A dark, forbidding welcome walkway to New Haven may come alive with light and life, thanks to a premier public artist.
The artist, Sheila de Bretteville, has been working since 2012 on a project to transform that Route 34 underpass near Union Station and the police station that people endure on their way into town from the train.
Now the project, called “Lighting Your Way,” is almost ready to roll. The city has embraced deBretteville’s idea and is incorporating it into its ongoing effort to sink the Route 34 mini-highway and reconnect downtown streets to the portion of the Hill near the train station, making New Haven more walkable. A few details remain to be ironed out before the project receives final government approval.
DeBretteville, a Yale art professor, has done public projects all the world, including a memorable installation of sidewalk panels memorializing New Haveners of yore in New Haven’s Ninth Square (called “Path of Stars”). In this new project, she plans to use lighting to brighten and transform the darkness under the overpass, turning what might be pedestrians’ fearful gaits into curious pauses and maybe even a few dance steps.
The centerpiece of the installation, on the west side of the passageway, will be six spotlights on the beam high above, each throwing down a cone of light three or four feet wide.
The spotlights would suddenly make pedestrians the center of attention, instead of the cars, de Bretteville said on a recent visit to the location.
The other main elements of the proposed project include replacing the current unattractive piping carrying water off the highway, widening the sidewalk, and building a new sloping and far more attractive embankment, or low retaining wall, to replace the faux brick surface that slopes on dirt up to the girders supporting the underpass.
If de Bretteville gets her way — and she is a believer in the importance of enduring materials — the concrete used in the project will be high quality, dense, and contain some blue stone to evoke some of the water-blue color of the underside of the underpass. After all, the site is where Union Avenue meets Water Street, the initial shoreline for the colonists who landed in the harbor back in 1638.
The other lighting feature central to the proposed project is in the new retaining wall: six sets of LED motion detector lights inset in the previously darkest section.
“These ... would light up as any child or adult appears (maybe even animals at night!) ... Transformed by light a pedestrian can choose to become a star in a story of her or his own,” she wrote in the proposal for the project. “Young people, and the young at heart,” she continued, could “skip, hop, or jump from spot to spot.”
“I have a graduate student [at the Yale School of Art] who has a hip hop ensemble and I made him promise even after he graduates he’ll bring his dancers to dance in the lights,” she said.
Plea Of A Passionate Pedestrian
De Bretteville, 77, was the first woman to get tenure at Yale University School of Art, proposed the idea in 2012 after coming back from a project in Hong Kong, where she encountered a kind of LED lighting that cast stripes. “I fell in love with what you can do with light. When I came home, the first thing I thought of was coming down here.”
She has met with the city engineers, who agree with her that the current pipes leading the splashing rain water down from the highway need to be replaced with a more elegant drainage system.
“It’s about pedestrians,” she declared. She called attention to all the signs directing vehicles that abound in the area. She expressed the hope that some of them might be removed when the project is finally implemented.
There was another small battle to fight to get the project’s final approval, for words and perhaps historical material to be somehow affixed to the new structures. De Bretteville was asked to consider incorporating some of these, she said, as so much of her world-hopping work involves letters, words, and stories — such as her 1993 public art project Path of Stars, which enriches a walk through the Nine Squares.
She held her ground. There is no time to read anything under the overpass, de Bretteville said. People will keep moving, and the experience of the art installation acknowledges and incorporates that ongoing movement.
De Bretteville has recently been in touch with the City Plan Department, urging it to move on the steps for final approval that will make it possible to complete the project by spring 2018, she said.
Road To Approval
The proposal in principle has been embraced both by the city and Site Projects, which won a $25,000 grant for the work and recently publicized it, and other projects, during the ongoing Arts & Ideas festival.
“Site Projects thinks this installation will be the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Executive Director Laura Clark. That’s in part because most Site Project undertakings are temporary. This one will be permanent.
“More people will interact with this than we have ever done before, more and different kinds of people. We’re planning to blanket the city with this message: the site of Route 34 underpass on Union Avenue is ... so connected to the history of New Haven. We’ve taken it to the schools” in Site Project programs there, Clark added.
However, Clark’s group is solely focused on spreading the educational significance of the project and has no part in the installation.
That would be the purview of the City Plan Department.
City Plan staffer Donna Hall, one of deBretteville’s believers in the power of light to help transform the passage, said that new landscape architects will be joining the overall project in the next months to have designs ready to go out to bid.
The project, all on state owned property, is part of Downtown Crossing, the city’s ongoing dismantling of the old Route 34 mini-highway and reconnecting the street grid.
Funding is a combination of city bonds, money from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and federal Tiger 8 funds. Not until de Brettvile’s concepts, translated into designs that meet state standards, are complete, can a specific cost be calculated, Hall added.
But with a breakout of her project from the whole, in the offing, there should be forward movement.
In an email to deBretteville, Hall wrote: “We are working through this internally but it is clear that we will need to do an advance/breakout project for your piece. We expect to have new landscape architects on board very shortly who will finish the design for this area quickly so we can get it out to bid in time to meet your deadline. I will be reaching out to you shortly so we can finalize the slope, wall and abutment treatments.”
Hall added that the work has been taking longer than expected because it is a piece of a big project with complex engineering issues especially related to drainage, and it takes time to get that right.
“Taking out this expressway is no picnic. The point is to build a normalized street grid and reestablish the connection and this [Lighting Your Path] is one component of it,” she added.
As we spent a half hour under the busy and noisy underpass, de Bretteville spoke as if the very word “pedestrian” inspires her. A passionate walker, she said she just returned from a business trip to Chicago where she walked five miles a day.
The project, de Brettville argues, “is about pride in the city. This is amelioration through public art of a serious problem that should have been addressed a generation ago.”
“We hope it’ll be able to start pretty soon We expect it’ll be done by spring of 2018, for the 380th birthday of New Haven,” added Clark.
Hall said that the breakout approach to the project will enable that to happen.