The “Berlin Wall” that has separated New Haven’s public housing projects from their suburban neighbors for five decades is set to come down Monday morning. A symbolic first piece of it, anyway.
New Haven officials hatched that plan Tuesday afternoon in a meeting at the West Rock Community Center. The plan concerns a chainlink fence that divides New Haven’s Rockview, Ribicoff and Brookside housing developments from neighboring Hamden, forcing New Haveners to take circuitous bus routes or drives or hikes instead of traveling directly over the town line. The fence spans about a third of a mile along Hamden’s Woodin Street between Thorpe Drive and Fawn Ridge Drive.
The first stretch of that fence, nearest to Rockview, will come down Monday at 11 a.m., according to the plan. It will be a largely “symbolic” gesture. Due to a fenced-off construction site, people and cars still won’t be able to get through the town border until later this month or June.
The new plan comes on the heels of a breakthrough discovery that New Haven has the legal right to tear down the fence without Hamden’s permission. The fence for decades has served as sore point in New Haven-Hamden relations, viewed as the “Berlin Wall” dividing city and suburb. New Haven’s previous mayor had put on hold efforts to work with Hamden to take down the fence after Hamden neighbors exploded with anger and fear at the idea. But then the city pursued a federal civil-rights action, and discovered in the process that it owns the land and can just take down the fence itself.
New Haven’s new plan to remove the fence drew 100 suburban protestors to a meeting in Hamden Monday. Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson has conceded his town has no legal recourse to stop the fence removal; the federal government sides with New Haven, too. (On Wednesday morning, Hamden Republicans issued this statement charging that officials had left neighbors “out of the process.” And Steve Packard of Hamden, a Republican seeking the Third U.S. Congressional District nomination this year, issued a release calling for a compromise: pedestrian access across the border through a gate, but not extended road bringing more traffic. Read his release here.)
Confident in their legal rights to remove the barrier, and under direction from New Haven’s Mayor Toni Harp to do so as soon as possible, city housing authority officials convened the planning meeting Tuesday. A dozen people from the housing authority, the police department, and the developer of the new Rockview housing projects met for one hour over large blueprints. New Haven has already been rebuilding the other two developments; one irony in the current controversy is that once the fence comes down, the newer, in some cases more valuable homes will sit on the New Haven side, not the Hamden side.
The city housing authority’s deputy director, Jimmy Miller (at right in photo), and executive director, Karen DuBois-Walton, led the meeting. They conferred with a team of officials from Michaels Development Co., the New Jersey-based firm that is co-developing the Rockview housing development along with Glendower, the housing authority’s development arm.
Miller asked the Michaels team to draw up a plan to tear down the fence as soon as possible.
Are you sure no one will sue if we go ahead? someone asked.
“No one would have standing in a lawsuit,” replied DuBois-Walton.
Jack Curran, of Michaels, cited one other potential problem with the plan: Michaels is currently using the Hamden-New Haven fence as one side of a perimeter to secure its Rockview construction site.
“We do have a concern about taking that fence down and allowing free access” to the construction site, he said.
Michaels built an initial phase of rental housing at Rockview and is now at work extending Wilmot Road (pictured) up to the Hamden border. Curran said Michaels would be happy to tear down the Hamden-New Haven fence, but will have to erect a new, temporary fence to secure its construction site.
Miller said that sounded fine. He declared that the fence should come down on Monday, which he said is projected to be 76 degrees.
“It’ll be a beautiful day,” Miller announced. “Monday morning, 11 o’clock, that fence is coming down. Just give me a price.”
The group agreed Michaels will tear down a first section of the fence—the part where Woodin meets the extension of Wilmot Road—on Monday. That demolition is already in Michaels’ contract. The housing authority will then hire Michaels on a separate contract to tear down the rest of the fence along Woodin, from Wilmot Road to Thorpe Drive. That second stretch will be torn down on Wednesday, May 21.
Surveying the construction site, Curran later said that Monday’s demolition will be largely “symbolic.” Because of the construction perimeter, people won’t actually be able to walk through. Wilmot Road won’t be passable until June, when Michaels finishes paving it, he predicted.
The second phase of the fence removal will eliminate a barrier between the Abraham Ribicoff Cottages and Hamden. Police brass at the meeting asked if that would make families who live there feel unsafe. Miller replied that there are only 40 families left in Ribicoff; all of them are set to move out by June. Between June 15 and July 1, Ribicoff will be “torn down entirely,” Miller said. Construction is set to be complete by January 2016.
Eventually, the housing authority plans to build three new roads connecting to Hamden: Wilmot, which is right next to Rockview; and extensions of two new roads named Augustine Street and Jefferson Way, which will connect to Woodin from Ribicoff.
To ensure safety at the newly opened border, the housing authority has agreed to set up a trailer to serve as a police substation staffed by New Haven and Hamden cops. The housing authority plans to keep it there through Dec. 31, Miller said.
Toward the end of the meeting, an ambassador from Mayor Harp’s office, Chief of Staff Tomás Reyes, showed up and asked for a debriefing. DuBois-Walton led him to her housing authority-issued white Jeep Grand Cherokee and took him on a tour.
“This trip should really take us two seconds,” she said as she headed to Hamden. To get there, she had to drive in the opposite direction on Wilmot Road, turn onto Wintergreen Avenue, and turn again onto Woodin Street. The trip to Woodin took at least five minutes. DuBois-Walton pointed out that many public housing tenants don’t have cars and must wait for connecting buses to make that same trip.
“This is a compelling reason for doing this,” replied Reyes.
As she approached the fence along Woodin Street, DuBois-Walton slowed down.
“I should’ve made one of you drive,” she quipped, pointing out that her New Haven housing authority license plate might draw the ire of Hamden neighbors.
The fence blocked the view of the projects on the other side.
“If they could get to the street” by walking down Wilmot, she said, New Haven’s public housing tenants “could get a bus right on Woodin.”
As she drove away from Hamden turf, DuBois-Walton predicted the cross-border tension would not last long.
“I anticipate Hamden folks will be very upset for a minute,” and will “blame us for whatever car accident happens,” “and then it’ll all calm down.
“It’ll be like, ‘What was this fuss all about?’”