Dora Guo

It is another beautiful day in New Haven. The sun is shining as Sally Smith ’22 rolls out of bed. She throws on shorts and a T-shirt and pops out of her dorm room and onto Prospect Street. Hungry, she swings by Gourmet Heaven III and grabs a Power Bar, chatting with some residents of the Dixwell neighborhood while waiting in line. As she strolls along the tree-lined Farmington Canal, Smith stops to admire how the restored New Haven homes on her left complement Yale’s new residential colleges on her right. Smith suddenly remembers she needs to pick up her art project from the sculpture building — nearly a mile away — before noon. Checking her watch, she realizes she has two minutes to make the shuttle bus to take her to the other side of campus. If she misses it, no big deal. They run every 10 minutes, 24/7, and they are always on time.

* * * * *

It is another grey, rainy day in New Haven. After pressing her snooze button five times, Sally Smith ’22 begrudgingly rolls out of bed. She steps into her rain boots and stomps out of her dorm room and onto Prospect Street. Hungry, she looks at her watch and realizes it is only 10 a.m., and the dining halls do not open until 11 a.m. on weekends. There is nowhere nearby to get food except a store in the Dixwell neighborhood that Yalies have been warned not to frequent on their own. In the meantime, Smith decides to go pick up her project from the sculpture building, but as usual the shuttle bus is late, so she begins the nearly mile-long trek to the other side of campus. It is going to be a long day.

* * * * *

The year is 2020, and Yale is a changed place. In one possible future, a cohesive, yet integrated campus extends from Crown Street to the top of Science Hill, comprised of newly renovated and constructed buildings, including two more residential colleges, and Yale’s expansion was planned and carried out in close collaboration with the greater New Haven community. In the second version, Yale’s dense development has proceeded as above, but the necessary improvements in transportation and commercial development — not to mention weather — have not accompanied it.

Whether Sally Smith makes it to the sculpture building on time depends heavily upon the way Yale goes forward with its redevelopment plans over the next decade or so, and the way the city of New Haven reacts. In the wake of a rocky history of town-gown tensions, Yale has come to recognize its role as the largest landowner, employer and presence in the Elm City. The University’s 2000 Framework for Campus Planning document — something between a master plan and a wish list — reads: “Yale and New Haven intertwine both physically and functionally to the benefit of each.” As Yale’s campus continues to grow in size and scope, the potential addition of two new residential colleges near the Dixwell neighborhood will be a test of the viability of the Framework’s vision.

A sunny future?

Today, the massive Grove Street Cemetery marks the end of the “center” of campus. Group IV majors have become all too familiar with the trek up Prospect Street and the ever-unpredictable Yale shuttle system, but to most students this area only evokes the occasional groan when they have to visit a professor’s office on Hillhouse. The triangular space enclosed by Prospect, Canal and Sachem Streets, where the two new residential colleges will likely be built, leaves little impression in the face of the adjacent cemetery’s imposing walls and gothic architecture. Spotted with dilapidated brick buildings and vacant Yale-owned houses, the only structures of much note are the fresh-faced Brewster Hall and the bizarrely out-of-place silver metal “diner,” both occupied by the Political Science Department.

Next to this site are two empty lots, currently under construction, where the new University Health Services and a large parking garage will go. They sit in the backyard of the state-of-the-art glass-panelled Rose Center, which houses both the Yale University Police Department and a community center for the Dixwell neighborhood. The small stretch of the Farmington Canal Greenway — a public path for bikers and pedestrians — that is currently paved runs from beneath Prospect Street a few blocks in to the Dixwell neighborhood, stopping abruptly in the midst of a littered street among houses in disrepair.

If implemented responsibly, the changes to Yale’s campus may have positive externalities, such as heightened property values and increased employment rates, for the surrounding neighborhood as well. Although some Dixwell residents have raised concerns about traffic and noise during construction, Dixwell management team president Roxanne Condon said that, overall, people welcome the expansion as long as Yale is responsive to the neighborhood’s interests, both economically and visually.

