Will Hill Help Steer Its “Renewal” This Time?

Allan Appel PhotoImagine this: Police headquarters moves to Long Wharf’s historically preserved (and empty) Pirelli building while the old headquarters makes way for offices tied to the train station.

A pipe dream, maybe. Or perhaps part of a new way of looking at how to remake swaths of New Haven’s downtown and Hill neighborhood.

The Pirelli idea arose unscripted Thursday night at a discussion bringing neighbors together with people who sit in offices all day deciding what to do with or to neighborhoods.

And that was the point. The occasion was the kick-off of what’s being billed as the “Hill-to-Downtown Planning Initiative.”

The “initiative” (pardon the bureaucratese) is a 15-month-long study paid for by the state and federal government of multiple planning projects that range from Downtown Crossing, to the upgrading of Union Station as a transit-oriented development, the fate of the troubled Church Street South complex, and what’s to rise (still a wide-open question) on the site of the Coliseum.

The underlying idea: The Hill and contiguous stretches of downtown—carved up and remade (some say destroyed) during urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s—is undergoing another transformation on much of the same scarred land. This time, as individual projects remake blocks at a time, planners hope they along with the public can keep the big picture in mind.

Bearing PowerPoints, maps on boards, and an invitation for residents of the Hill and Downtown to contribute their ideas and concerns, economic development officials, along with a stable chock full of government-paid consultants and institutional “stakeholders,” descended on the cafeteria of Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy to start that process Thursday night.

If past experience is a guide, not just in New Haven but in American civic life in general, their biggest challenges may include getting a broad swath of the non-insider public involved, and then finding a meaningful way to incorporate their ideas. (Click here and here to read about an ill-fated recent attempts as well as the backlash of criticism.) And Thursday night’s meeting included some familiar sparring about how to talk about talking.

But Thursday night’s meeting also produced a provocative idea—the Pirelli/police suggestion—from a genuinely grassroots perspective, a man who used to help clean out the police building for a living.

Carlos Eyzaguirre of the Economic Development Corporation described a full-court press to get people to to come to the meeting. That included a thousand flyers distributed by six Career High students, Livable City Initiative specialists fanning out in the neighborhoods, and, in a first for such meeting, simultaneous Spanish translation for any who wanted it. About 75 people showed up.

“That’s What This Meeting Is About”

With so many moving parts, City Plan Department Director Karyn Gilvarg, who emceed the proceedings, along with the consultants emphasized the importance of a “vision” to guide the development over the many years it will take to evolve.

She characterized the effort’s goals as keeping “New Haven competitive on the playing field of the [national and world] economy” and “a growth agenda” that also preserves what’s good about our neighborhoods.

Among the means to achieve these goals: increasing density and less land devoted to parking, attracting more jobs, generating taxes to pay for police, fire, and education, and that elusive “connectivity.”

That latter idea has generated controversy, especially among Downtown Crossing critics who assert you can’t stitch together what isn’t there.

In Gilvarg’s spirited sermon on connectivity, the term refers to more than a geographic linking of streets; it also includes connecting residents to jobs, training, and education, she said.

“Would kids think [more] about going to Gateway [Community College] if they could see it across the connector?” she posed the hypothetical question.

No one at the gathering answered it, but skeptics in the audience like Hill Alderwoman Dolores Colon rose to object.

“You talk about connectivity. You want to connect commuters [to the new biomed jobs] and leave the jobs in my neighborhood, in Trowbridge, for low level jobs. You talk about residential and mixed use, but I haven’t seen anything. As an alder, that’ s my trepidation. I hope you bring in jobs that will help kids not to be tied to their kitchens or mops,” Colon said.

“That’s what this meeting is about,” replied Economic Development Department chief Kelly Murphy.  There is no plan yet, but the beginning of a process to help generate one.

Hell Defined

Nevertheless, longtime Hill residents such as Ann Boyd, an urban renewal veteran, and critics of the Downtown Crossing project sensed sensed some development horses may already have left the barn. Ann Boyd has lived in the Hill for decades. She recalled similar meetings and promises in the 1980s but said, “You bring in large institutions and you’re forgetting the people who live here.”

She issued a call for Hill residents to come up with their own feasibility study and present it to the planners.

Gilvarg replied that the idea of “commuters in and out” is an old vision. We need to replace it with a different vision to guide us through the next decade.”

“What Dolores Colon [with Boyd] is saying we need to reflect and speak back to you,” she added.

The Urban Design League’s Anstress Farwell also endorsed the community participation urged by Boyd and Colon. She said the plan’s emphasis on north to south movement or connectivity overlooks the importance of east-west movement among people living in the Hill.

While complimenting planners, she added an apocalyptic cautionary note: “Density without transit is the definition of hell.”

If something new emerged from the presentation, it was a call to think hard about the utilization of local institutions and anchoring buildings, including the Yale Nursing School building which the university is largely vacating. “What happens to that?” asked Gilvarg.

