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Matthew’s Mission: Follow The New Map

by Paul Bass | Dec 19, 2013 6:08 pm

(12) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, City Hall

A lifelong student of New Haven urban renewal promised to learn from history—and then to shepherd into reality a flood of ambitious new plans inherited from his predecessor—as he accepted the role of the city’s economic development chief.

The student is Matthew Nemerson. A former Chamber of Commerce president and Science Park vice-president, Nemerson has spent much of his 57 years studying New Haven redevelopment and helping guide it. On Thursday he assumed the job of directing the city’s next ambitious urban renewal ride, as Mayor-Elect Toni Harp officially selected him, as expected, to serve as her new economic development administrator.

Nemerson invoked top city development planners going back to Maurice Rotival in the 1940s to assess where New Haven will head, with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of building projects in the pipeline, from the old Coliseum site to the train station, from East Rock to Whalley Avenue to Legion Avenue’s “Route 34 West” plan to the emerging “Hill to Downtown” district. He thoroughly embraced all those projects with one exception, saying he needs to learn more about the details of the Route 34 West plan.

Paul Bass Photo “Matt has been preparing for this job for 40 years,” Harp, who takes office Jan. 1, said at a press conference at her 200 Orange St. transition office. (The two are pictured above at the event.)

The event was partly a New Haven history seminar—perhaps the first such press conference in decades to feature a reference to Maurice Rotival, the Yale professor who originally mapped out the city’s mid-20th century urban renewal plan. (Click on the video at the top of the story to sample some of that seminar.) The event also featured a promise to harness the ambition of his development predecessors without their “hubris” in steering major new projects to fruition.

Under a new provision in the city charter, the Board of Aldermen must approve Harp’s selection of Nemerson. Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez said Thursday he doesn’t foresee any problems. “I’m not aware of any issues that would keep him from getting confirmed. I have know him for close to 30 years; I look forward to working with him,” Perez said. “I foresee that aldermen will [in general] give leeway to the mayor to make appointments that she feels comfortable with.”

Like any incoming mayor and development chief, Harp and Nemerson bring with them a new set of plans on which they’ll be partially judged: A revival of neighborhood commercial corridors like Grand and Whalley and Howard Avenues; attracting 10,000 new people to live in new apartments here, some of them along the waterfront; elevating Tweed-New Haven Airport.

Unlike other incoming mayors and development chiefs, Harp and Nemerson step into office with a massive hand-off from the previous administration: newly finalized and approved plans for remaking the city.

So the mayor and economic development chief might find themselves judged by how well they follow through on those plans. Rather than critique the outgoing DeStefano administration, the pair have praised both Mayor John DeStefano and economic development chief Kelly Murphy and expressed their general support for the plans.

“They all sound wonderful. I look forward to completing them,” Nemerson said after Thursday’s press conference.

34 West

 

On only one project does he want to learn more before fully committing, Nemerson said: Route 34 West. He agrees with the overall concept, he said; he just needs to know more details. (He also said he needs to learn more about two neighborhood projects coming on line, at the old Star Supply factory in Goatville and next door to St. Luke’s Church on Whalley.)

The DeStefano administration spent two years negotiating the Route 34 West deal before presenting proposed agreements to the Board of Aldermen earlier this week.

The project calls for a developer to build a 120,000 square-foot office and retail complex on a 5.39-acre current parking lot at 243 Legion Ave., a median lot across from Career High School and sandwiched between high-speed limited-access northbound and southbound Route 34 lanes. The complex would include an $11 million, 30,000 square-foot home for a growing not-for-profit health care company called Continuum of Care, enabling it to consolidate its offices into a central headquarters here in the city. Planners envision businesses like a pharmacy, a restaurant, and a convenience store filling out that plaza.

The neighborhood definitely needs shops like pharmacies, Nemerson said; pharamacies are the biggest anchors of new retail developments these days. But he cautioned against building a car-centric, suburban-style plaza, removed from the street the way that developers built the Staples/Rite Aid plaza on lower Whalley in the mid-‘90s. He wants to make sure the plaza is “integrated into an urban design” as New Haven looks at finally rebuilding the broader 16 acres of leveled lots along Route 34 from Dwight Street to the Boulevard. All that land that housed a neighborhood until the city bulldozed it during the 1960s urban renewal heyday to make room for a highway that never got built.

The key to a successful development lies partly in the design of curb cuts, of the streetscape, of traffic patterns, Nemerson said,

“I envision something that looks more like Westville center rather than simply saying, ‘It’s land. Whose going to develop it most quickly?” he said. “To make a great city, you do it building by building, street by street.”

