Knight: Blaze New Street Through Ashes

by Melissa Bailey | February 21, 2008 8:19 AM | | Comments (15)

IMG_1015.jpgAround the corner from where a historic blaze tore through a downtown block, architect George Knight unveiled a vision for renewal.

Knight (at right in photo), who hosted the second in a series of design and culinary celebrations called Wine Dine Design, spoke at the Knight Architecture studios on Chapel Street Wednesday. As attendees nibbled on dill-crusted goat cheese, he rolled out his vision of what tasteful construction would best fit the blazed zone.

1-%20before%20the%20fire-%20persp.jpgKnight was speaking of the block between Center and Chapel streets, where a three-alarm fire and subsequent demolition of the Kresge and Spector buildings has left a gaping hole in a key downtown parcel. The December disaster left a huge opportunity for growth - one that must be used wisely, Knight said. (In a pre-fire rendering pictured here, the brown buildings are those that got hit by the fire.)

Knight’s familiar with the block— his firm planned the conversion of the aging Johnson-Simons buildings on Church Street into high-end condos. (His client on that project, developer John Wareck, is pictured above at left.)

Knight thought it was time for New Haven’s designers to weigh in on future of the Kresge block. His vision includes a new street cutting through the block surrounded by a cluster of pedestrian-scale buildings.

“The entire boundary of the Ninth Square is changing dramatically,” Knight noted. Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theater are moving downtown, and the path has been cleared for the Shartenberg high-rise. “It’s extraordinarily important to the city of New Haven” that the Kresge block is developed with care.

Knight gave two versions of what might spring up from the ashes of disaster.

The “MacDonald’s” Version

As a premise for the thought exercise, he considered that the former Grant’s department store, which now houses a Footlocker and a parking garage, would be demolished to make way for new construction. That would leave the whole southeastern side of the block razed except for Svigals + Partners architects.

On that freshly tilled ground, someone could come along and fill in the block with a parking garage, some retail, and slap a big tower on top. Knight flashed a picture of this. The shadows of the future Shartenberg project and new Kresge Tower darkened half the frame.

Knight called that plan a “fast food” model: “It very quickly gets the job done,” and could capitalize on nearby growth to make some big bucks. But “I think that that would be a mistake, a missed opportunity on a heroic scale.”

Fine-Grain Bread

The Ninth Square doesn’t need towering structures that dwarf passersby, Knight argued. The great thing about the Ninth Square is its “finer grading” of the block. On Chapel Street, he noted, storefronts are so skinny that every seven paces, a pedestrian finds a new store. That kind of building makes for magical nooks like the Institute Library. Blocks are made up of individual buildings of all different heights, not large-scale institutions. The dicing up of the block into so many unique slivers adds “incredible commercial value” to the area, he argued. He said he hoped anyone developing the so-called Burn Block would heed the human scale, small lot size and architectural detail that once made the Ninth Square a hive of pedestrian activity.

“New Haven was once and still can be today an extraordinarily vibrant place,” Knight said after flashing a photo of old Church Street packed with a theater and shopping crowd.

A New Path

A sketch Knight pitched to Wednesday’s wine-sipping crowd would include a new street blazed through the center of the Burn Block. The path can already be seen, running parallel to Orange Street through the middle of the block.

ground%20floor%20plan.jpgA total of eight new buildings would be built on the block. Knight’s plan includes two inner courtyards, and a mix of parking and street-level retail. When Knight suggested turning the Mid-Block garage into a public market, two listeners let out an “ooh” of delight.

A second plan went further with the renewal. Why not continue that new street to cut through the next block between Center and Crown, where now a surface parking lot takes up a large swath of land? The development could be built incrementally, and tuned over time, Knight posed. Pictured is a sketch of what that might look like, with new buildings in yellow.

10-%20block%20renewal-%20persp.jpgIn a brief Q&A session, Mark Abraham, whose employer Svigals would be the sole building left on that lonely block if such demolition took place, hit on a big question hanging over the room: After the wine and cheese gets put away, will a design community’s wishes have sway over what actually gets built?

Most of the land in question is currently owned Northside Development. The Hahn family owns the rest. Both are in litigation with the city, leaving the ownership in flux. How can a team of designers, who may be sympathetic to Knight’s vision, influence what gets built at the lot? Abraham asked.

Knight recommending telling developers that something large-scale, though money-making in the short term, may not be sustainable. He referred to his firm’s motto of sorts: “No development will be sustainable if it is not loved.”

