Fueled by a new vision for remaking the Hill neighborhood near Union Station, Erik Johnson stepped off a DATTCO bus, onto the streets of Philadelphia—and into a scene from New Haven’s potential future.
Johnson, head of the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative, led city officials and Hill neighbors on a scouting mission Wednesday to the City of Brotherly Love. He and a dozen fellow New Haveners spent the day checking out how Philly has juggled the expansion of its universities with the desire to protect and bolster its neighborhoods.
The trip was inspired by an effort underway in New Haven to reimagine the Hill-to-Downtown corridor, which includes building a new garage for Union Station; rebuilding the Church Street South housing projects across from the train station; managing the expansion of Yale’s medical district; and connecting the train station to that medical district as well as to downtown.
After one year of study, the city is about to release a conceptual plan for the area called the Hill-to-Downtown Community Plan. The plan, authored by consultants Goody Clancy, gives a big-picture vision for the area—but no specific tools of implementation, such as zone changes. Johnson plans to submit the plan to aldermen Monday.
No “Massive Gentrification”
At 7 a.m. Wednesday, Johnson boarded a red, 45-foot DATTCO bus at City Hall and headed to Philadelphia. The bus carried a cargo of three Hill Aldermen—Jorge Perez, Dolores Colon and Andrea Jackson-Brooks—four longtime Hill neighbors, a Yale student, a Yale official, a photographer, and several city government staffers. Most of them were members of a steering committee formed to guide the Hill-to-Downtown planning process.
After a round of naps, Johnson opened his briefcase and gave the Independent a sneak peek at the plan.
• Transform Church Street (south of Route 34) from an automotive dead zone to an “active, pedestrian-oriented roadway defined by new housing, open space, retail, research and institutional uses.”
• Connect Union Station to Church Street by creating a new street that extends from the front doors of Union Station, through the Church Street South complex, right to Church Street.
• Revamp Church Street South—a privately owned, 301-unit government-subsidized low-income housing complex in dire need of repairs —into mixed-income housing combined with stores and restaurants. Some of the restaurants would sit on a new plaza called Union Square at the corner of Columbus and Church. People leaving Union Station could easily reach that plaza by walking or biking through the new street.
• Extend Lafayette Street—a one-block street in Yale’s medical district—through Church Street, around Tower One/Tower East, all the way to meet Orange Street, which would extend across Route 34.
• Turn Union Avenue, where the police and train stations are, into a “complete street” that can handle an increased flow of cars heading to a new parking garage by the train station, as well bikes and pedestrians. Currently, Union Avenue is not a comfortable place to walk.
The plan also calls for reusing the abandoned Sacred Heart Church on Columbus Avenue and filling in vacant lots on Cedar Street and Howard Avenue to strengthen the neighborhood.
The plan grew out of seven public hearings and workshops and consultation with “several hundred” Hill neighbors, according to Goody Clancy’s narrative. The consulting firm came up with three scenarios and ended up merging them.
The planning began a year ago, when city officials looked at how to remake Union Station and Church Street South. They sought to create a welcoming gateway to New Haven, one that makes use of the transit hub to foster retail, offices and vibrant streetlife. Officials quickly realized they couldn’t do that without addressing a broader problem in the area, Johnson said: A network of “disjointed” streets and over 40 acres of surface parking create a pedestrian-unfriendly zone that isolates the train station from Yale’s medical district and the rest of the Hill neighborhood.
Yale’s medical district is a major economic engine of New Haven, Johnson said. He said he sees a great opportunity for it to grow—and an opportunity for the city to make that possible without rolling over Hill neighbors.
Amid the process, neighbors have expressed fear that they would be gentrified out of their neighborhood to make way for Yale’s expansion. Others feared that those who would be forced out of Church Street South would not be able to move back.
The plan calls for 2 million square feet of new development over 10 years, including an expansion of the institutional footprints of Yale, Yale-New Haven Hospital and associated biomedical laboratories.
“While there is going to be growth, there’s not going to be massive gentrification,” Johnson pledged.
The plan calls for creating 750 to 800 apartments or condos at a revamped Church Street South. There are no specifics on how many affordable units the development should have, nor any specific relocation plan. Johnson said the plan calls for 1,400 new residential units across the entire area of study, bordered by Union Ave, Church Street, Columbus Ave, Howard Ave, and Route 34. About 20 to 25 percent of the new housing would be “affordable” or “workforce” housing, Johnson said. He said he has not yet defined what “affordable” would mean.
If approved by aldermen, the plan would not be legally binding. It is meant to be a conceptual blueprint, outlining a consensus vision on how development should take place, Johnson said. He said if a developer proposes a zone change, City Plan staffers could consult the plan to see if the proposal fits with the city’s vision. Without such a blueprint, it’s hard to lure developers, Johnson argued.
