Cars Invade Federal Plaza

Paul Bass PhotoOne of the city’s premier pedestrian plazas was jammed—with vehicles.

A Department of Homeland Security’s supervisors car was parked there. So was a Williams Building Company truck. At least 17 vehicles, as well, some within newly painted parking stripes, others scattered around an iconic 44-foot red tubular sculpture. They were all hogging the open space meant to invite human beings to stroll, sit or loiter amid a confluence of government buildings.

That was the mid-day scene Wednesday at Federal Plaza, the pedestrian concourse connecting City Hall, the federal courthouse, the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building, the Hall of Records, and the Connecticut Financial Center.

That’s been the scene for the past week, marking a dramatic change in what has been a central car-free public space for four decades.

The change happened after the federal General Services Administration (GSA), which controls the plaza, striped some 25 parking spaces.

It did so “to accommodate displaced federal employees during [nearby] garage repairs,” said regional GSA spokeswoman Cathy M. Menzies.

The locals—at least some city officials and public-space advocates—are none too happy.

Anstress Farwell of the Urban Design League called the move “an inappropriate use of the public plaza.”

“The plaza was not designed to accommodate regular traffic—just deliveries, and emergency and service vehicles,” she noted. “Parking for the courthouse is provided underground. Vehicle access to the site is only over the driveway off Church Street, which requires cars to pass over a busy sidewalk at a major bus stop. Visibility is poor for the drivers, and they often wait on the sidewalk for the security gates to open.  It is a public nuisance to encourage cars here.”

The otherwise wide-open plaza, a pedestrian connector between Orange Street and the Green on Church Street, is best known for its signature towering artwork: Alexander Liberman’s rolled-steel collection of cylinders, entitled “On High.” As an official government description of the piece notes, “Liberman intended the public to walk around the sculpture, and experience a sensations similar to what he felt when he visited St. Peters.”

On Wednesday, passersby experienced the sensation of navigating their way around parked vehicles surrounding “On High,” including a Silktown Roofing truck left hard against the sculpture. Like several of the vehicles, it was parked outside of any marked lanes.

“It’s my first day here,” a Silktown worker responded when asked why the vehicle was there. “I don’t know why.”

City officials started talking about the change as soon as it happened last week and looked into what could be done, said City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg.

“I think it’s a totally inappropriate use of federal plaza, which was part of a government center project. That’s supposed to be a public plaza for pedestrians. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gilvarg said.

The city contacted GSA for clarity and received reassurance that the plan wouldn’t interfere with activities planned for the upcoming Arts & Ideas festival. But the city can’t do anything about the change, said Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. “They [the feds] control the plaza.”

Gilvarg and Farwell said they’d like to see the feds allow businesses backing onto the plaza to put up patios and outside dining.

GSA’s Menzies said she has no information on whether that would be possible at some point.

But she had some good news for people concerned about a four-wheeler-dominated concourse: The feds expect to get rid of the parking in three months. The lanes are striped with removable tape.


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posted by: robn on June 3, 2010  9:43am

Whats totally inappropriate is the piss poor long term management of this space. What good is it if theres nothing there but a cool sculpture?

posted by: AndersonScooper on June 3, 2010  9:51am

Three months? My guess is that’s just a trial balloon to see if New Haven residents will put up with this abuse.

However, there is one quick solution to this fiasco.

Politely call Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and ask for her help!

59 Elm Street office
New Haven, CT

DC office

posted by: streever on June 3, 2010  9:57am

I’m glad the city is pushing back on this: not much they can do but express the outrage that everyone feels.

It would be a massive coup for this city if restaurants/stores were allowed to open into the area. Imagine the foot traffic from the upper-income and affluent 360 State Residents walking through.

posted by: terrapin on June 3, 2010  10:44am

Why can’t these people go find parking spaces on the street, or in a more remote lot, or take the bus/train in while their parking spots are unavailable? It’s what the rest of us have to do every time parking gets reduced in downtown, either temporarily or permanently.

posted by: Martha Smith on June 3, 2010  11:02am

Why is it when there was a fear of car bombs, the public was instantly prohibited from parking on Orange Street for several years?  But when federal employees need parking, its okay to park in a public, pedestrian area…for how long?

