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Politician Sneaks Onto Roof
by Melissa Bailey | Mar 11, 2013 4:24 pm
Posted to: Transportation, Downtown
Doug Hausladen stepped onto a cement block and hoisted himself up on a brick wall—to make a point: The federal government has let a public plaza languish as a private parking lot and cinderblock playground, creating a staircase to crime.
Hausladen, downtown’s alderman, pulled the acrobatic feat last week in the Federal Plaza behind City Hall. He set down his briefcase, stepped onto one large cinderblock, then another, and easily grabbed hold of the adjacent wall up to the nearby roof.
Climbing wasn’t hard, he said. Nor is it hard for the intruders who have been using those steps to access a network of roofs of nearby buildings, damaging A/C units, stealing copper, and spooking nearby apartment-dwellers by peering through skylights.
In response to email queries from Hausladen and the New Haven Independent last week, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the plaza, vowed to rearrange the concrete barriers. The agency does not have plans to stop federal employees from using the plaza as a parking lot, as they have been doing for the past three years, despite an original claim that they had no plans for such a long-term occupation.
Hausladen contacted GSA Thursday amid mounting concern from nearby property owners about rooftop crime.
“As I hope you are aware, there are concrete blocks stacked up in the Federal Plaza that young kids are using to climb up onto the roofs of the properties on lower Chapel Street,” Hausladen wrote in an email to GSA. “The residents and businesses are exhausted by constant intruders on their properties leering through skylights and generally doing damage to the roofs and roof equipment.”
The concrete staircase has aided rooftop thieves, setting back efforts by Pike International to fix up rundown buildings on lower Chapel Street, according to Pike “master planner” Fernando Pastor.
Pastor (pictured) said Pike is in the midst of rehabbing 841 Chapel St. with a clothing store on the bottom story and two loft apartments above. Pike redid the roof with copper flashing. One week later, he said, thieves crept up on the roof and stole the copper. Without the copper, rain has been leaking inside the building, Pastor said.
“Now we are delayed because of the roof,” he said. “We are losing a month or two of rent.”
Pastor believes the thief went up the cinderblock staircase in the Federal Plaza, just as Hausladen demonstrated, up onto nearby roofs, then jumped onto the property Pike is managing.
The theft took place two weeks ago, Pastor reported.
Nearby property owners say the staircase has facilitated a range of rooftop mischief. Alfredo Garcia (pictured), who owns 831-833 Chapel St., said intruders sneaking in from the plaza have been spooking his tenants. Garcia renovated the building in 1999; it has five apartments.
A couple of months ago, Garcia said, one of his tenants looked up at the skylight in her apartment and saw a face peering down. It happened twice, he said. Intruders have stepped on rooftop A/C units, which Garcia had to repair. The intrusions have become a quality of life concern at the apartments, which rent for $1,700 a month.
Rooftop prowlers have become so common that Robert Orr, an architect who owns 839 Chapel, has given them a name: “roof hoppers.” He said he walked into the second floor of his building one day, where he and his wife, Carol, run a co-working facility called The Bourse. He saw a young intruder in the room. The man, in his teens, had snuck into the building somehow.
“I chased him up to the fourth-floor roof,” Orr recalled. He saw the teen run away over rooftops, nimbly jumping from one building to the next.
“This was my introduction to what I came to call the roof-hoppers,” Orr said. “It was a mixture of awe and anger.” Awe because the teens could easily scale short walls without ropes or equipment. Anger because they were intruding in his space. He compared them to ATV drivers out for a joy ride. The teens easily escaped him, he said. “They were taunting me.”
So far Orr has experienced no theft from rooftops, but he called the presence of the intruder inside his building “unnerving.”
Orr said he suspects there are multiple means of getting up on the roofs, but the federal government’s cinderblock staircase has not helped.
Hausladen first alerted GSA of the staircase by email last October. Nothing changed. When he pressed the question last week, he got a quick pledge to fix the problem.
“The concrete barriers were brought in for a construction project,” GSA spokesman Patrick Sclafani said in an emailed statement Thursday. “The barriers weigh in excess of 2000 pounds each and are not easily moved.” But Sclafani said GSA plans to “rearrange the stacked barriers to address the concerns expressed by adjacent property owners.”
“We are committed to being good neighbors and will continue to work with local officials and property owners,” Sclafani said.
Parking Lot Will Stay
In his email to GSA last week, Hausladen asked to discuss not only the concrete playground, but the future of the plaza itself.
