Imagine this: Police headquarters moves to Long Wharf’s historically preserved (and empty) Pirelli building while the old headquarters makes way for offices tied to the train station.
A pipe dream, maybe. Or perhaps part of a new way of looking at how to remake swaths of New Haven’s downtown and Hill neighborhood.
The Pirelli idea arose unscripted Thursday night at a discussion bringing neighbors together with people who sit in offices all day deciding what to do with or to neighborhoods.
And that was the point. The occasion was the kick-off of what’s being billed as the “Hill-to-Downtown Planning Initiative.”
The “initiative” (pardon the bureaucratese) is a 15-month-long study paid for by the state and federal government of multiple planning projects that range from Downtown Crossing, to the upgrading of Union Station as a transit-oriented development, the fate of the troubled Church Street South complex, and what’s to rise (still a wide-open question) on the site of the Coliseum.
The underlying idea: The Hill and contiguous stretches of downtown—carved up and remade (some say destroyed) during urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s—is undergoing another transformation on much of the same scarred land. This time, as individual projects remake blocks at a time, planners hope they along with the public can keep the big picture in mind.
Bearing PowerPoints, maps on boards, and an invitation for residents of the Hill and Downtown to contribute their ideas and concerns, economic development officials, along with a stable chock full of government-paid consultants and institutional “stakeholders,” descended on the cafeteria of Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy to start that process Thursday night.
If past experience is a guide, not just in New Haven but in American civic life in general, their biggest challenges may include getting a broad swath of the non-insider public involved, and then finding a meaningful way to incorporate their ideas. (Click here and here to read about an ill-fated recent attempts as well as the backlash of criticism.) And Thursday night’s meeting included some familiar sparring about how to talk about talking.
But Thursday night’s meeting also produced a provocative idea—the Pirelli/police suggestion—from a genuinely grassroots perspective, a man who used to help clean out the police building for a living.
Carlos Eyzaguirre of the Economic Development Corporation described a full-court press to get people to to come to the meeting. That included a thousand flyers distributed by six Career High students, Livable City Initiative specialists fanning out in the neighborhoods, and, in a first for such meeting, simultaneous Spanish translation for any who wanted it. About 75 people showed up.
“That’s What This Meeting Is About”
With so many moving parts, City Plan Department Director Karyn Gilvarg, who emceed the proceedings, along with the consultants emphasized the importance of a “vision” to guide the development over the many years it will take to evolve.
She characterized the effort’s goals as keeping “New Haven competitive on the playing field of the [national and world] economy” and “a growth agenda” that also preserves what’s good about our neighborhoods.
Among the means to achieve these goals: increasing density and less land devoted to parking, attracting more jobs, generating taxes to pay for police, fire, and education, and that elusive “connectivity.”
That latter idea has generated controversy, especially among Downtown Crossing critics who assert you can’t stitch together what isn’t there.
In Gilvarg’s spirited sermon on connectivity, the term refers to more than a geographic linking of streets; it also includes connecting residents to jobs, training, and education, she said.
“Would kids think [more] about going to Gateway [Community College] if they could see it across the connector?” she posed the hypothetical question.
No one at the gathering answered it, but skeptics in the audience like Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colon rose to object.
“You talk about connectivity. You want to connect commuters [to the new biomed jobs] and leave the jobs in my neighborhood, in Trowbridge, for low level jobs. You talk about residential and mixed use, but I haven’t seen anything. As an alder, that’ s my trepidation. I hope you bring in jobs that will help kids not to be tied to their kitchens or mops,” Colon said.
“That’s what this meeting is about,” replied Economic Development Department chief Kelly Murphy. There is no plan yet, but the beginning of a process to help generate one.
Nevertheless, longtime Hill residents such as Ann Boyd, an urban renewal veteran, and critics of the Downtown Crossing project sensed sensed some development horses may already have left the barn. Ann Boyd has lived in the Hill for decades. She recalled similar meetings and promises in the 1980s but said, “You bring in large institutions and you’re forgetting the people who live here.”
She issued a call for Hill residents to come up with their own feasibility study and present it to the planners.
Gilvarg replied that the idea of “commuters in and out” is an old vision. We need to replace it with a different vision to guide us through the next decade.”
“What Dolores Colon [with Boyd] is saying we need to reflect and speak back to you,” she added.
The Urban Design League’s Anstress Farwell also endorsed the community participation urged by Boyd and Colon. She said the plan’s emphasis on north to south movement or connectivity overlooks the importance of east-west movement among people living in the Hill.
While complimenting planners, she added an apocalyptic cautionary note: “Density without transit is the definition of hell.”
If something new emerged from the presentation, it was a call to think hard about the utilization of local institutions and anchoring buildings, including the Yale Nursing School building which the university is largely vacating. “What happens to that?” asked Gilvarg.
A New Idea Emerges
No one had an answer for that yet, but Paul Larrivee had an idea about another structure in the heart of the Hill-to-Downtown area: the current windowless fortress of a police headquarters.
In fact, in informal past discussions among officials, talk had surfaced about tearing down the police station, using the land as part of a new “transit-oriented development” plan for new apartments, stores and offices around the train station, and moving the cops elsewhere in the Hill.
Officials responded to Larrivee Thursday night by saying they have no current plans to move the police headquarters, But David Spillane, one of the city’s planning consultants from Goody Clancy, in Boston, characterized it as a tired, 40-year-old building. Long-term thought should be given to an alternative to it, he suggested.
“Why not put the police in the old Pirelli Building?” Larrivee proposed. He said flooding is a problem in the police building. Larrivee knows this from personal experience. “I used to keep the sump pumps going” as a maintenance workers, he said.
“We’ll certainly bring it up,” Murphy said eagerly, noting that IKEA owns the building and it is to Ikea that officials will be talking. Then she added, “We need to look at Union Avenue as a whole.”
She asked attendees to bring five people to the next public meeting of the planning initiative towards the end of this year. In the meantime, the power point is on the city’s website, with up-to-date information available at: facebook.com/HilltoDowntown