The party continued the conversation down the street at the Zinc Restaurant, where spots at the table were sold out, again, for this creative confab sponsored by the Town Green Special Services District and the think creative group. For future Wine Dine Design events, visit this website.

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Posted by: Our Town [TypeKey Profile Page] | February 21, 2008 9:17 AM

If a new "street" is contemplated, it should be for pedestrians and bicycles only. The last things we need downtown are more car intersections and traffic lights. This would be perfect for a pedestrian mall.

My only other comment is that the "street' becomes non taxable public right-of-way, probably a substantial loss of potential tax dollars into the future.

Posted by: Ned | February 21, 2008 9:26 AM

Hmm, now if we could just have a massive fire level the block bounded by Chapel, Temple, Crown and Church Sts. that looming black shadow, hovering over the southern end of the Green could be sent back to Mordor...

Posted by: robn | February 21, 2008 9:36 AM

New Haven needs more good solid citizens like George Knight!

This is a good idea becuase the extraordinarily deep block is anchronistic...this one is 250' which is wider than a NYC block. Cutting the street though the block creates opportunities street frontage opportunities for landlocked building bulk.

Posted by: Preety pictures | February 21, 2008 10:02 AM

How pretty, how quaint, how nostalgic! Possible given the situation? Not bloody likely. With the amount of money that has been lost, Northside will need to sell this property for over $10m - the Hahn's for over $5m - and with the cost of new construction and the cute little new road, the only way to make any part of this feasible is to go up at least 10-12 stories. I agree that a behomoth project wuold be wrong for this site - but lets stop this nostalgic, water colored "design community" thinking and start talking with developers and real estate professionals. The Shartenberg deal was a mess, but at least the City recognized that the pretty drawings that the design community favored couldn't actually be delivered, and while the City should have gotten a marginally better deal than the one they did, getting Becker and Becker to the table as a real estate developer (not just an architectural renderer) was why this happened.

Posted by: dylan | February 21, 2008 10:07 AM

Our Town,
The new "street" (by the way, it should not be in quotations) should in fact allow for vehicular as well as pedestrian travel. Of course, by having the street be narrow (perhaps even as George Knight suggested has been successfully done overseas, build it with no sidewalks, so that autos are more wary of how they drive), vehicular travel should be slow, This keeps it from feeling like a private enclave.

As for criticizing the addition of a new street, perhaps we should close Center Street and build over it too. Maybe Orange street should become a pedestrian mall or even become built on as well! The point is that streets actually add value (ie, tax revenue). Look at some of the most beloved (ie valuable) neighborhoods on the east coast like the Village in New York or Beacon Hill in Boston. Narrow streets inside bigger blocks are plentiful, making smaller (easier to rent) retail spaces more usable. Currently, the several hundred foot depth of the Kresge block makes it difficult to lease.

Not only that, but allowing for alternative routes of vehicular travel could do great things for easing congestion. And don't get me started on the need to transition many of New Haven's one way streets into two ways .... just imagine how many extra people are constantly driving extra to get around a one way street, all in the name of moving people in and out of the city 5mph faster ...

I don't mean to be surly, but plentiful, calm streets are the lifeblood of a well-functioning organic urban fabric, and we should stop being so antagonistic toward them.

Posted by: charlie | February 21, 2008 10:44 AM

Our town, although the "street" becomes non taxable, it greatly increases the value of the land around it:

1) Right now, the land right along Chapel and Center is quite valuable for obvious reasons, but land in the "middle of the block" is not. If you add a new street, you add more space for offices, more area for windows, potential "interior courts" etc.

2) The street makes the area more pedestrian-friendly, by cutting up blocks into smaller ones that are easier to traverse, creating calmer urban spaces, allowing smaller-scaled buildings and shops, and adding idiosyncrasies that make the city a more interesting place. This in turn raises land values on all surrounding blocks and potentially the city as a whole.

Posted by: Outta-order | February 21, 2008 11:02 AM

The goat cheese is cleary clouding their vision. If these other cheesy uses will be knocked down, then the Svigals building should go as well. I am not clear on why that gets to stay.

Posted by: carbonfree | February 21, 2008 11:38 AM

Is that the same George Knight who drives a Chevy Suburban Assault Vehicle (aka SUV)? Keep on drivin', George...My Exxon-Mobil stock is doing great!

Posted by: Your Tax Dollars at Work [TypeKey Profile Page] | February 21, 2008 11:47 AM

I'm sure the City is working to find a way to make quality urban development happen here. But the passage is fraught with litigation and problems. Mayor DeStefano needs to find an experienced, judicious person to work as a special master to settle the practical & legal problems so we can all benefit.