Though I do agree with robn that overall there has been poor management of this space.  So much more could be done with it, but putting cars there isn’t an improvement.

posted by: Townie on June 3, 2010  11:26am

Give me a break. Call a Congressperson over a few parking spaces in an otherwise empty lot? Someone has too much time on their hands. This is not a fiasco or an outrage. It’s a few cars parked behind a building, big deal. Usually I’m against anything the Federal Government does, but really, it’s just a few cars for a few months, get over it.

posted by: why are we acting surprised? on June 3, 2010  11:58am

People - these are federal employees.  Under the current regime, we must submit all to them.  Why worry about a little public space when they’ve already confiscated our disposable income, our student loan program, our auto industry, and our health care.

Here in Obamaland, the government, which is obviously wiser than any of us, must be allowed to have anything that it desires.  I’m sure this is for the common good so stop complaining.

posted by: Ideat Village on June 3, 2010  12:01pm

File under “A more appropriate use of public space”

Millennium Plaza (behind City Hall)   
Saturday, June 12th         2-6pm

Curated by the founder of local cartoon jazz band, Goose Lane, this celebration of jazz, improvisation, experimental, and traditional styles will prove to be an afternoon of music from the serious to the fun.

Featured performances by:

DOG HUNCH - a salute to 70’s era Miles Davis, as blown by Steve Aseta and friends.  Expect an international cast.

THE SKAMATIX - Blending ska and rocksteady from the 50’s and 60’s with jazz; this mellow, sexy blend of skankin’ rhythms and luscious harmonies explore a setlist that ranges from Bob Marley to John Coltrane.

MAYHEM CIRCUS ELECTRIC - The New Haven Improvisers Collective presents this low-down electric improvisational madness with a nod to the deep groove of electric miles and lubricious modern mob vandermark fun. There will be original melodies from the forthcoming CD, Lubricity, some never before heard sounds, and perhaps the strains of a familiar classic.

THE HARRIS BROTHERS BALKAN BAND - Expressing themselves with tight harmonies and driving rhythms, the Harris Brothers inventively explore the intricacies of the Balkan Roma Style of Gypsy Music. These traditional arrangements for horns and drums are exuberantly uplifting, foot stompingly passionate, and just plain fun.

AS THE ROCKET FELL -How do you avoid a rocket that you can’t hear until after it has fallen? How do you cope with that god-awful ringing in your ears if you managed to survive? As The Rocket Fell is a new work by Chris Cretella for electric guitars and drums that explores among other things, the V2 rocket, clusters (both tonal and bombs), simulated tinnitus, actual tinnitus, and compositional practices from the 60’s. Who knows…this may even become a band. Lautaro Mantilla (guitar) and Dave Parmelee (drums) are supplying ordinance.

posted by: jdavis on June 3, 2010  12:01pm

It’s nice to see people using the space.  Maybe we could start a tailgating group before major government events.

posted by: Rosa? on June 3, 2010  12:10pm

Do you really think that Rep DeLauro will do anything?  She is far more interested in driving big gov’t than helping us little folk.  I wrote to her office begging that she not back the Health Care fiasco.  Two weeks later, I rec’d an email saying, in effect, thanks for you interest but we’re jamming this down your throat whether you like it or not.

posted by: East Rockette on June 3, 2010  12:12pm

Good point, Martha. Suddenly it’s safe again?

Count me in for wanting to see this space better designed and used. It’s not particularly welcoming, as is. What about moving the farmers market in here, or expanding it so half is on the street and half in here, or running a weekend craft market, or something?

Restaurants and stores would bring the foot traffic. And more greenery would be welcoming, too.

posted by: East Rockette on June 3, 2010  12:16pm

Or, if it’s going to be used for parking at all, hello, secure and supervised bike parking?

With a depot for rental/free bikes for tourists and visitors to get around on.

What with the new Devil’s Gear just the other side of Orange St, it could be a whole new hub of carbon-neutral pedal-powered awesomeness.

posted by: KD on June 3, 2010  1:04pm

This could be one of New Haven’s finest spaces - income-generating, to boot - if it were filled not with trucks but with cafe tables, musicians, ice cream carts, salsa dancers….

Could someone (Arts & Ideas?) perhaps make it happen just for a week, as a sort of trial balloon?  It would show the city what this space could really be.

