Downtown Crossing Traffic Inspiration: Geneva

Elm City CyclingMake it like downtown Geneva, Switzerland. Or Valencia, Spain. Or Portland, Oregon. Even Court Street between Olive and Academy will do.

Those were among the suggestions for how the streets around the nascent Route 34 corridor redo should be configured to make pedestrians and bicyclists safe and happy.

They emerged Tuesday night at the main branch of the library where Deputy Director for Economic Development Mike Piscitelli was joined by other city staffers and some 40 citizens. It was the fourth public workshop held to solicit suggestions for the evolving Downtown Crossing/Route 34 makeover.The project recently was awarded a $16 million federal grant to launch the infrastructure phase.

That $31 million project will create two “urban boulevards” out of South and North Frontage roads, filling in the ditch of College Street. There will rise developer Carter Winstanley’s new high-tech and medical-oriented office building, called 100 College, while highway traffic moves underground into the Air Rights Garage, if the plan works.

If successful as advertised, the plan will link the medical district, Hill, and Downtown with narrower streets as well as urban boulevards where bicyclists and pedestrians would share the road with drivers.

Tuesday night’s workshop focused on transportation.

Click here to read about the October workshop that focused on the environment; and here for the November discussion.

Elm City Cycling member Moses Boone expressed a universally held opinion in the room Tuesday night: “We want dedicated bike lanes” along the so-called urban boulevards.

Would there be a curb separating such a lane from traffic on one side and the sidewalk on the other? The project manager for city consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) Bob Brooks encouraged all suggestions without being committal.

He did suggest that a bike lane in the street, and with a barrier on one side, would cause maintenance challenges in the snow and require its own little plow to clear it.

Mark Aronson made an alternative suggestion: In Valencia, Spain he said, “the beauty is the sidewalks. They are so wide that pedestrians and bicyclists [who share it] can find a natural comfort zone.”

Jamie Duke, a Yale graduate student in computational biology, said she’d like to see the planners consider Portland’s model, where the center lanes of downtown streets carry pedestrians and bicyclists, with the drivers on the outside.

Ohan Karagozian of the Hill asked PB’s traffic maven: “I know you’ve interviewed people who use the Air Rights Garage, but are you [also] talking to people who live in the Hill?”

We will, officials assured him.

Other critical issues that needed to be addressed included reducing speeds, more sensible signaling and visual cues for walkers, as well as a sensible walking route to the train station.

“People always ask how to walk to the train station [from downtown]. My colleagues say, ‘You don’t,’” commented Aronson. He himself does provide directions. This way, then that way, then that, he said, with body language suggesting the current circuitous path that needs to be followed.

Allan Appel PhotoElm City Cycllng, which was out in force for the meeting, gave Piscitelli (pictured) some renderings of how it would like to see the “urban boulevard” configured.

Other suggestions included making the treescape enduring and substantial, both for beauty and and the usefulness of overhanging branches as traffic-calmers.

Three of the four breakout groups suggested that development not be all tall massed buildings of the 100 College Street variety. Especially along the smaller streets, people suggested, the plan should promote smaller lots so pedestrians have a sense of human scale and variety as they walk.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to do like in the 19th Century, divide a block into 50 lots,” responded City Plan Department Director Karyn Gilvarg. “The trick for urban designers today is to effect that feel” at the same time as you work with the market.

Notes from public meetings along with full drawings are on this website.

The next public meeting on Downtown Crossing is tentatively scheduled for May 3. At that time, the ongoing traffic studies should be complete and some 30 percent of the design should be finished as well, said City Plan’s project director for Downtown Crossing, Donna Hall.



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posted by: anon on February 16, 2011  1:42pm

The last meeting, in November, was even better attended by the public.  It is amazing to see so many hundreds of people sacrifice their evenings to come out and weigh in on these proposals. 

It is clear that the public is very interested in making this area a nicer place to live, work and play, and a place that prioritizes the needs of people, not vehicle traffic. The city needs to make sure that ConnDOT listens to these demands. They should be talking directly with Malloy about this.

Read the previous meeting summaries here: - they were just posted yesterday.

posted by: streever on February 16, 2011  2:04pm

After a multitude of meetings, I’m left wondering why the City still is unable to commit to a “road diet”.

The current plan, which has been billed as one “stitching two neighborhoods together”, is an absolute failure in that regard, and will actually widen and increase the lanes here.