A New Idea Emerges

No one had an answer for that yet, but Paul Larrivee had an idea about another structure in the heart of the Hill-to-Downtown area: the current windowless fortress of a police headquarters. 

In fact, in informal past discussions among officials, talk had surfaced about tearing down the police station, using the land as part of a new “transit-oriented development” plan for new apartments, stores and offices around the train station, and moving the cops elsewhere in the Hill.

Officials responded to Larrivee Thursday night by saying they have no current plans to move the police headquarters, But David Spillane, one of the city’s planning consultants from Goody Clancy, in Boston, characterized it as a tired, 40-year-old building. Long-term thought should be given to an alternative to it, he suggested.

“Why not put the police in the old Pirelli Building?” Larrivee proposed. He said flooding is a problem in the police building. Larrivee knows this from personal experience. “I used to keep the sump pumps going” as a maintenance workers, he said.

“We’ll certainly bring it up,” Murphy said eagerly, noting that IKEA owns the building and it is to Ikea that officials will be talking. Then she added, “We need to look at Union Avenue as a whole.”

She asked attendees to bring five people to the next public meeting of the planning initiative towards the end of this year. In the meantime, the power point is on the city’s website, with up-to-date information available at: facebook.com/HilltoDowntown

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posted by: southwest on September 21, 2012  9:18am

That ideal was tossed around years ago. I have always thought it was a good idea because of the proximity to the thruway and more parking for the complaints. It wouldn’t be as cluster as Water Street.

posted by: Cinderella on September 21, 2012  9:52am

I like the idea of generating new office space and retail near Union Station but has anyone thought about the housing issues across the street from the station? Having the police presence just down the block is comforting and probably a hindrance to some crime. The area is not exactly safe.
Isolating the police over on Long Wharf in the Pirelli building might be nice for the view, but not so much for public safety.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 21, 2012  10:10am

Almost any building would be a better choice for police HQ than that awful Brutalist hulk they have now.  Never have I seen a building more perversely designed—dark, brooding, with no natural light, no color, no attractive surfaces or furnishings, and terrible internal traffic flow.  It’s dehumanizing both of those who work there and of those who come there seeking the services that the police force is there to provide for the citizens of New Haven.  I’m sure it’s even more dehumanizing for those who come there after encountering the cops as their accusers or adversaries. 

I wonder how much of our ongoing simmering problem with police-citizen relations can be traced to the unconscious effects of that building on cops’ emotions and moods. 

The architects who inflicted Brutalism on this city out of their own self-importance as experimenters with civic design ought all to be consigned to a Brutalist assisted living facility—with no windows, raw concrete surfaces, black linoleum floors, a flat roof that leaks, black doors, and cheap crappy plastic furniture—for the remainder of their sorry days.

posted by: RR on September 21, 2012  10:32am

@ Cinderella:  I think there are also plans in the works to redevelop Church Street South, which, if done correctly, could substantially improve safety in the area. That doesn’t address the larger issue of whether the police HQ should be located in or near a neighborhood to facilitate broader interaction with the residents, but hopefully will resolve one specific problem area.

posted by: Scot on September 21, 2012  11:15am

That’s a great idea to move the police station.  It is critical for the city to develop this area between the train station and downtown.  The housing project across the street from Union station is crumbling already and is ready to be replaced.  Build a nicer, new low income project somewhere else to replace it.  Then develop both these parcels (police station and housing project) into office/retail/residential.  Build a nice, wide, attractive walkway/bike path(s) through this area to downtown and to the medical area.  Build a trolley/shuttle (or at least allocate space for a shuttle that could be built in the future) from the train station to downtown/medical, similar to the shuttle that runs from Grand Central to Times Square.  Tie it all together with the Coliseum development.  Also build another parking garage on the other side of the train station (I think this is already in the works?).  Thanks!

posted by: Martha Smith on September 21, 2012  11:33am

Seems like a good discussion over part of the City that could be so much better.  So when is the next public meeting?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 21, 2012  11:55am

It would be unfortunate for Union Square (referring to area around Church Street South, So Orange and Union Avenue) to lose a civic and public institution like the police headquarters, especially if the BOA is also looking to move soon - Goffee Street Armory? It is important for each district/neighborhood in the city to have a mix of civic, public, commercial, recreation and residential uses.

If flooding is an issue with the current building, perhaps it would make sense to move it to Amistad Park, which could sorely use more diverse programming before it risks becoming a biomedical dead-zone of single use. It would be great for Amistad Park to recreate the success of the green at a smaller scale by being lined by residences, civic buildings, retail and some office space. The park is already handicapped by the fact that it wasn’t graded and significant portions of it are actually blocked by concrete walls and by simply allowing Yale to populate it with more single use medical space would probably completely cripple that area from becoming a vibrant urban district for several generations to come.