The Town Green special taxing district or a subsidiary could function as a developer. It is equivalent to a municipality and might be able to issue bonds secured by the property from which the interest income is non-taxable to the lender. This could be a considerable adantage.

Posted by: dylan | February 21, 2008 11:55 AM

With regard to any comments that George Knight's recommendations are some sort of wussy nostalgia, here are a couple thoughts.

Big block mega projects started being widely proliferated in the 50's-70's, so not only is repetition of them nostalgic, but the failure of them over the past decades (look at the Chapel Square Mall and the Coliseum here in New Haven or Constitution Plaza and the Civic Center in Hartford) makes churning out more them them the definition of insanity.

Not only that, but a mega project is not exactly easy to pull off, considering the expense of steel construction needed once you go over 5-7 stories.

And a new street is not just cute and nostalgic. It adds value and marketability to a block that is too large, something a developer who understands cities, not just suburban oriented modernism (which, is no longer modern, by the way) should appreciate.

Posted by: robn | February 21, 2008 12:29 PM

Preety pictures,

I think that this idea is adaptable to what you're talking about and I would agree (for both economics and urban density reasons) that more bulk could and shouldbe had. NYC has zoning regs that specify other words, the street wall heght that most people percieve is set by zoning an taller bulk is setback by 10, 15, 20 feet. That lets light to the ground and also makes the streetscape feel more intimate.

Outta Order,

I don't know about cheese, but as far as the Svigals building goes....its inhabited by people, not cars.

Posted by: charlie | February 21, 2008 12:30 PM

Outta-order, if everything else on the block were torn down, I think that it is likely that the 2-story Svigals building would be as well. It would make economic sense for the owner to sell it to the developer to be part of the new building site, and for the developer to purchase it.

You may think something new here is at least 5 years away, but I could envision a scenario where something happens much more quickly. For example:

1) City negotiates to purchase the properties, in a settlement deal this year; 2) City obtains several million dollars in urban act funding from the State, in 2008 or 2009, and existing buildings on the site are quickly razed in preparation for new development; 3) City RFP for a large mixed-use project issued in 2009, developer is selected in 2 months and construction on the site begins in late 2009 or early 2010. Developer acts quickly in order to build a new office tower for Yale University and/or a new tower filled with studio apartments (downtown New Haven's apartments are currently at 0-1% vacancy rates with waiting lists, and demand is only increasing). Hopefully parking gets built underneath, but another possibility that is much cheaper and more likely is the building of a new parking garage on the lot across Center Street (between Center and Crown).

This result, of course, could be pretty horrible if done poorly. And the new street is a great idea not only for the future this block, but because if you look at New Haven, there is room for a new street extending here from Elm, through "Federal Plaza" and all the way down, across Center and Crown (through the alley next to the Water Company building and 1 Church Street) all the way to the Coliseum site. A new 4-5 block-long street here would make New Haven much more pedestrian friendly and open up unprecedented opportunities for new pedestrian-friendly office and retail development, like what you find in central London. But it's up to everyone to communicate that to those who will be making the decision.

Posted by: WestvilleMom | February 21, 2008 4:50 PM

This looks like a great idea. When I saw the public market, I couldn't resist submitting this paradigm as a possible model: the (now) demolished, but wonderful Jenkins Arcade of Pittsburgh, which served as a through-block thoroughfare lined with shops for many, many decades. Part of its success was that it had offices above; i.e. dentists, doctors, lawyers, etc. etc. etc.--that served as primary destinations, along with the shops, so that the place was always as busy as Grand Central at all hours of the day. It was one of those urban "gems" that should have never been demolished. See this link for an old rendering:

Posted by: Seriously? | February 21, 2008 7:21 PM

These properties are not owned by the city/us.
These are peoples' businesses and we do not have a right to decide if they are to become public streets or a high rise.
This is not the Shartenberg Property. This is not an opportunity.
This is Tens of Millions of our tax dollars that the Destefano administration pissed away for us by botching a demolition under the veil of public safety.
George Night, nor anyone not willing to replace our future lost tax dollars, should not be dancing on this grave.

Posted by: James | February 22, 2008 3:33 PM

In this city a pedestrian mall would become a trash-strewn, urine-soaked, squatters camp in five minutes. Pretty much just like every other public space. Don't get me wrong, I wish we could have a pedestrian mall. But so many of the inhabitants of this city are bad children, so we can't have nice toys.

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