My assumption is that the real plan is to be able to give developers a crazy number—120,000 cars per day—which is what a transportation engineer I spoke to estimated is the capacity of the four lanes the City is building.

I am unsure where the pressure is coming from in City Hall to make this project actually have more square feet of road than previously, but that will be the end result if citizens allow the City to over-build this parcel.

Make no mistake. The City has some very smart thinkers working on this, who typically embrace alternatives to highways in the middle of our City, which leaves me to wonder who exactly is pushing for this current project in this form. I can’t imagine it is the Department of Transportation.

Just as we right now rue the decision-making that put a highway to nowhere in the middle of our downtown in the 1950s—a move that cost us residents and dramatically devalued our city—I believe that in 50 years residents will rue having built the current proposal.

I worry that our Mayor does not possess the long-term vision to understand this, and that the pressure to build a mega-highway is coming directly from his office.

posted by: davec on February 16, 2011  3:06pm

Are those street lamps run on gas? 

Not saying I would like to see ‘cobra’ style lights, but the Ye Olde is a little strong there.
This is 2011 after all and we don’t have to undo ALL of the sins of our fathers.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 16, 2011  3:13pm

“‘I don’t think we’ll be able to do like in the 19th Century, divide a block into 50 lots,’ responded City Plan Department Director Karyn Gilvarg said. ‘The trick for urban designers today is to effect that feel’ at the same time as you work with the market.”

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 provided federal funding for municipal governments to identify, acquire, condemn, and raze areas deemed to be slums for the purposes of combining small building lots into large development parcels that would attract large development from national firms. Later amendments in 1954 incentivized private developers to take on these large development projects by providing the same FHA-backed mortgages for urban redevelopment projects as was already provided for new suburban construction.
Urban renewal may be over, but these same practices, incentives and modernist design principles are still around for the most part. Large development parcels aren’t a market response, they are a choice to continue the failed policies of urban renewal. At best, the only difference will be the utilization of a new architectural language that may disguise the true nature of these new developments.
Large developments, even if they’re mixed use, often lack the adaptability to have more than one generation of design life. This is why so many century old buildings are still in use, while newer buildings are getting demolished.

Not being able to viably subdivide large parcels into smaller building lots is not a problem of being in the wrong century, it is a problem of having misguided policies for allocating funding, providing subsidies and incentivizing good urban redevelopment at each level of government. I sympathize with Karyn’s point, but the city should be working to reconfigure the typical parameters for development so that locally grounded entrepreneurs and small time developers can get the funding they need to create the types of environments that make New Haven unique, while also sharing the costs to build the site’s infrastructure. Mistaking specific public policies (tax structure, zoning ordinance, new construction subsidies, etc) which incentivize large scale development over small projects for “the market” only reinforces the idea that these systems cannot be changed, and just trying to change them is a waste of time.

posted by: Roberto on February 16, 2011  3:18pm

This proposed project (as it stands, and how it has been shown at the public meetings) is really not a “mega-highway”. Nor should it be… Its a 3 or 4 lane, developed urban street, with sidewalks, steetscapes, bike lanes, and trees. How else would the pepedestrians and cyclists get around if it were a highway? We’d just have another, more modern, developed Route 34 all over again… and I’m pretty sure no one, not even King Johnny or ConnDOT would let that happen. Right?

posted by: streever on February 16, 2011  3:20pm

Fair enough—the drawings were done with SketchUp, and I think those were just the easiest to insert. No one is actually trying to mandate the type of lamp—it is really just there for a visual :).

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 16, 2011  3:20pm

That number is crazy.
The original I-95 bridge was built to carry 90,000 vehicles per day. Very little credibility to the title of “urban boulevards” would remain if the city maintains the number of lanes that is has in the current project. This is supposed to be replacing a highway, not expanding it.

posted by: ww on February 16, 2011  3:28pm

I second that davec. The place is made by the well-planned streets that accommodate trees, bicycles, and pedestrians as well as automobiles. With proper street dimensions and speed, on-street parking, bike lanes, and adequate sidewalks and crosswalks, the Place will thrive without the kitsch. As for the street itself, the image above, should really show 2 travel lanes and one lane of on-street convenience parking. (How would anyone expect 3 lanes of traffic to be a calmer/safer street than the existing 2 lanes at 40+ mph?!)

posted by: davec on February 16, 2011  3:31pm

re: the sherlock holmes gas lights,
I have experienced over the years that visual shorthand, in this case, the lamps, are taken quite literally.  Better to stay away from overt references to a romanticized, unobtainable past lest people be mad as hell in the future because their gas lights are not installed in the final project. <insert J. Hopkins comment here>

posted by: anon on February 16, 2011  4:13pm

“How would anyone expect 3 lanes of traffic to be a calmer/safer street than the existing 2 lanes at 40+ mph?!”

