How We Stopped The Ring Road

Thomas MacMillan PhotoSecond of two parts. A superhighway would be blocking your way through New Haven’s neighborhoods right now—if not for a fight community groups waged to stop it. It was called the Ring Road—and decades later, its potential menace still haunts William H. H. Rees’s memory. Rees (pictured), a downtown and Dwight alderman from 1963-9 who today lives in Westville, wrote down his memories of that ear’s fights against the bulldozers and car-centric planning of urban renewal. An excerpt follows; click here for a previous excerpt.

When our apartment on Orange Street became unsuitable for my wife and young son, we bought a charming, brick row-house on Dwight Street, built in the 1860s, in the Dwight Redevelopment District, affording us also with the opportunity to help a community rehabilitate itself more effectively from the bottom up, as Jane Jacobs had proposed in her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that greatly shaped my views of how cities should be made livable.

When Elizabeth Talbot, the alderwoman of the ward, resigned, I was appointed to fill the balance of the term. Days after we moved in, on Dec. 20, 1965, grand-slam [Mayor Dick] Lee went nuclear by announcing an inner-circumferential, ground-level highway, the “Ring Road” (pictured) It would run from the proposed Oak Extension, through the Dwight neighborhood, behind the Yale Payne-Whitney Gymnasium and the Grove Street Cemetery, then tunneling under the Yale campus, to surface south of Trumbull Street and at an almost 90 degree angle to the Trumbull I-91 ramp. The anticipated cost to the DOT was $15 million.

The leg from the proposed Oak Extension to the gym was first planned to be three lanes on two streets, three lanes on Dwight Street and three lanes on Howe Street. That would have destroyed the charm of Dwight Street by eliminating trees and much of the lovely, six-foot sidewalks that would have impressed Jacobs.

When I expressed my outrage, the plan was quickly changed to a six-lane, ground-level highway on Howe, which would have required the demolishing on the east side of the street, houses, stores, an apartment house and a diner that served many elderly residents of the three large apartment houses that would remain on the west side of Howe. I was later told that the desperately needed housing unit at the corner of Howe and George Streets had to be redesigned to allow for a wider Howe Street, causing a year’s delay in its construction, and that the state Department of Transportation (DOT) had to redesign the proposed bridge over the proposed Oak Extension to accommodate one wider street instead of the converging of two. Since many of my constituents were in various degrees of shock over this stratagem, I again started a letter-writing campaign directed to the same cast of hopeful sponsors – the governor, our two senators, our Congressman, our two newspapers, and other influential people and organizations— urging them to oppose what I considered a monstrous plan. It took little effort to obtain many signatures on a Stop-the-Ring Road Petition.

Next, on Feb. 20, 1968, at a meeting of the Dwight Neighborhood Association, a citizens group required by all federal redevelopment plans to approve or disapprove those policies that affected them, I proposed a resolution to oppose the Ring Road. It passed by 31 to 1. I then forwarded the petition and the record of the vote to the governor and to the director of DOT.

There was much support for my efforts. I was especially grateful to AIM, the American Independence Movement, a group of mostly young people, including several students in the Yale School of Architecture, organized to oppose the Viet Nam War. Some member had discovered a secret, Redevelopment Agency highway plan and had brought to my attention.

I was astonished that the Ring Road we were considering was only half of what had been planned. There was to be a southern, semicircular portion, extending from Howe Street to Howard Avenue then south to Columbus Avenue then east to join Union Avenue-State Street near the railroad station.

The planners were trying to make that which does not appear in nature natural. On a map what was a wonderful circle – and who does not love circles? – would have wiped out many houses on Howard and Columbus Avenues if realized. Lee High School at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Church Street South had already been set back from Columbus Street to allow for the six-lane southern section.

Most important, not only had the planning for needed housing at Church Street South been delayed, but that community would have been cut in two, as the East River slices through New York City. Oh, what a circular web they weave applying for funds to deceive! When I heard about this intention to create 800 housing units, a residential park, with new schools, and open spaces, I recommended the land be immediately sold to a private developer, hoping 1,000 units for high, middle, and low-income families, similar to the “new town” then being built in Reston, Virginia, could be more quickly built. I have no reason to believe my suggestion was ever considered.

Enter Griswold & Brewster

Since the DOT did not act on the original Ring Road plan submitted to it by the mayor 18 months earlier, Mary Griswold, widow of Yale’s preceding president and a representative to the General Assembly, presented Bill #3194, directing the state to pay the City of New Haven up to $100,000 to conduct a feasibility study of the traffic on Trumbull Street.

One could not help but grin at the chutzpah of a request for state funds so that the Redevelopment Agency could hire an “independent expert” to conclude that the Ring Road was desperately needed. That our master politician did not tap his own city treasury was probably an admission that the city’s indebtedness had already hit the moon before Neil Armstrong.

A public hearing on the bill was held on April 22, 1967. Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, upset at the possibility that the then current 17,000 vehicles a day on that ramp were expected to increase to 31,000 when the stretch of I-91 from Meriden to New Haven was soon to be open, testified that the best solution would be to close the Trumbull ramp. His alternative was the Ring Road “…to absorb the traffic thrust into the residential and academic heart of New Haven by the Trumbull Street entrance and exit from I-91.”

Never considered was the idea of closing Trumbull Street, except for local use, as Court Street had been done effectively in the Wooster Street project, and routing the I-91 ramp traffic onto the six lanes of State Street.