Prospective developers don’t want to figure everything out for themselves, he said. “You’ve got to set the table for developers to come.”
“The issue is, when are they willing to take a risk?” Johnson said. The blueprint makes it more likely that they will, he argued.
The plan will also serve as a blueprint for Mayor-Elect Toni Harp to follow, if she so chooses. She is set to take office on Jan. 1, replacing 20-year incumbent John DeStefano. Among her new appointees will be a new director of economic development.
Wraps & Soft Pretzels
With the new plan in mind, Johnson and Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, a former city official who has returned as a consultant on this project, led the group off the bus around 11 a.m.
The group was welcomed by a lunch of wraps and Philadelphia Pretzel Factory soft pretzels. New Haven aldermen traded notes with Philadelphia councilmen over how they handle the large portion of nontaxable land in their cities that’s occupied by universities and hospitals.
Aldermen learned that Philly has no program like the Payment In Lieu of Taxes in Connecticut, which requires Hartford to reimburse cities for nontaxable land. Philly has a plethora of universities—including Drexel and Temple universities and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn)—that eat up prime real estate.
“The challenge in a town-gown situation is to create good neighbors,” said Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones, Jr., who represents an area dominated by Penn. He recalled beer kegs “rolling down the street” from student parties, irritating neighbors; other students who wandered away from campus in search of drugs and have ended up getting shot.
Council President Darrell Clarke recounted how the city demolished a ring of run-down properties around Temple University, setting up a perimeter that served to contain its growth.
Before leaving the grand City Hall building that dates back to 1901, aldermen popped into the City Council chambers to see a legislative committee meeting in progress. Perez was surprised to see so few seats. He learned that Philadelphia, which has 1.5 million people, has only 17 legislators. New Haven, whose population is about 130,000, has 30. The difference: Those in Philly do it as a full-time job, with a paid staff.
Other aspects felt familiar. Perez, New Haven’s aldermanic president, caught a snippet of dialogue between a legislator and a department head.
“We’re trying to do [some initiative], but frankly, we’re not getting a lot of cooperation from the department,” the legislator complained.
“Sound familiar?” Perez quipped.
The group hopped back on the bus. Glenn Bryan (pictured), Penn’s assistant vice president of community relations, led a tour through University City, the neighborhood where Penn is situated. He recounted how neighbors resisted the campus’s expansion in the 1970s.
“The community felt like Penn was in cahoots with the city,” Bryan said.
“Like Yale!” called out Helen Martin-Dawson, a longtime tenant leader in the Hill.
In response to public opposition, Penn slowed development in West Philly and launched new initiatives, including offering incentives for Penn staff to buy homes near campus, Bryan said.
“Yale did that,” remarked Thomasine Shaw, another longtime Hill neighborhood activist.
Bryan infused the tour with good-natured Ivy League rivalry.
“You see that split P?” he asked, passing a sports dome. “That’s the P we usually beat Yale on.”
Passing a strip of campus stores, Bryan remarked that Urban Outfitters—now a national chain, with a store on Yale’s Broadway commercial strip—was founded by students at Penn.
Next door, Johnson spotted a Cosí restaurant. “The first one was in New Haven,” he replied. (New Haven’s has since shut down.)
As the bus crawled through Penn’s medical campus, Shaw spotted a medical building called the Smilow Research Center.
“Who’s Smilow?” she blurted out, as though uncovering a conspiracy. Yale has a building called the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
“A trustee,” Bryan replied.
For some on the bus, the Smilow name conjured a symbol of institutional strong-arming.
Yale’s cancer center was the subject of the most bitter town-gown fight in recent memory. Mayor John DeStefano and the Board of Aldermen held up the development until Yale-New Haven Hospital agreed to a community benefits agreement, which included letting its blue-collar workers hold a union organizing election, as well as agreeing to offer 100 jobs per year to New Haveners, including those in nearby neighborhoods. A neutral arbitrator later fined Yale for violating that agreement —and federal labor law—by pressuring workers to vote against unionization. The mayor and community members declared they had been betrayed.
For Martin-Dawson, the Smilow Cancer Hospital remains a symbol of betrayal. She said she does not believe the hospital followed through on its promise to hire neighbors. “Don’t get me started on Yale,” she said.
Bryan said Penn was lucky in its expansion because—unlike Temple University, for example—it was able to use a band of property along the river that belonged to the city and did not require pushing neighbors out of homes. Other aspects of its growth have been controversial, such as the Sadie Alexander School, a public school created to serve Penn families. Property values in the Spruce Hill neighborhood shot up after the school opened, Bryan said.
“Did it gentrify the neighborhood?” Perez asked.
Bryan replied that Penn is trying to create affordable housing in the area.
“So the workers can afford it! Yeah!” piped up Alderwoman Colon, who works at Yale. Like Yale, Penn is the largest private employer in the city.