The plaza connects five downtown buildings with a variety of public services: City Hall, the federal courthouse, the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building, the Hall of Records, and the Connecticut Financial Center, which hosts the federal U.S. Attorney’s Office as well as bankruptcy court.
After four decades as an auto-free central space, cars invaded the plaza in June of 2010. At the time, a GSA spokeswoman said the cars would park there temporarily while a nearby federal garage was under repair. Now, nearly three years later, the garage repairs are complete. Some cars have returned to regular parking spots, but many have remained. The cars belong to people who work at the federal courthouse, including U.S. District judges.
On Thursday, 11 cars sat parked on the granite. At the end of a row of cars rose the iconic 44-foot red tubular sculpture by Alexander Liberman. “Liberman intended the public to walk around the sculpture, and experience a sensations similar to what he felt when he visited St. Peters,” according to a government description of the piece. To follow Liberman’s directions, however, one would have to loop around two parked cars.
As the plaza became a parking lot, “cars have bashed into the sculpture,” according to Orr (pictured), who keeps watch over the space from his second-story and fourth-story offices.
Orr called on the GSA to ban the cars and “make the plaza for the public, not just for the privileged” few. He called the lot “the most exclusive parking arrangement around.”
The presence of the cars “has depressed the value of this whole area,” Orr said. If it were opened up again, people on the plaza would create a “safe environment.”
The Orrs would like that: They recently issued an SOS about crime and quality of life concerns on lower Chapel Street after a daylight robbery of a jewelry store.
Orr said several abutting property owners would like to enliven the plaza by using their back doors as main entrances to new cafes. He urged the GSA to “work with abutting landowners to turn it into a bustling urban environment.”
Pastor said Pike shares the vision of turning the plaza into a lively space overlooked by rooftop dining. The company manages three properties that back onto the plaza: 140 Orange, and 817 and 841 Chapel. At 817 Chapel, he said, “we want to have a stair up to a large terrace, with small eating places” serving the estimated three to four thousand people working nearby.
“All that could be a beautiful space, with beautiful buildings looking at it,” instead of being a parking lot, Pastor said.
GSA spokesman Sclafani said his agency plans to repair the plaza beginning in May and ending in the fall of 2013.
Sclafani was asked if the agency has any plans to get rid of the cars. He said the GSA will continue to allow cars for three purposes: dropping off and picking up handicapped people visiting the court; easy access for contractor vehicles; and “to support mission-critical operational needs of federal tenants.” He would not define “mission-critical” needs.
Meanwhile, Hausladen has asked for a meeting with GSA and representatives from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s office, the mayor’s office, the Town Green Special Services District, the police department, and the Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team. GSA was responsive to his request.
Management team member Aaron Goode said his group has met with GSA twice to discuss neighborhood objections about the cars as well as the future of the plaza.
“It’s a public safety issue when you’re using a space that was not designed as a parking lot as a parking lot,” Goode said. He called the mixing pedestrians and cars a recipe for accidents.
Goode said neighbors’ objections are not merely aesthetic: “It’s a question of how we treat our public space—as convenient parking for a few, or public enjoyment by everybody.” He said neighbors were told in 2010 that the parking would be a short-term fix.
“After three years, we think it’s time for that totally inappropriate use of the space to be discontinued.”
City Plan chief Karen Gilvarg said the city shares the vision of bringing more vitality to the plaza.
“From the time it was designed way back in urban renewal, the city’s vision was that it would be an actively used pedestrian plaza,” Gilvarg said. “The city would be interested in doing anything we can do to help with more activity there.”
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The GSA’s behavior is absolutely repellent.
I thought that Murphy, Blumenthal, and DeLauro were advocates for strong cities and diverse populations? Or do they really just care about our “top 1%” wealthy Federal employees based in the suburbs, who are wealthy enough to be able to afford to drive massive SUVs everywhere?
Ridiculous that they are still parking cars there. The plaza has so much potential.
Doug:nice, I only wish you would have let me know you were “walking up to the roof tops” for years the property owners and city have been complaining that graffiti artist and others have trespassed onto federal property - someone should be fired - so much for all the protection the Feds talk about and they even have cameras up there - someone must of been sleeping…I am so embarrassed that the federal judges and their staff use a public plaza to park their cars on because they are too lazy to use available spaces in the underground tunnel and adjacent garage - it has to do with “privilege” that befalls lots of federal employees who hide behind their title and position - nothing really to do with security. Says a lot about position in our democratic society and little about what really matters to the people who work and pay taxes and expect fairness. This needs a groundswell of support from lots of folks. Thanks for bringing it public!
