We have the plan to reconnect the train station and the Hill with downtown, and continue to undo “devastating” planning mistakes of the mid-20th century. But we have some work to do to get there—including boosting bus service, improving the schools, figuring out a workable tax system.
That’s the view of New Haven’s current state of economic development, especially “transit-oriented development” (TOD), as presented by Mayor Toni Harp at New York Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Harp delivered remarks on the subject Friday at a panel discussion on TOD, during a Regional Plan Association “Revitalizing Downtowns” conference at the hotel. Following are those remarks:
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Good afternoon – I’m pleased to be a part of today’s discussion. We all know that no municipal, state, or even international border is absolute. Comprehensive, cooperative, and regional approaches to common challenges provide the only realistic hope for cost-effective, meaningful progress.
With that said, New Haven was founded 376 years ago – yesterday was our birthday, in fact – in large part because it had the best and most protected harbor on Long Island Sound. Its early settlers envisioned capitalizing on its logistics – they thought it was literally destined to become the center of a new independent republic, a trade and commercial hub that would attract a huge population of savvy settlers and investors from the “old” world.
Fast forward to 2014, and this current opportunity to work with city staff, community leaders, and professional TOD planners to envision transit-oriented development and solidify our desirability as a great small urban oasis within reach of New York. This is an exciting and rewarding exercise, helping us attract new investment for housing, retail, institutional and commercial development, as well as thousands of new residents and, we hope, hundreds of new firms to employ them.
We started with plans to reunite our transportation hub – one of the busiest train stations in the Northeast – with key elements of our community. The goal was to connect Union Station, redesigned exits off I-95, and the heart of our city.
This project we call the “Hill to Downtown Plan” connects several nearby, walkable residential communities near the train station with globally renowned Yale University Campus, with the heart of our downtown food, entertainment and business district, with our 4th largest-in-the-country medical center, and finally with a 100-acre redevelopment district ready for new bio-techs, luxury hotels and a rebuilt networks of streets and urban infrastructure.
For us the opportunity to do something special is exciting. In the midst of our downtown TOD area we have a major, subsidized housing project where workers in both the downtown and medical center can find affordable housing within walking distance to good jobs. We are committed to preserving these units, so residents there will have the same opportunities of those a few blocks away, in our most attractive, market rate neighborhood. We want to incorporate a wide range of housing types and price levels into our new vision so all residents can capitalize on the city’s small size and connections.
At the same time, our plan will mend a 60-year history of business and land use devastation – the result of the most aggressive and expansive urban renewal effort in the nation at the time. We now see our current plan for a sustainable and re-urbanized district as the antithesis of that almost-suburban scale and zoning ethos of the 1960s that rendered left this key section of New Haven unfriendly for pedestrians, where retail and street activation is almost non-existent as a result.
Finally, our goal is to add a true mixed-use pattern of buildings to make our $4 billion medical center an engine of growth and urban desirability not just for the region but for the neighborhoods in its immediate vicinity.
By seamlessly connecting our train station to a range of new housing, high tech offices, appropriate and unobtrusive parking structures, new retail options and a reinstalled street grid – a return to where we started in 1955 – we expect to almost double the size and effectiveness of our downtown – already prized as the best urban locale for young knowledge workers in the state.
I know that in the 1980s we tried to undo our urban renewal mistakes with a series of UDAG projects. Today we see market rate developments coming into town with no subsidies required other than to undo obsolete urban highways, large blank plazas, and surface parking areas. We expect this will only accelerate from hundreds of millions of dollars now to investments worth a billion dollars once the momentum starts.
In New Haven we’re very fortunate to have these key points helping us make our case for economic development and infrastructure improvement:
• honest and good relationships with Yale – we have a real partnership
• massive conversion of under-used 1920s-era office space into rentals units throughout our downtown.
• hundreds of great restaurants that make New Haven a destination statewide, complementing a variety of performing arts venues, museums and galleries.
• a mix of incomes and a sense of comfort in our downtown due to a range of housing price points and the presence of both Yale and our regional community college just blocks apart.
And still, even with all that working in our favor we know New Haven has key challenges ahead:
We have to make our tax system work so we can balance the budget but not price new development out of the center city. How do we raise sufficient revenue to provide adequate services while remaining fair and competitive?
We have to make our bus system work to bring workers around the city efficiently so we can make more progress toward fewer cars, and be less concerned about parking capacity.
We have to have top-notch urban schools so the city retains 30-somethings as they age with their families.
We must provide the safety and amenities that will bring 60-somethings back into the city to live and spend and enjoy their empty-nest years.
And we have to generate enough jobs and create a balance of opportunity for all city residents at all levels of income.
Connecticut is a very small state – there are only two smaller. Yet in our small state we have 169 municipalities, making New Haven a very small city in a literal sense, but with a huge regional responsibility. New Haven has a great deal to offer and we’re fast-tracking in the right direction, but we’re also reliant on regional strategies – and regional assistance – to fully meet that responsibility.
Thank you very much.