“This shouldn’t be something done to the neighborhood, but with the neighborhood,” Condon said.

By 2020, nearly every building on Yale’s campus will be renovated, and the radius of dense University development will expand in both length and width. To the south, a new arts center, including the sculpture building, a new art history building and an expanded art gallery, will be clustered around the intersection of York and Chapel. The completion of the Farmington Canal will facilitate a quick and direct route between UHS and housing on Prospect Street at one end, and the current center of campus on the other.

With the potential addition of more than 400 new residents along Prospect Street, the significant distance from the Broadway and Chapel commercial areas creates a market for pedestrian-friendly dining and retail beyond the food carts on Prospect and the scattered liquor stores in the Dixwell neighborhood.

No plans for commercial development are currently in the works, but representatives on both sides agree that this is a viable option. Condon said she thinks a general grocery store would meet the needs of both Dixwell residents and Yale students, and it would be a good place for them to interact.

Another opportunity for community interaction lies in public transportation. Clearly a more efficient transportation system will be necessary, and New Haven’s reputation with regards to public buses is not much better than Yale’s. Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell suggested that if Yalies could use their student ID cards to ride any local bus, ridership would increase significantly and transportation funding could all be targeted in one direction.

“This would allow all mass transit systems in New Haven to work better, and it would contribute to the conception that Yale students and New Haven residents are part of one community,” Farwell said.

If such suggestions are taken into account, Yale’s growth will serve to enhance connectivity across campus and between the campus and its surroundings. But if issues such as transportation and retail development do not take priority, students living in the 13th and 14th residential colleges may find themselves isolated from the center of campus and wary of run-ins with New Haven locals.

Christine Kim ’99, who works as a researcher at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and serves as president of University Commons, a condominium complex at Winchester and Sachem, said commercial businesses could go far to help anchor the residential community on Science Hill. But she warned that the development process must proceed “very judiciously” with the full knowledge and approval of local community members.

“A lot of people in my area still don’t know what the University’s plans are,” Kim said. “We would need to bring in businesses that really help create an economic center and interweave town and gown.”

That such open communicat
ion even registers as a priority is an indicator of how far Yale’s relationship with New Haven has come and, perhaps, how much farther it can go.

A ‘high horse’

The year is 1972, and Yale is a changed place. The University has recently begun to admit women to its student body. Esteemed University president Kingman Brewster seizes this opportunity to commission plans for the construction of two additional residential colleges. Confident in the wake of his success in negotiating the construction of the British Art Center, he approaches City Hall with the completed blueprints for a 13th and 14th residential college at the corner of Grove and Church Streets, a commercial block already owned by the University. But on this project, he faces strong opposition from the Board of Alderman when the plans are submitted for approval — twice.

At issue is Yale’s tax-exempt status, which has been a point of contention between the University and the city since 1899, when New Haven first challenged Yale’s status in court. Between 1958 and 1968, t he cost to the City of New Haven of providing municipal services — of which Yale was the largest single recipient — more than doubled. Desperate for help in the wake of his disastrous attempt at urban renewal, Mayor Richard C. Lee publicly asked Yale for financial assistance in 1969, just as Mayor John Murphy had done in 1933. And just as Yale had responded to Murphy over 30 years earlier, the answer in 1969 was still “no.”

When Mayor Bartholomew Guida took office the following year, he continued Lee’s unsuccessful efforts to solicit funds from the University. So when Brewster approached him with his plans, the mayor — known for resenting Yale’s “patrician ways,” according to Douglas Rae’s “City: Urbanism and its End” — was in no rush to do the president any favors. He encouraged the Board of Aldermen and City Plan Department to take their time reviewing the project. City Plan Director John McGuerty, always searching for a way to assert his authority over the University, voiced concerns about the preservation of certain buildings in the space and demanded a lower building profile and other virtually impossible amendments to the original plan.