Griswold testified in favor of her bill: “At present west-bound traffic from I-91 uses [the] Willow Street exit. This means that the street, once a quiet, pleasant, tree-lined residential side street, is now inundated with trucks and traffic”. She said her husband had spoken often of wanting something to be done about the traffic on Trumbull Street. No doubt without realizing it, she was proposing that traffic should be transferred to “inundate” the “quiet, pleasant, tree-lined residential” Dwight neighborhood. At this same public hearing our Mayor made a surprising admission: “Presently, for example, the worst traffic intersection in New Haven is where …[Goffe, Dixwell, Whalley, Elm, and Howe] all intersect. 40,000 vehicles a day now jam into this interchange and the number is expected to rise. We are very much concerned with the solutions of these problems. This is not highway traffic [on Trumbull Street] we originated. Much of it is not destined for inter (sic) -city purposes at all. What we are very much trying to do is to direct some of this traffic on a properly planned basis in and out of New Haven.”

But this was a direct contradiction of (Yale/Lee Administration planner Maurice) Rotival’s objective to use highways to bring people into the downtown center instead of bypassing it. The vehicles jamming that intersection of Goffe, Whalley, and Elm Streets at Broadway were coming from Woodbridge and Bethany via Routes 63 and 67 and on Dixwell coming in from Hamden. If our intrepid leader had begun to question Rotival’s objective, he would have opposed the Ring Road as anathema, recognizing that highways beget highways.

If the $15 million Ring Road had been built, it have would engendered the umpteen million dollar southern section to complete the circle. Brewster, Griswold, and Lee had been clearly dealing with symptoms. Fifty years later, it could be said it was as though they were trying to reboot a computer with a virus in its hard drive.

The central issue was the definition “downtown” to which Rotival thought cars should be drawn.

What was New Haven’s downtown, its core? Was it not the Green and the buildings on its four sides that accommodated Justice, Government, Commerce and Education?

And if so, was not Education another name for Yale, whose area comprised more than the allotted areas of the other three combined?

And if that were so, was it desirable on a daily basis to bring tens of thousands of vehicles with their noise and air pollution and possible danger through Elm City neighborhoods with their amenities for city-living to this world-famous university that required peace and quiet and safety to fulfill its mission?

Such questions led to the conclusion that vehicles should be discouraged from coming to Yale as well as the sections of the city where people lived. Given the existence of I-95, I-91 and the Oak Street Connector, I was convinced this should be done by preventing the increase of major thoroughfares in and through the city and by building parking garages in peripheral areas easily accessible from existing highways, such as near the ramps to upper State Street from I-91 and before the Quinnipiac Bridge ramps from I-95 and in the Long Wharf area, and near the Wilbur Cross Parkway ramps near the juncture of Routes 67 and 63, while providing frequently-running shuttle buses to and from the downtown areas. For this reason I opposed the proposed, massive 4,000-car garage to be built along State Street near downtown and the Temple-Crown Garage, an inner-city garage on a one way street heading to the Oak Connector, requiring cars from the Connector to go through the downtown center to access it. I also opposed the plan to build a 2,400-car garage on top of the proposed Coliseum, designed by New Haven architects Wilbur Smith and Kevin Roche, accessible to and from the nearby Oak Connector. I feared the garage would be self-contained and dependent on the success of the Coliseum events. To link the garage to the Macy-Malley shopping complex, I suggested a second-floor pedestrian mall be built to extend over George Street and Church Street but was told by an Redevelopment Agency official that the leadership of Knights of Columbus, whose elegant Home Office by Kevin Roche, stood between these two facilities, had vetoed it. I was on the losing side of votes for both garages and for what I considered to be the too-expensive Coliseum. Instead, I recommended building a huge garage over the Oak Connector and/or the proposed Oak Extension to service the Yale-New Haven Hospital and other parts of downtown, a garage with enclosed second-story walkways to downtown with moving sidewalks for longer distances similar to those becoming standard in airport terminals. I was pleased when several years later such a garage was built, but alas without the moving sidewalks.

Oliver To The Rescue

If the northern Ring Road that would split the Dwight neighborhood and separate Yale from the Dixwell neighborhood, of which the Griswold bill was a first step, could be erased from the drawings, the kit would then be pulled and the caboodle would collapse. When my resolution to the aldermen to reject the Ring Road came up for discussion, I argued I had evidence that the DOT officials did not want the Trumbull Exit ramp, which had been forced on them for political reasons. I pleaded to my colleagues not to make another such mistake by reminding them we were the governmental agency entrusted by the city charter with the final authority over roads and bridges in New Haven.

My resolution was favorably approved on April 11, 1968. I was not surprised to learn these two actions against the Ring Road—the vote of the Dwight Neighborhood Association and this aldermanic Resolution—were not transmitted by the Agency to the federal department in New York overseeing our redevelopment activities.

Fortunately, Robert Oliver, a young, local representative to the Connecticut Assembly, found this out and sent both to them. Weeks later our team received an unexpected bonus when, at an aldermanic subcommittee meeting, Matthew J. Ruoppolo, the chairman of the Redevelopment Agency’s board, admitted he personally was against the Ring Road. Later, in a public forum Griswold said she regretted sponsoring her bill. I took great delight in notifying an official in the DOT on May 24, 1968, of those new positions.

There is no record in my files of the disposition of Griswold’s bill or for that matter of our Main Man’s [Dick Lee’s] original proposal; most likely they were relegated to the limbo for inert offerings, to keep company with my request for a Fine Arts Commission in New Haven. Reporters in two local newspaper articles, dated Dec. 21, 1965, presumed that neither the governor nor officials of the DOT were in favor of the Ring Road proposal. If this were true, our efforts would have given them cover to counteract the pressure they would receive from its supporters, because politicians often change their minds. And, if this were not true, our efforts might have persuaded them to tack toward us, because politicians often change their minds. For whatever reason, the proposed loopy loop-road never got off the drawing boards.

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How We Saved The Post Office—& The Library

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