City officials have worked closely with the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation on the very questions Nemerson raised. The consensus: Recreate a neighborhood filled with walkers and shoppers and cyclists and open space and stores besides homes besides offices—unlike when the city tore down neighborhoods like this one in the 1950s and 1960s, seeking to replace them with large, impersonal, institutional buildings along streets geared to fast-moving car traffic.

To that end, officials submitted, along with the plan for the new 120,000 square-foot plaza, a broader set of zoning changes to cover the entire 16 acres. Read about the details here.

The Checklist

Route 34 is the latest in a cascade of long-term projects presented by the DeStefano administration in the past two weeks as it races to the end of its tenure Jan. 1. In the last two weeks alone officials have:

formally transferred the Shubert theater to a new not-for-profit owner.

signed over the former Coliseum land to a builder looking to construct at $395 million new project.

• completed a general plan to build up the “Hill-to-Downtown” stretch between the train station and the Yale medical area.

• completed another plan for a “transit-oriented development” at Union Station.

• received a neighborhood-approved resubmission of a plan to convert the old Star Supply factory into new apartments.

Meanwhile, St. Luke’s Church submitted a plan for a $15 million makeover of its stretch of Whalley Avenue.

A plan has also been completed to grow a Mill River Industrial District.

The DeStefano administration will now hand over all these projects to Harp and Nemerson to shepherd to reality.

Hubris Vs. Humility

The idea of bringing back the pre-urban renewal, mixed-use, human-scale vision of city streets lies at the heart of the “new urbanism” movement that undergirds the current development plans.

In his press conference Thursday, Nemerson tapped into the critique of how New Haven rebuilt its landscape in the 1950s and 1960s.

He called his position “the equivalent of playing center field for the New York Yankees. ... Those who play this position know they probably won’t be Joe DiMaggio, but they don’t want to shrink from trying.

“No city has been analyzed, investigated, and written about more than the city of New Haven. There are simply more words per citizen than any place in the world. To follow in the footsteps of the [Maurice] Rotivals, [Ed] Logues, [Al] Landinos and [John] Sawyers is to be near the epitome and peak of my craft. The amazing successes and often dramatic failures, often with a large dose of hubris, have characterized our approach to economic development since we laid out the very first planned community in North America 375 years ago.”

Rotival was the Yale professor who put together the plan for remaking the center of town and surrounding neighborhoods just before the federal government started pouring money into cities to tear down slums and build new highways and edifices. New Haven proceeded to tear down more buildings, per capita, than any other American city during the middle of the 20th century, all in the name of eradicating poverty. The city ended up poorer, with much of its historic legacy and street life decimated.

Nemerson was asked what Rotival did wrong, and what he did right.

“What he realized was that cities like businesses and people have to live in the future. They have to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. He saw the car coming…. Even before the federal highway plan was initiated, he knew that the department of highways was looking at a series of widened arterial roads connecting the country. He wanted to make sure that New Haven wasn’t bypassed by that… He wanted New Haven to adapt and be modern.

“Clearly the mistake that he made was not to understand—because he was trained in the then-modernist views of the French, in terms of how cities should become pristine and antiseptic towers floating over people-less expanses—he misunderstood what was special about New Haven in terms of the streetscape, in terms of the housing. He wasn’t incorporating the Jane Jacobs view of what actually made New Haven spectacular.”

He recalled a conversation with Landino, years after Landino left office, about why he oversaw the destruction of so many historic structures.

“‘I looked it as a cold-water flat with rats that I had to struggle up, three families living in an apartment. I couldn’t wait to tear those things down. I regret it now. But I didn’t understand these very houses that now are what make Brooklyn Brooklyn, what make Back Bay Bay, I didn’t understand that they could be rehabbed and they could have new life,’” Landino told him, Nemerson recalled.

“Remember, the banks weren’t loaning for rehab in those days. The federal government wasn’t giving any money for people to rehab….. They were only giving money to demolish.”

In 2014, Nemerson, promised, New Haven will aim as high as it did in the last century—but it will try to hit its targets this time.

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Comments

posted by: Threefifths on December 19, 2013  6:16pm

Nemerson will be the same as Mayor Bloomberg of New York was. Get ready the people of New Haven for Gentrification and Eminent domain.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on December 19, 2013  6:28pm

In the mayoral debates, Nemerson sounded like the Chamber of Commerce he used to head.There was no spark of originality or vision. Just more of the same that New Haven has heard since the 60s or 70s.

At least he knows of Jane Jacobs, but he’s the establishment she fought. (metaphorically speaking)

Most of us want all these people to succeed, but have a sense of impending doom instead.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on December 19, 2013  7:39pm

The Route 34 project reduced:

1. We sell Bob Landino the most prime. 5.4 acre parcel for far less than market value.

2. A non-taxable new home gets built for a non-profit.

3. Landino hangs onto the rest of the land, with it likely remaining surface parking for the foreseeable future.

Can someone tell me how this benefits the City?

posted by: robn on December 19, 2013  10:00pm

DS,

Hesitant ditto/disappointment/sigh.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on December 20, 2013  11:20am

“Like any incoming mayor and development chief, Harp and Nemerson bring with them a new set of plans on which they’ll be partially judged: A revival of neighborhood commercial corridors like Grand and Whalley and Howard Avenues; attracting 10,000 new people to live in new apartments here, some of them along the waterfront; elevating Tweed-New Haven Airport.”

