During the 1950s and 60s, as urban renewal projects gained traction across the country, the city widened the road, tearing down businesses and adding parking lots in the process. 

City Engineer Giovanni Zinn ’05 said the new plan will restore State Street to a “normally-dimensioned roadway.” The city will redirect all vehicle traffic to what is currently the west side of State Street, freeing up the area east of the median to become a protected zone for pedestrians and bicycles. This new path will connect with the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, extending it down towards Union Station.

The project will also create new green spaces and community spaces in areas including the bridge behind the Knights of Columbus Museum. 

“Trying to figure out how to really make it more shaded and more verdant in the entire corridor is a big part of this,” Zinn said. “I think it really changes the street from a place that you want to get through as quickly as possible into a place that you’d want to go for a walk at.” 

Currently, the parcels to the east of State Street are very narrow because of the adjacent railroad tracks, making development difficult. The redevelopment will create new, larger parcels, primarily on city-owned land. 

Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli told the News that the redevelopment will include at least 450 new housing units — 20 percent of which must be affordable to low-income tenants, under the terms of the city’s recently-passed inclusionary zoning ordinance — and 20,000 square feet of commercial space. 

“​​A lot of our economic programs start with building a public infrastructure to support growth and reimagining a city center that’s inclusive, sustainable, really creates opportunities, often with creative design and some thoughtfulness behind that,” Piscitelli said. “We see real opportunity here to build on the success of some of the market-rate projects, but build a much higher level of inclusion, affordable housing and some sustainable design treatments.”

A city-state partnership

In a presentation delivered at a public meeting on Sept. 13, the city estimated that the redevelopment would cost around $6.7 million. $5.3 million of that funding will come from their grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, which was awarded in April.

Piscitelli noted that the grant builds on a longstanding partnership between the city and the state that involves development at Union Station, Downtown Crossing and Long Wharf. He said he sees State Street as part of a larger mission to create a more walkable city that feels more like “one big neighborhood.”

“We are growing as a city,” Mayor Justin Elicker told the News. “It is quite clear by the cranes in the sky, the number of buildings that are going up. What is crucial is that we do that inclusively.”

Zinn added that the state supported the project in part because of the importance of State Street to the broader city.

He described State Street as a “special spot” that most New Haven residents feel a connection to, which makes “placemaking” an important part of the redevelopment. 

“Every neighborhood in the city at some point goes through State Street to get to something,” Zinn said. “It’s the gateway to both of our train stations in large part, and I think the state really recognized the importance of this as a transportation corridor, as well.”

Sabin added that State Street has “been one of the city’s priorities for a long time.” He said that New Haven had previously received funding for improvements to State Street from Connecticut’s Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program, but that the additional funding will allow for “a full redesign.” 

Residents support “updated” infrastructure

New Haven residents and visitors expressed a variety of reactions to the proposed changes.

Max Chaoulideer, member of Safe Streets Coalition of New Haven, said he is excited to see New Haven redevelop one of its most “dangerous arteries.” Unlike other city redesigns that have only targeted one or two blocks, Chaoulideer added, the State Street redevelopment covers a large area, which more efficiently protects the safety of pedestrians and cyclists during their commute. 

Megan Heitkamp and Steve Szczodroski, visitors to New Haven from Minnesota, told the News that they looked several times onto incoming traffic before crossing the street on Friday morning. Despite there being a crosswalk, they said they were concerned by the speed of passing vehicles.

While New Haven resident Loreen Stewart does not have a problem walking on State Street during her daily walk, she said she supports all efforts to keep the city “safer” and “updated.” 

Currently, many cyclists avoid State Street due to the “scary” speeds of vehicles, opting to ride on the parallel Orange Street instead, according to Bradley Street Bicycle Co-op founder John Martin. 

Martin noted that by adding a promenade for cyclists, commuters from neighboring towns will have the ability to stay on a protected bike path for longer, facilitating access to downtown New Haven and the State Street and Union train stations.

He also hopes that a protected bike path on State Street may encourage non-cyclists to start cycling and cut down on car usage. 

Martin, who also serves on the New Haven Development Commission, said that the creation of new housing on the “vacant” parking lots may be a step forward in preventing gentrification in the city, as well as creating a “more continuous urban fabric.”

“Building housing is great,” Martin said. “Building more housing in major connective parts of the city that have easy access to Union Station, and more closely, the State Street train station — major transportation that is not car-based — is even better. So, hell yeah! If we’re going to be building dense housing, it should be next to train tracks, it should be next to cycle paths and good walking infrastructure.” 

Chaoulideer similarly approves of the new housing plans, adding that dense housing is what New Haven needs most. Comparatively, Chaoulideer noted that surface parking is a “sad way to value shared space” and further described lots as the “biggest waste of space in the city.”

However, when asked what he hoped to see from the State Street redevelopment, some New Haven residents expressed a desire for more available parking in the redesign, including Arron Rhodes, who works on State Street.

For Chaoulideer, one concern is that the redevelopment plan lacks any improvements to bus infrastructure, as other residents mentioned in a virtual community meeting about the redesign plans on Sept. 13. Noting that the bus is the “most neglected modality” in New Haven, Chaoulideer hopes to see future plans to build nicer shelters, bus signage and dedicated bus lanes where possible on State Street. 

“We make difficult choices within a limited amount of space,” Sabin said about the relative lack of new bus infrastructure.

He added that the State Street project would contribute to the “broader redesign of the bus system,” including plans to make Elm Street into a bus corridor.

Chaoulideer added that the demographics of attendees at last week’s community meeting leaned white, college-educated and wealthy. 

He called on city officials to engage with residents not through the form of community meetings, but through other methods such as data analysis and more deliberate and targeted outreach. 

“Though public engagement is key, community meetings often simply amplify the voices of homeowners, who skew wealthy, white, older, and often more conservative,” Chaoulideer. “These projects impact the lives of many people who, for a wide range of reasons, aren’t able to come to — or don’t feel welcome at — these meetings, so their voices don’t get included.”

Sabin said he recently visited a public housing building in his district and spoke to residents about the redevelopment, informing them about the project and keeping them “engaged in the process.” Piscitelli added that the project team aims “to reach audiences we don’t often connect to,” including via alders’ outreach to their constituents and commentary from service providers like the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.

The city plans to start construction in 2024. In the meantime, city officials will finalize infrastructure design plans and send out requests for proposals for the new residential and commercial developments. 

The 2016 Wooster Square Planning Study also suggests improvements to State Street.

SADIE BOGRAD
Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.
LAURA OSPINA