First the feds outrageously removed and did not replace our main downtown post office. (I guess that they think we’re all going to use the Yale post office.)Then they turned the plaza into a parking lot. Get back our main post office and work to make that public plaza the asset it should be.
Tony- definitely an issue of privilege and racism. The judges are mostly rich white people in the suburbs who all drive huge luxury SUVs. People in the city are mostly moderate income people of color and mostly walk and take transit. The judges and Federal employees believe they can trample on people’s rights because they do not view us as their neighbors.
The State & Federal judges think they can get away with anything - including pressuring Malloy and Obama for a huge raise even as Malloy and Obama cut funds for poor homeless children who can not afford food - because they represent the top 1%.
Great work Doug!!! And also impressed with the great ideas that developers/neighbors have for that area….the neighborhood needs to get behind it and make it happen! That is a gorgeous plaza - not a parking lot. And enough with the rampant vandalism and intrusion on private property too!
posted by: Brian McGrath on March 12, 2013 1:31pm
That plaza is actually the roof to the underground garage. Those granite pavers are set in a tar base which is part of the waterproof membrane that keeps water out of the structure. A few years ago the GSA spent a fortune digging up the plaza to replace the membrane. It cannot stand daily use by vehicular traffic. Investigate that.
Brian: Why should the Federal Government care about our parking garage when they can park anywhere they feel like it at any time?
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 12, 2013 5:10pm
This plaza is the half-baked remnant of I.M.Pei’s scheme for a new urban renewal-era government center with adjacent plaza and speculative office tower and Paul Rudolph’s proposed City Hall addition. The plan for a large, public plaza here should have died along with those two proposals. Instead it was resurrected with the CT Financial Center building and Newman Architects addition to City Hall. Why there was ever a proposal for a large paved plaza directly next to the largest town greens in New England, will forever escape my comprehension.
For an example of a good, intimate urban courtyard, one can look at the space in the center of the block bound by Orange, Crown, State and Chapel Streets. This space is paved, planted with trees, allows access for service vehicles and creates a nice relaxing space for the adjacent buildings which back into it.
For an example of a large, civic square, one can look at the New Haven Green, which is ample in size, surrounded by a mix of uses, and transportation intensive.
Federal Plaza is too large to be the intimate courtyard, and does not have enough active and diverse uses facing it in order to be an effective civic square. It ends up being a barren, paved, wasteland - how there are more cars parked there is the only thing that seems strange to me.
This plaza needs desperately to find a purpose, and one that does not conflict with or take away from the Green, which is also in need of more active uses (reforming the rules regarding trade and the Greens use as a marketplace are a great start). Court Street shouldn’t have been closed in the first place, nor should have CT Financial Center, but since they were, perhaps the plaza can function as a flea market, or more uses opening up onto it could activate the plaza.
Lucky for me I didn’t hold my breath when they said it would be temporary. Making the plaza a destination by Introducing some bistros is a great idea.
JH, in the long run, can this plaza be filled in with tax-producing buildings?
It is clear that Court Street should be resurrected in some form all the way to the Green (where it initially ran). To further increase connectivity and tax revenue, a small street or pedestrian passage could be added between the area of the plaza to Chapel Street.
The connection from the plaza to Chapel would require taking down one of the smaller buildings, or creating a passage through one of them. Smaller buildings could be created along the two new streets, similar to the area around Orange and Center Streets in New Haven, or parts of Greenwich Village and the medieval quarters of many European cities. Smaller blocks create far more tax revenue, because building value is based in large part on the frontage of windows at street level and above.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on March 13, 2013 1:15pm
I don’t know if the deck of tunnel, which is under the plaza, can support construction on top of it. My guess is that without substantial reinforcement, it cannot. Perhaps temporary structures like kiosks and booths can be erected, which might hold a flea market of some sort, could be built there. Opening small restaurants, cafes and the like onto the plaza would certainly help to make it a real place - its just unfortunate that the planners of previous generations created an unnecessary problem that we not have to address. Planters and benches may help to bring scale to the plaza. Some kind of connect to Chapel Street would be great - perhaps a store owner would give up their ground floor or a portion of it for use as a passage in exchange for some of the plaza real estate.
The whole New Haven government center project (let’s build a skyscraper to make our skyline look like a “real” city and build a giant paved area next to our giant civic square because that will renew the city) reminds me of Hartford’s efforts to renew the city by focusing on the downtown skyline through speculative commercial development, forgetting that cities are best experienced from the street, through the very fabric that was being destroyed or abandoned in and around the downtown.