Will it become a glorious addition to the city like Ingalls Rink, much beloved after a controversial beginning? Or will it become a “monument to corporate control” and destroy the harmony of a neighborhood?
The answer may come soon, following a late-night vote Thursday by the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee.
The committee approved Yale’s plans for a new $145 million home on Whitney Avenue for its School of Management (SOM). The controversial plan now advances to the full Board of Aldermen for one final vote next month.
Thursday’s unanimous committee vote followed a four-hour hearing, the second such hearing before the committee. It drew a passionate crowd of 150 partisans representing both sides.
Last week’s public hearing featured speakers addressing the project’s economic boon to the cityduring tough recessionary times. Thursday night’s talk-a-thon focused more on design. Debate split between passionate opponents and proponents of the project who focused on size and scale.
The proposal previously received the approval of the City Plan Commission. That commission added some conditions to Yale’s proposal, which the aldermanic committee revised more to Yale’s liking Thursday night.
Technically at issue Thursday night was whether Yale’s application meets the aesthetic and design requirements of a zoning designation known as a Planned Development District (PDD). Namely: Would the Lord Norman Foster building “produce an environment of stable and desirable character, complementing the design and values of the surrounding neighborhood, and showing such unusual merit as to reflect credit upon the developer and city”?
“Yale has vastly overreached and has created a monument to corporate control.” architect Gene Festa told the committee.
In a letter read aloud to the committee, architect Kevin Roche offered the other view: “The community should celebrate this addition to a revered campus and recognize the glory which this architecture will reflect on the university and city of New Haven.”
Roche is the protégé of Eero Saarinen, who designed Ingalls Rink. Gene Festa was part of the team assembled by Anstress Farwell and her Urban Design League, the main coordinators of the opposition.
An in-between view was offered by Paul Hammer, who supported the proposal: “You [that is, a building] can [both] stand out and also fit in.”
Tim Yolen, a lawyer working with the Urban Design League team, said the proposed SOM well might become a jewel in Yale’s crown. He wondered aloud if it is the right jewel.
Paraphrasing Herman Melville, Farwell said that size without beauty is mean. She urged Yale to consider more of a terracing or step-down on the north and south, as is the treatment on the back of the building facing Lincoln Street.
Responding to City Plan’s previous recommendations, Yale had previously lopped off 25 feet in a revised design, sixteen from the north end adjacent to the Lawn Club and nine on the Bradley Street south side. East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker asked opponent David Dickson, who lives on Bradley Street, if such concessions are sufficient.
“It’s trivial,” Dickson replied to Elicker, who sat near him at the end of the aldermanic table. The nine feet added by Yale’s change “is the distance between you and me.”
Dickson, who is a Yale School of Architecture graduate, voice a common theme of opponents: That the 237,000 square-foot building is “one giant box” and “out of scale” with the neighborhood.
There were spirited calls for downsizing, for opening the courtyard to the public on the Whitney side, for shifting delivery and driveways to the north side; and queries as to whether Yale had truly considered adaptive reuse of the buildings at 155 and 175 Whitney, which it plans to demolish to build the new home.
Presenting a Power Point and bird’s eye views of the site showing a structure lording it over the area, Farwell also questioned the accuracy of Yale’s submitted drawings and whether Yale’s outreach to the community for its input was “limited to the abutting area [only], not the impact area.”
Yale’s chief planner for the project, Laura Cruickshank, said Farwell’s bird’s eye views were misleading. They were for birds, she said. There were no people in them. First and foremost, she said, a building must work, not only look elegant, and the SOM as presented does. SOM professors and a dean described a crying need for a single, consolidating structure for its far-flung educational units and expansion by 100 students.
Yale’s Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand (at left in photo with Urban Design League-affiliated planner Brian Miller) reiterated that outreach has been extensive and thorough, with the project evolving over four years. Yale held eight neighborhood meetings and put the plans on public view for 120 days, he said..
Aldermanic Committee Chair Roland Lemar concurred. Morand submitted to the committee a compendium of letters of support from more than 30 people from labor union executives to world famous architects and petitions signed by several hundred city residents.
Around midnight, after receiving this testimony, the committee unanimously approved the PDD proposal with only two modifications to the conditions City Plan had recommended.
Hill Alderman Jorge Perez said Yale was being treated unfairly when it was asked, in effect, “to show me the money”—that it demonstrate it had all the $145 million in the bank to complete the SOM project before it begin work. Yale asked the aldermen to substitute non-binding language removing any such requirement.
City Plan had also requested that the pedestrian and bicycle access pathway from Pearl through to Whitney be open 24/7. Yale objected that the pathway would not be a city street. It suggested the aldermen amend the condition to keep it controlled by Yale, with the standard terms of a right of way granted to the public.
Using Yale-provided language, Perez motioned to accept both amendments and they were also adopted unanimously.
As to whether the new 64-foot high SOM might in the years ahead become an icon, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Ingalls Rink in the Elm City, David Dickson reflected that even if it does, “I wouldn’t want to live in the shadow of it.”