Gloomy City Gateway To Be Transformed

Artist PhotosA dark, forbidding welcome walkway to New Haven may come alive with light and life, thanks to a premier public artist.

The artist, Sheila de Bretteville, has been working since 2012 on a project to transform that Route 34 underpass near Union Station and the police station that people endure on their way into town from the train.

Now the project, called “Lighting Your Way,” is almost ready to roll. The city has embraced deBretteville’s idea and is incorporating it into its ongoing effort to sink the Route 34 mini-highway and reconnect downtown streets to the portion of the Hill near the train station, making New Haven more walkable. A few details remain to be ironed out before the project receives final government approval.

DeBretteville, a Yale art professor, has done public projects all the world, including a memorable installation of sidewalk panels memorializing New Haveners of yore in New Haven’s Ninth Square (called “Path of Stars”). In this new project, she plans to use lighting to brighten and transform the darkness under the overpass, turning what might be pedestrians’ fearful gaits into curious pauses and maybe even a few dance steps.

The centerpiece of the installation, on the west side of the passageway, will be six spotlights on the beam high above, each throwing down a cone of light three or four feet wide.

The spotlights would suddenly make pedestrians the center of attention, instead of the cars, de Bretteville said on a recent visit to the location.

The other main elements of the proposed project include replacing the current unattractive piping carrying water off the highway, widening the sidewalk, and building a new sloping and far more attractive embankment, or low retaining wall, to replace the faux brick surface that slopes on dirt up to the girders supporting the underpass.

If de Bretteville gets her way — and she is a believer in the importance of enduring materials — the concrete used in the project will be high quality, dense, and contain some blue stone to evoke some of the water-blue color of the underside of the underpass. After all, the site is where Union Avenue meets Water Street, the initial shoreline for the colonists who landed in the harbor back in 1638.

The other lighting feature central to the proposed project is in the new retaining wall: six sets of LED motion detector lights inset in the previously darkest section.

“These ... would light up as any child or adult appears (maybe even animals at night!) ... Transformed by light a pedestrian can choose to become a star in a story of her or his own,” she wrote in the proposal for the project. “Young people, and the young at heart,” she continued, could “skip, hop, or jump from spot to spot.”

“I have a graduate student [at the Yale School of Art] who has a hip hop ensemble and I made him promise even after he graduates he’ll bring his dancers to dance in the lights,” she said.

Plea Of A Passionate Pedestrian

De Bretteville, 77, was the first woman to get tenure at Yale University School of Art, proposed the idea in 2012 after coming back from a project in Hong Kong, where she encountered a kind of LED lighting that cast stripes. “I fell in love with what you can do with light. When I came home, the first thing I thought of was coming down here.”

She has met with the city engineers, who agree with her that the current pipes leading the splashing rain water down from the highway need to be replaced with a more elegant drainage system.

“It’s about pedestrians,” she declared. She called attention to all the signs directing vehicles that abound in the area. She expressed the hope that some of them might be removed when the project is finally implemented.

There was another small battle to fight to get the project’s final approval, for words and perhaps historical material to be somehow affixed to the new structures. De Bretteville was asked to consider incorporating some of these, she said, as so much of her world-hopping work involves letters, words, and stories — such as her 1993 public art project Path of Stars, which enriches a walk through the Nine Squares.

She held her ground. There is no time to read anything under the overpass, de Bretteville said. People will keep moving, and the experience of the art installation acknowledges and incorporates that ongoing movement.

De Bretteville has recently been in touch with the City Plan Department, urging it to move on the steps for final approval that will make it possible to complete the project by spring 2018, she said.

Road To Approval

The proposal in principle has been embraced both by the city and Site Projects, which won a $25,000 grant for the work and recently publicized it, and other projects, during the ongoing Arts & Ideas festival.

“Site Projects thinks this installation will be the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Executive Director Laura Clark. That’s in part because most Site Project undertakings are temporary. This one will be permanent.

“More people will interact with this than we have ever done before, more and different kinds of people. We’re planning to blanket the city with this message: the site of Route 34 underpass on Union Avenue is ... so connected to the history of New Haven. We’ve taken it to the schools” in Site Project programs there, Clark added.

However, Clark’s group is solely focused on spreading the educational significance of the project and has no part in the installation.

That would be the purview of the City Plan Department.

City Plan staffer Donna Hall, one of deBretteville’s believers in the power of light to help transform the passage, said that new landscape architects will be joining the overall project in the next months to have designs ready to go out to bid.

The project, all on state owned property, is part of Downtown Crossing,  the city’s ongoing dismantling of the old Route 34 mini-highway and reconnecting the street grid.

Funding is a combination of city bonds, money from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and federal Tiger 8 funds. Not until de Brettvile’s concepts, translated into designs that meet state standards, are complete, can a specific cost be calculated, Hall added.

But with a breakout of her project from the whole, in the offing, there should be forward movement.

In an email to deBretteville, Hall wrote: “We are working through this internally but it is clear that we will need to do an advance/breakout project for your piece. We expect to have new landscape architects on board very shortly who will finish the design for this area quickly so we can get it out to bid in time to meet your deadline. I will be reaching out to you shortly so we can finalize the slope, wall and abutment treatments.”

Hall added that the work has been taking longer than expected because it is a piece of a big project with complex engineering issues especially related to drainage, and it takes time to get that right.