Back on the bus, headed for the next stop, Johnson said he expects Yale’s medical campus to expand.
“We know our university partners are going to grow,” he said. Part of the reason for creating the community plan, Johnson said, is to “take away some ambiguity” as to just how Yale will grow.
The city’s quest is to “make sure there’s a balance” between the growth of Yale’s medical campus and the needs of the neighborhood.
Drexel’s Clean-Up Gambit
To that end, the bus stopped at Rick Young’s Mantua Community Improvement Center (MCIC). The center sits in a part of West Philly that once earned the nickname “the bottom.” The neighborhood hosts a mix of working-class neighbors and Drexel students.
Young, who grew up there, has launched an unusual partnership with Drexel.
He talked about how the neighborhood had been “scarred by years of neglect” and dominated by drug-dealing. He got the idea to start paying drug-dealers to sweep the streets instead. The outfit grew into a full-fledged street-cleaning operation, which now has a contract with Drexel University to clean up commercial properties.
“You can’t get in the way of progress, but you can get on board and slow it down and make sure everyone’s involved,” Young told his New Haven visitors. His contract with Drexel has given his not-for-profit a stable base from which to run a host of other neighborhood services, including a hip-hop recording studio.
Alderwoman Colon pronounced Young’s tale a “positive and inspiring” example of a town-gown partnership.
Temple University, in North Philly, has had a more contentious relationship with its neighbors than other Philly universities, according to several tour guides. Amid protests that student housing was encroaching on the neighborhood, the university has focused on creating more student housing near campus.
One brand new example is called Paseo Verde. Johnson framed it as a vision of the kind of housing New Haven might encourage at Church Street South.
The 206,000-square-foot complex sits at 1900 North 9th St., right at the local SEPTA train stop for Temple University. New Haveners got a tour of the building from two architects from the firm WRT, as well as a representative from APM (Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha for Everyone), which developed the building along with Jonathan Rose Companies.
The complex has 67 market-rate apartments and 53 “affordable” apartments, available to people who make up to 60 percent of the area median income. It also has nine townhouses and 30,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
The complex has four main buildings, separated by corridors that buffer the sound of the trains and also offer prime views of the tracks.
The affordable units are housed separately from the market-rate apartments due to the requirements of tax credits, according to architect Antonio Fiol-Silva of WRT.
As she passed the gym, Colon asked: Do the tenants in the affordable units get to use the same gym? She was assured that they have access to the same amenities as those who are paying market rate, which is $1,400 a month for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.
The complex’ green features earned it platinum LEED certification. Features include green roofs, stairwells with daylight and music to encourage walking, and individual heating units in each apartment. There are 68 parking spaces for cars and 70 for bicycles.
In the affordable wing of the complex, the tour stopped in a simple community room with folding tables.
“This is our community room, and a resident,” a tour guide began.
“Hello, resident,” Colon said cheerfully. She asked if the apartments look the same as the market-rate ones. She was assured that they do.
Johnson did a double-take when he learned the low cost of construction: $147 per square foot. Really?
He said the four-story complex is the type of housing the city envisions at Church Street South, only New Haven’s version might be one story higher. He said the bike racks, the green standards, and the mix of affordable and market-rate housing are all features the city would encourage at a revamped Church Street South.
“This is what we’re trying to embody when we look at new, mixed-income development,” Johnson said.
Back To New Haven’s Future
Back on the bus, Perez commended the city for the “best effort yet” in over two decades at coming up with a plan for Church Street South. He said neighbors were involved in a way they never were before. But he stressed that all proposals at this point remain conceptual.
Church Street South is owned not by the city, but by a private developer, Boston-based Northland Investment Corporation.
“The market will determine” what happens there—and elsewhere in the Hill—Perez noted.
Perez noted that the scale of Paseo Verde—120 apartments, plus nine townhouses—is much smaller than Church Street South. He said he could see that scale of development working somewhere along Route 34 instead.
Colon called Paseo Verde “very nice.” She said a new version of Church Street South would have to accommodate families, and include a place for kids to play.
Donna Greene and Helen Martin-Dawson (pictured earlier in the day, checking out the latest edition of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook) were more skeptical.
“I just don’t like the flat roofs,” said Martin-Dawson. The architect had explained how some roofs were designed to actually hold rainwater in order to cool the building down.
Colon interjected that the roofs employed a new technology that would not leak.
“That’s what they say,” Martin-Dawson replied. She didn’t buy it. Flat roofs are “fine in the beginning, but they wear and tear.”
Martin-Dawson, tenant-council president at the Liberty Homes near Church Street South, remained skeptical that the new plans for the neighborhood would be truly affordable.
She said she did like one move by Philly she’d like to see replicated back home: Setting boundaries around Temple University so it doesn’t expand any more.