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but to notice that Dixwell-Newhallville area from Webster to the Hamden line is no where in the plans.  As has been said partially by Dwightstreeter, “Just more of the same that New Haven has heard since the 60s or 70s.”

It would behoove the elected officials who represent wards 19, 20, 21 and 22 that these existing plans, should include the Dixwell-Newhallville area. But to not include the areas, should be met with tremendous opposition from the Black & Hispanic Caucus.  “Here we go again.” The areas that are most foreboding in the city, seemingly are the areas that are most often neglected by city hall. Hmm, I wonder why? 

I’m sick and tired of watching these Alderman who represent the worst areas in New Haven, willingly vote for everything downtown, but can’t seem to come together to vote for their own interest in town. And yet, they look forward to being re-elected. Why?

I will continue to speak out on behalf of Toni when I think that she right, and will vociferously speak out against her when I think she is wrong.  For Toni to not incorporate the Dixwell-Newhallville areas in these economic development plans is wrong.

This is the same area (Dixwell-Newhallville)  that voted for Toni overwhelmingly.
Now it’s time for Toni to reciprocate.

Do I think Nemerson was a great choice? It really doesn’t matter to me at all who sits in that seat.  What does matter to me is how the small local Black and Hispanic business community will be afforded the opportunity to participate in all of this economic development money strewn across the city.

posted by: Threefifths on December 20, 2013  12:11pm

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on December 20, 2013 10:20am

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but to notice that Dixwell-Newhallville area from Webster to the Hamden line is no where in the plans.  As has been said partially by Dwightstreeter, “Just more of the same that New Haven has heard since the 60s or 70s.”

This is What happens went you bring back the same people who got us in this mess.

I will continue to speak out on behalf of Toni when I think that she right, and will vociferously speak out against her when I think she is wrong.  For Toni to not incorporate the Dixwell-Newhallville areas in these economic development plans is wrong.

How do you hold politicians accountable once they take office.You can hold.You can vociferously speak out against her all you want.Tolate my brother she is in and the Shylocks must be paid back.

This is the same area (Dixwell-Newhallville)  that voted for Toni overwhelmingly.
Now it’s time for Toni to reciprocate.

The only thing the dixwell newhallville folks will be geting is this.

http://youtu.be/-ILbUduwBkg

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on December 20, 2013  12:20pm

Alan Plattus and the Yale Urban Design Workshop designed an excellent proposal for Route 34 West which combined North and South Frontage Roads (MLK Blvd and Legion Ave) into a single 2-way avenue west of Orchard Street. This design allows for the creation of a true neighborhood thoroughfare that could serve effectively as a mixed-use neighborhood center connecting West River and the Hill while leaving ample space for bio-medical development east of Orchard.

It will be extremely difficult (probably impossible) to create a cohesive neighborhood on Route 34 if the separated one-way roads are maintained - it will continue to be an island rather than a bridge.

posted by: anonymous on December 20, 2013  1:08pm

Brian Jenkins - I mostly agree.  But as a practical matter, Dixwell simply isn’t going anywhere unless Whalley Avenue - our city’s most important main street - is fixed first. 

The current St Luke’s plans have nice buildings on Whalley, and awful parking lots backing up against the Dixwell neighborhood. 

In case you weren’t aware, plans like these reveal better than anything else what people think of which neighborhoods are viable.

Can we bring in some good urban planners?

posted by: Stephen Harris on December 20, 2013  2:14pm

Unless the zoning is changed Rt. 34 will end up looking like Whalley. If he wants walkable and bikeable he has to make that happen by changing the zoning; The proposed zoning won’t deliver the goods.

I agree with J. H. About the street configuration and only add that the crossing streets need to be restored.

posted by: Stephen Harris on December 20, 2013  2:17pm

@anon,

The city should go to cnu.org and pick a name. Or, as I said before, walk around the corner to Bob Orr’s office.

posted by: Burbel on December 20, 2013  10:57pm

This guy is great. His knowledge of history and hands-on experience in New Haven are tremendous assets, as is his open mind. His appreciation for Harp’s combination of skills and background is refreshing, almost startling. There’s ample reason for optimism with him taking over the department.

posted by: cp06 on December 21, 2013  7:22pm

Based on what he says, Nemerson will make an ok city planner. Who is going to be the director of economic development?

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