Hence the end of Brewster’s triumphant reign and the beginning of an era of hostile relations between the University President and the Mayor’s office. In a New York Times article written that fall, Democratic Town Committee chairman Arthur Barbieri said University administrators would have to “come down off their high horse.”

“I guess there are certain people who took joy in saying no to them,” he said.

Learning from the past

The year is 2007, and now the city is emphatically saying “yes.” In a unanimous vote at an aldermanic meeting last fall, the Board approved a measure ceding Sachem and Mansfield streets and Prospect Place to Yale, which already owned the surrounding property. In recognition of the city’s action, the University gave $10.25 million to city government for civic infrastructure improvements. The site will likely be used to build Yale’s 13th and 14th residential colleges, although the final decision will not be made until December.

Yale has been subtly laying the groundwork for its future development for years, building up and acquiring the properties bordering this site. In 2005, the University finally agreed to make an annual voluntary payment to the city to partially compensate for its tax-exempt status. In 2006, the construction of the Rose Center created a physical interface between Yale’s campus and the Dixwell neighborhood. University Properties has also been acquiring and restoring houses on Mansfield Street and renting them to graduate students.

It is in this context that the deal was brokered last fall to acquire the rights to the three streets behind the Grove Street Cemetery, ensuring University President Richard Levin that the city would have no basis for major opposition to his expansion plans. In exchange, Yale is essentially providing the funding for improvements that the city would likely be unable to afford on its own, such as the completion of the Farmington Canal Greenway.

University administrators and city officials alike have referred to the deal as a win-win situation. Yale acquired the rights to intensely develop a space that has up until now been on the periphery of its campus, which will allow it to enlarge its student and faculty populations. The city gave up pieces of three streets that experienced minimal traffic counts — two of them lead to dead ends — and will enjoy increased economic activity and civic improvement of the surrounding neighborhoods as a result.

“The Board of Aldermen supported this measure because the city and the University took the time to explain it in detail, answer questions and allay concerns,” Ward 13 alderman Alexander Rhodeen said. “With Yale managing [the streets], the city will benefit.”

Rather than arrive at City Hall with a full-fledged blueprint, Levin has conducted the planning process in close coordination with the city. University Planner Laura Cruickshank and New Haven City Plan Administrator Karyn Gilvarg maintain a cooperative, rather than adversarial, relationship, and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs has been sending representatives to neighborhood meetings in order to include the local community in the planning process.

“Mayor DeStefano and President Levin have a mutual respect and understanding that the fortunes of both New Haven and Yale University are linked,” Rhodeen said. “As one goes, so goes the other.”

If this pattern continues, the expansion of Yale’s center of campus to a space that is shared closely with New Haven residents could go great lengths to disintegrate the “Yale bubble” between Chapel, York, College and Grove streets, a bubble that allows students to live within in an entirely insular — albeit urban — environment. Although the new colleges will be designed as self-contained, multi-use residences, it is their location and their relationship to the public space around them that will set the tone for future interactions with the Dixwell neighborhood.

Kim said the potential shift of Yale’s center of gravity further north must be capitalized upon to the mutual benefit and respect of both the historically “depressed” Dixwell neighborhood and the increasingly thriving University.

“This is a great pivot point to bring Yale’s economic development … where it has not yet trickled to at all, and for the University to really engage with local citizens,” she said.

As Sally Smith rides the bus back toward Prospect Street, she imagines what Yale might have been like in the days of her ancestors, when only science majors traveled past the space she now lovingly calls home. When catching a bus was a shot in the dark, and students were afraid to walk through the Dixwell neighborhood alone in broad daylight. The bus crosses Chapel Street and then, two traffic lights later, passes Grove. How strange, she thinks, that at one point there would have been nowhere else to go.

This article was originally published on May 3, 2007. The author is unknown.