There was a time when the city of Rome used most of its piazzas as parking lots.  They eventually realised what they were missing out on.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 3, 2010  1:18pm

Federal plaza is pretty terrible. Court Street should have never been demolished.
The plaza is underused because there is not a diversity of uses surrounding it, which results in isolated use of the plaza at specific times of the day instead of constant, casual use by many different groups. The green is a great example of a public space because it is bordered by building frontage, not building rears. Opening up cafe uses to the plaza might help, but in order to make this a great public space, much more needs to be done and it may just be too close to the green to really by practical. Large, defined public spaces need to be adequately spaced or else they will suffer from underuse and too much competition.
Plazas in Europe double as parking lots, so in theory, it is not bad because those plazas are still great. The issue is not parking, but rather the idea that cars can infiltrate pedestrian space, but then pedestrians are not allowed to use “car” space. All public space should be public and allowed for free use by all people, the only restrictions that should be made at for when those people enter and operate vehicles, but if on foot, there should be no boundaries. The system of circulating and storing cars is completely ridiculous and makes no sense and has distorted common sense with the shear number of cars we have in this country.
Here are a couple examples of plazas designed for a secondary use of a parking lot:

There is a cafe facing the plaza with outdoor seating and a small retail shop and these were designed and built in the last 5 years in England by an American Architecture firm that used transect-based zoning and form-based codes.

posted by: AndersonScooper on June 3, 2010  2:17pm


Yes, you call your Congressperson when you have a problem with the Federal government. Particularly when it’s clear they’re thumbing their noses at our city government.

And yes, this is a fiasco. Could you imagine if one day they started using the Temple Plaza as parking? Or a chunk of the Green? I walk through that courtyard frequently, and although the architecture could be better, I appreciate it as one of New Haven’s public spaces.

The cars don’t belong there, period. The space between the Financial Center and the court house was never meant to be a driveway. And there are plenty of other solutions if the GSA was indeed in a short term fix.

posted by: Eva Geertz on June 3, 2010  2:59pm

This doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve often wondered why the farmer’s market wasn’t in this plaza… I can think of lots of better uses for this space—which I cross regularly, and which is always spectacularly empty when I do—besides parking, for pity’s sake. If it’s truly temporary I’ll let it go but I fear it won’t be and that we’re all expected to just get used to it. Grrr.

By the way, I thought the sculptor’s name was spelled Liberman—am I remembering wrong?

posted by: ideat Village on June 3, 2010  3:07pm


Ideat Village will be using Millenium Plaza as part of both its opening and closing day festivities. During both weekends, (June 12th &26th;)  concurrent events will be happening at Pitkin Plaza, and at Orbit, our temporary gallery space at 118 Court Street.  For the final weekend, Orange Street will be closed, turning Ideat Village into legitimate street festival, with multiple stages, home-spun vendors, a comic convention, car show, skateboard demos… name it. 
Any other bright ideas—Bring ‘em on.

Ideat Village is the only festival funded completely on community good will.  Total cost of production—approximately $3000.

All Free,  All Open. All unjuried.
Arts and Ideas, eat your heart out.

posted by: Brian on June 3, 2010  3:19pm

Those cars are not parked on earth, but on the roof of the underground garage. The roof is sealed and granite paver blocks are placed on top of the sealant. A few years ago the GSA spent a HUGE amount to take out all the blocks and replace the waterproof seal because the garage roof leaked badly. I do not have to tell you what caused the sealant to crack up.It would have been cheaper in the long run to pay the parking Authority for some short term spaces.

posted by: Townie on June 3, 2010  4:04pm

Anderson Scooper-
First; the Federal Government owns the space, not the city. Second; the parked cars do not impede pedestrian traffic. Third; the argument that “allowing” the space to be used for parking would in someway cause other open spaces like the Temple Plaza and the Green to be used for parking, is an illogical “slipper slope” argument, it is hyperbolic and without basis. But, why not use the Green for parking? It was once a cemetery and cow pasture. Greens were originally intended for public use and need. And the city does have a need for more parking spaces and could use the extra revenue. Oh yeah, the Green also is not owned by the city, it is privately owned.
And I can’t believe someone suggested using the space for a café and salsa dancers, just what New Haven needs more cafes.
It is good to see such concern over a small parcel of pavement. Civic mindedness is still alive in the Elm City. Ha.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on June 3, 2010  10:46pm

“Lieberman intended the public to walk around the sculpture, and experience a sensations similar to what he felt when he visited St. Peters.”