We can’t seriously talk about making Long Wharf a part of the city’s urban fabric until we talk about removing the oak Street Connector all the way back to the I-91/95 Interchange and make Water Street a bouldevard. As it is now, Long Wharf will never be more than an isolated appendage to the highway.

posted by: Curious on September 21, 2012  1:06pm

NHI is pretty negligent in not announcing these meetings on it’s front page, as news stories, in advance.

How hard is it to put up: “Planning meeting downtown on X date at Y time” so that more people can be involved?

This is a perfect forum for it, and NHI continues to fail to do this.

posted by: anonymous on September 21, 2012  4:02pm

Moving the police station away from Downtown would be great, especially given the fact that police vehicles are currently parked illegally in the middle of crosswalks all over the neighborhood, making it impossible to walk around.

posted by: ConcernedCitizen on September 21, 2012  6:58pm

Connect the entire city.  New Haven always addresses one neighborhood at a time.  It never sees the forest through the trees.  We have all these islands with isolated interests.  What you do to one, ripples through all, and many times with unintended negative consequences.  Make a plan that brings us together.  Bring all these neighborhood plans together and make them one.  One connected city.  Easier said then done, I know.  But these plans in a vacuum divide us.

posted by: Theresa on September 21, 2012  8:49pm

No chance getting a new police department built with Johnny D in office. If it is not a overly extravagant school building the idea is dead in the water.

posted by: David S Baker on September 21, 2012  9:12pm

They should move police headquarters to the neighborhood with the highest crime rate and lowest property value.  Which neighborhood that might be would be quite the debate…

I’m sure there is some preservationist or engineering structural reason, but I have always been amazed that Long Wharf Theatre does not renovate Pirelli and avoid downtown.  All that free parking, right off the interstate,  views of the ‘long wharf’, and no meat packing smell.  Win win.

posted by: Stephen Harris on September 21, 2012  10:18pm

The police station doesn’t work. Cars are parked all over the place, the building is ugly and threatening, and it’s right in the middle of what should be a dense, vibrant neighborhood. Tear it down. Moving it to the Pirelli building sounds good to me. That building needs to be put to use before time renders it unusable.

The Union Station-med complex area is a zoning jumble, is very disjointed and grossly underperforming. Long range planning should be put in place to transform it into a high-density pedestrian-oriented mixed residential-business zone with strong pedestrian/bike connections from the train station to the med center. Think old Europe. It works. I know because I’ve lived there.

However, don’t expect things to get better overnight. Transforming such a large area will take time, but with the right zoning in place the next generation can reap the benefits of forward thinking.

Anstress is correct in saying that transit is absolutely necessary in high density areas. This is something that the City can’t solve on its own; federal and state commitment to transit (read streetcars) is required to improve transit city-wide. But there are some things we can do to get the ball rolling: Pedicabs, jitneys and dedicated bike blvds are low cost local transit options.

Basically, steal a page or two from Amsterdam, Stockholm and other European cities. If they can figure out how to organize in-city transit, surely we can too.

posted by: streever on September 22, 2012  8:42am

I take a minor issue with one of the comments in this article.

“Downtown Crossing” critics do not disagree with the words that Gilvarg spoke at this meeting.

“Among the means to achieve these goals: increasing density and less land devoted to parking, attracting more jobs, generating taxes to pay for police, fire, and education, and that elusive “connectivity.””

Rather, those of us who are critical of Route 34 are critical *because it does not do any of this*.

As stands now, the Route 34 project adds an immense amount of parking, leaves an entire stretch of the road without a sidewalk, makes wide turn radii, widens some roads, and ultimately is incapable of “connecting” anything.

It is not that there is “nothing” to connect: there is much to connect. There is simply no “connection” being built.

The city argues that traffic volumes will soar, while ignoring that 50% of the employees in the area currently work within bike/walk distance. (See the independent health report the City used: http://www.neighborhoodindicators.org/library/catalog/health-impact-assessment-route-34-downtown-crossing-phase-one-promoting-pe)

posted by: Stylo on September 22, 2012  9:46pm

Scot nailed it. That’s exactly what needs to happen and will help New Haven flourish.

I also don’t mind the idea of the Police station being in the Pirelli building, but that’s not going to happen. Ikea owns that land and they’re not going to give up the parking for the police (would need quite a bit). They also would probably find it intimidating to their shoppers to have that area occupied by the police.

I do think there are some “dead” neighborhoods where the police could be moved to so that the lot they’re in could be developed. Perhaps somewhere in the Hill or Newhallville, but not too far from downtown. It’s too prime for civic use between downtown and the train station.

Also, totally agree those projects should be torn down ASAP. That’s too prime of a location and those particular projects are a mess.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 24, 2012  1:56pm

Is IKEA’s neglect of this architecturally significant property another example of passive demolition?
  The Pirelli Building is reportedly another Potemkin Village - bereft of plumbing, electrical - or life.
    Shame on IKEA.