“Taking out this expressway is no picnic. The point is to build a normalized street grid and reestablish the connection and this [Lighting Your Path] is one component of it,” she added.

As we spent a half hour under the busy and noisy underpass, de Bretteville spoke as if the very word “pedestrian” inspires her. A passionate walker, she said she just returned from a business trip to Chicago where she walked five miles a day.

The project, de Brettville argues, “is about pride in the city. This is amelioration through public art of a serious problem that should have been addressed a generation ago.”

“We hope it’ll be able to start pretty soon We expect it’ll be done by spring of 2018, for the 380th birthday of New Haven,” added Clark.

Hall said that the breakout approach to the project will enable that to happen.

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 5, 2017  8:44am

This lacks the color or energy of graffiti.

posted by: Paul Wessel on July 5, 2017  11:55am

I’m glad de Brettville is pushing for this.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 5, 2017  12:18pm


To me, it really looks like necessary infrastructure improvements being disguised under the auspices of ‘public art’.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 5, 2017  12:23pm

Alternative Title:  Shades of Bulldog Blue.

posted by: NeoHavener on July 5, 2017  12:33pm

That rendering looks absolutely ridiculous.

posted by: OverTheRiverThruTheHood on July 5, 2017  1:19pm

is that little kid getting abducted by aliens?

posted by: ADAK on July 5, 2017  3:10pm

This underpass definitely needs improving… It’s the walking entrance from the train to where the downtown starts.

...But, this just looks like lights with an updated wall facade. Am I missing something? This talk of LED lights that interact with motion, but I hope they are colorful and fun, and aren’t just the spotlights up above.

Either way, go for it. This bridge is scary to walk underneath at night.

posted by: HewNaven on July 5, 2017  3:16pm

But, New Haven is known for gloomy gateways!

posted by: jim1 on July 5, 2017  8:34pm

This underpass is not only UGLY but a real health hazard as it is carpeted with pigeon poop,a potential cause of several deadly pneumonias.  I cross to the less polluted side when walking to the station.  And it smells better.

And since this city gov is doing nothing for the homeless, I suggest incorporating bunks for those still left out in the cold and heat.  YES, we still have folks living under bridges, in parks and bus stops, tents, encampments, and along the highways and traintracks.

posted by: jim1 on July 5, 2017  8:42pm

By the way, in the lead photo you can actually see a mattress sitting on the ledge above the red brick sloping wall. which is also covered with pigeon droppings. I saw it there last week.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 5, 2017  9:00pm

The underpass on Grand Avenue near I-95 is far gloomier, but the attention always goes to the downtown.
At least sponsor a contest for a graffiti mural that relates to the neighborhood and put our talented artists to work.
This is New England. We need color!!!

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 6, 2017  1:31am


You must have missed ‘The I-91 Underpass Project’ and ‘Inside/Out’.

I don’t know that every neighborhood needs an ‘Urban Tattoo’, but those efforts are best envisioned as temporary ‘projects’ at best.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 6, 2017  8:28am

@Bill Saunders:
It might have been a TED talk, but I recall seeing a slum area in South America where architects went in and painted a sea themed walkway that coiled thru the village and also painted the facades bright, cheerful colors. The project took a few years and involved local participation, but long term crime went down and local pride went up.
There is no reason we have to look bleak in our public spaces.
Let’s unleash the creativity here at home and use our imagination to beautify, not “tatoo”, public spaces that are overlooked in neighborhoods that are not downtown.
Let’s create a sense of ownership for our public spaces.

posted by: meta on July 6, 2017  10:12am

It’s Laura Clarke, with and “e” at the end. I applaud all the efforts of Site Projects.

Glad to see something in the works, but it seems rather banal and uninspired. The new blank wall would be a great place for a mural- how about an open competition? Otherwise it will certainly be a canvas for would-be muralists (of far less artistic integrity).

posted by: Richard Kallweit on July 6, 2017  11:43am

While I appreciate high tech concepts the continuous high maintenance costs continue ever after.
Consider perhaps low maintenance green solutions. Garden style concepts co2 sequestering concrete
and open competitions for individual artworks..

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 6, 2017  11:55am

Frankly Dwightstreeter,

The last thing New Haven ‘needs’ is to become a never-ending canvas for graffiti artists.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 6, 2017  12:29pm

Richard Kallweit,

I didn’t even get into my ‘public process’ spiel here, but ‘open competitions for individual artworks’ is certainly a missing element in the ‘visioning’ of this project.

I like the ‘garden’ concepts as well….

In fact, I am sure there are a lot of great ideas out there that beat out a Big, Blue, Lighted Wall (with widened sidewalks).

posted by: Richard Kallweit on July 6, 2017  12:35pm

While I can appreciate hi tech concepts the forever maintenance costs are considerable. Why not green solutions with co2 sequestering concrete; garden design and open competitions for creatives.
An ongoing process perhaps as New Haven is always a work in progress.

posted by: 1644 on July 9, 2017  1:16pm

Dwight: I agree. Give some kids some spray paint, and I’ll but they would brighten up this dank space for much less than these over-priced, uninspired professionals.  I was expecting something like to school murals that are featured from time to time. A pop-art mural with a New Haven theme would be great: Yale, Freddie Fixer, Amistad, the Green, the funky Grand Avenue storefronts, Albertus, etc.