OMG, what the heck does that big ugly red thing have in common with St. Peter’s?  Both the sculpture AND the plaza are half-baked 1970’s attempts at civic design—better than a highway overpass, but with no human scale, and no real effort made to figure out what actually makes people walk, sit, and linger in a public space.

Jonathan Hopkins, you’re a local treasure.

: )

posted by: Liz on June 4, 2010  12:15am

This also seems terribly wrong to me as a matter of general principle, but you have to admit that there wasn’t much to lose here to begin with. Sure, the sculpture is great, but this is pretty much a failure as a public space. I have also wondered if it has something to do with being too close to the Green.

Come to think of it, the ONLY time I’ve ever seen people there was for Ideat Village. Thank goodness for that at least.

posted by: Jake on June 4, 2010  8:48am

I say let them park there.  Whenever I’ve been there it’s always empty.  No people.  Do people still work downtown?

posted by: Steve on June 4, 2010  8:51am

Rep. Delauro: Please use your pull to get the cars and trucks out of the plaza.

posted by: Ned on June 4, 2010  9:19am

This plaza has always been a “dead” space.  There is no regular programming, no reason to go there and, as a result, there is no natural constituency to advocate for the plaza not to be turned into a parking lot.  The sculpture adds nothing - no place to sit, no shelter - zero.  The entire area needs to be redesigned - the maze at the north end, and the void at the south end (now filled by cars).  Also, why are government agencies so enamored of SUV’s? - is it some kind of power thing?

posted by: eastchap on June 4, 2010  9:47am

I totally agree with Robn! 

This gorgeous plaza with a fabulous piece (worth $millions) by a world class sculptor is basically unnoticed.  It should be surrounded by shops & cafes with tables for al fresco dining and relaxing.

Now the feds, with characteristic insensitivity, have stepped into the vacuum left by poor planning and years of City neglect. The time to do something was BEFORE.  Lets hope they will now begin to plan for AFTER.

posted by: Townie on June 4, 2010  10:05am

The Plaza and surrounding pedestrian area is actually one of the nicer places downtown. It’s a convenient shortcut to the Federal Courthouse from Orange Street and it’s a nice place to escape to during the work-day. The fact that cars are parked in a small area does nothing to the atmosphere and convenience. In fact, I have always noticed, before the spaces were put in, 2 or 3 cars parked behind the Courthouse, usually Federal Marshal vehicles and prisoner transports. It really is not a big deal that a few more cars/trucks make use of the space. I think the citizens of New Haven have bigger problems to deal with and the fate of a small parcel of pavement should register pretty low on our scale of concern.

posted by: Uncle Egg on June 4, 2010  10:25am

Why is it that New Haven has such great public spaces and puts them to such poor use? I hate to fall back on comparisons with Europe, but it’s hard to imagine a space like this being so utterly wasted in Barcelona or Munich.

Let’s start with the New Haven Green, by far the most under-utilized of the city’s assets. During the warm weather there should be programming every weekday during the lunch hour, and activities every weekend night. There should be vendors lining the perimeters, and at least one of the surrounding streets should be closed off and used as a weekly market.

As for Federal Plaza, with a little bit of imagination, local bars and restaurants could bid on concession rights to put tables and seating, creating a perfect place to enjoy lunch or enjoy a cold beverage after work. The money collected by the city could be used to pay for programming on the Green (with the goal that it should eventually be self-sustaining).

I’m sure city officials could come up with dozens of reasons why this is unprecedented, illegal, impractical or impossible. But similar things are done elsewhere. Why not here?

posted by: Steve on June 4, 2010  10:57am

Thank you, Uncle Egg. You’re quite right.
The plaza and, especially, the Green, are almost barren of use.
The Green, in reality, is a large open embarrassment. It’s rare to appreciate the green because it’s nearly always covered in litter. There seems to be little pride taken in it. It should be put to more use than the Arts & Ideas every June and the occasional one-off festival.
Are our city administrators too distracted to notice what’s right outside their door? Who is the custodian of these public spaces? Why does downtown New Haven suffer from such a poor self image?
I would love to help change that.

posted by: Townie on June 4, 2010  11:36am

Quote from Uncle Egg, “There should be vendors lining the perimeters, and at least one of the surrounding streets should be closed off and used as a weekly market.”

The problem with this idea and any idea that seeks to turn New Haven into what it once was, a city with a vibrant downtown, is that very few people who work in New Haven actually live in New Haven and those who live in New Haven usually leave this city for the other city (NYC) or other locations that provide things to do other than drink and eat. Having lived here for a number of years I always find it odd that Downtown is usually a ghost town on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Despite the posts on this website, there is little demand for any sort of downtown restructuring that would return it to the commercial and social center of the city, the way it used to be. I think the city government and its owner, i.e. Yale, like it the way it is. A quaint Epcot Centeresque city center to attract tourists, visiting academics and the families of undergrads.

posted by: robn on June 4, 2010  1:09pm

free-for-all battle…

the Lieberman sculpture
vs. the [url=“
“]Ann Lehman[/url] sculpture on Whitney and Trumbull
vs. the shiny silver [url=“
“]Lichtenstein [/url] on Hillhouse
vs. the Oldenburg lipstick tank

...which one wins?

posted by: eastchap on June 4, 2010  2:37pm

It’s up there with Lichtenstein & Oldenburg as well as other out door world class sculptures in the Yale collection.

By the way: Alexander Liberman (no e)

posted by: Uncle Egg on June 4, 2010  2:44pm

Townie: Your points are well taken. I’ve heard this argument elsewhere, as well. And I agree these aren’t problems that are easily brushed aside.

However, I think this is one of those areas where consistency pays off. If there were always something going on on the Green on weekends, people would get into the habit of going there. These days, heading downtown isn’t something you do unless you’re going to a specific place or event; the idea is to make it a place where people will go simply to find something fun to do. That’s the great thing about truly livable cities: If you walk around for even a little while, you’re bound to stumble on something interesting.

I’d love to see a goal next year of having something exciting going on downtown every day and evening of every weekend next year. Bring back the Friday night movies, organize open jams, reach out to the arts scene, plan tours and bike rides, get the downtown merchants and restaurants involved and do whatever else it takes to make this happen. There’s a lot that can be done, it doesn’t have to cost a lot, and I’m sure creative minds can find ways to cover the costs without putting it all on the backs of New Haven taxpayers.

posted by: anon on June 4, 2010  3:44pm

Agree, the New Haven Green has been trashed lately. 

The Town Green District used to actually do a good job and keep it clean, but the organization must have gone downhill somewhere along the way. 

Now it is an embarrassment not just to the city but to the entire State of Connecticut.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 4, 2010  4:17pm

I vote for “Lipstick Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks”.

posted by: Townie on June 4, 2010  5:23pm

Believe it or not the city does not own the Green. It is a public space but it is owned by a private committee of blue- bloods. Anyway, I think it is a chicken and egg problem. People don’t want to pay the expense of putting something on or around the Green or downtown because of the good chance no one will show up, but no one shows up because usually there is nothing going on. So, the only way to stop this vicious cycle is by putting businesses into the downtown area that people need to patronize, i.e. grocery store (not Whole Foods!) but a known brand such as Stop and Shop, Shop Rite, etc. other smaller businesses as well. A good example, the Guilford Green area. There are Hardware stores, opticians, real estate offices, sporting good stores, and other businesses that people actually use. If people have a real practical reason to be down town then festivals, etc., would have no problem attracting attendees.
We have had this discussion in other article comment boards. It is good to know that some people desire a vibrant downtown, but also disheartening when one realizes it is the minority viewpoint.

posted by: nick healy on June 4, 2010  5:46pm

Ridiculous! How ‘bout we stop trying to find more parking for people commuting into downtown and get people to move into the city and walk or use city transportation.

posted by: Thomas on June 5, 2010  10:04pm

I worked near that area for years the amount of foot traffic would in no way be affected by those parking spots. Like Clark’s and The Yankee Doodle it seems people in New Haven only worry about something when its gone. It was never used the art work is not worth walking by and since the Post Office left its nothing but an glorified alley.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 7, 2010  6:52pm

A downtown Post Office that isn’t on the Yale Campus.
What an urban luxury!