There are actually many examples of calm, 3 lane streets.  However, if history is any guide, it is unlikely that ConnDOT would ever have the knowledge or desire to build one.  If ConnDOT is unable to meet the clear demands of city residents, the entire agency should be shut down and replaced with traffic engineers from London.  Even as fuel costs skyrocket, ConnDOT is currently stuck in the 1950s and shows no signs of being responsive to change.

posted by: Brian Tang on February 16, 2011  11:19pm

Is Jamie talking about the park blocks? If so, (a) Edgewood Ave, Norton Parkway, or English/Peck would all be better places to emulate that in New Haven, and (b) you should check out the Gateway Mall in St Louis, MO:

Nice work on the printout, Tom. Go ECC!

posted by: hee hee hee on February 17, 2011  10:06am

$16 federal grant… hee hee hee…

posted by: Ben Northrup on February 17, 2011  11:38am

Let’s not lose sight of the city for the light posts!  While the lighting design is important, there are far bigger issues at stake in this development, which is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for New Haven.

While I applaud the general move to remake the Connector, and I know that many well-intentioned people are working on the project, both in the City and among the consultants, I am not reassured by what I saw at the presentation.  Indeed, it seems like a plan to recreate a small section of Stamford, i.e., enormous, slick new developments on wide, heavily-trafficked streets.  This is not a recipe to make appealing, walkable streets.

The Independent article asserts incorrectly that the plan calls for “narrower streets as well as urban boulevards”.  However, the City’s drawings clearly show wider streets, many with four or more travel lanes, all in one direction, with on-street parking allowed only during part of the day.  The City’s plans show no boulevards—that term should not be thrown around so casually.  (For what it’s worth, I am not convinced we need boulevards on these blocks—we need well designed urban streets.)  In the proposal, the Frontage roads will be widened to increase their carrying capacity because Route 34 will be eliminated and replaced with private driveways.  These private driveways may serve the medical center and the new developments well.  However, by shifting the rest of the traffic to the surface streets, the pedestrian experience will be degraded overall.  No amount of bricks, bollards, and benches can overcome that volume of traffic.

It seems to me that a far better approach would be to build over the existing Route 34, eliminating the ramps between Church and College, while narrowing the surface streets, making them two-way with on-street parking all-day.  This approach would reduce the buildable area of Parcel 4, but that seems a like a worthwhile trade-off.  Parcel 4 could still receive a sizable liner building that would front College.  The other parcels could be developed as much as necessary.  Tall buildings are fine, as long as they sit on top of a base of well-designed, appropriately-scaled, three-to-five story buildings that front the sidewalks.

Overall on the project as currently proposed, the traffic engineers are way out ahead of any one else.  There were lots of good words used in the presentations, and lots of images shown of other great cities and streets.  However, there was no urban design work to speak of.  The only street section shown was provided by an outside citizen’s group.  Good design in any field, including urban design, requires all the elements to be developed simultaneously.  Good traffic engineering is essential, and the City seems to have some talented consultants.  However, their work needs to be at the service of the larger urban design vision.  Hopefully, that vision would include a rethink of the longstanding priority given to automobile traffic.

So far, I do not see an urban design vision.  Apparently, there are some separate plans afoot for the the blocks south of the connector, but nothing was presented.  For good urban design, it must be thought of together.  It is hard for me to judge the Connector proposal without seeing adjacent proposals.  Apparently, there may be some misguided federal prohibition on presenting the projects together.  It would be nice if the city at least made mention of the other proposals and indicated how we could view them.  Perhaps there could be a separate City-sponsored presentation that shows the whole vision, or those drawings could have been on display in a separate room for anyone interested.

This is most important when it comes to Congress Ave.  The oft-stated and laudable goal of the project is to “stitch” the city back together, and reconnect the Nine Squares to the Hill.  It seems to me that Congress Ave. is a key to that vision.  And yet, I did not see any proposal for how Congress would connect.  There is talk of eliminating its last block.  The City may have a thoughtful plan for this area, but it needs to be shown and publicly discussed.

I believe the Independent article slightly misquotes Karen Gilvarg.  When I asked her whether the blocks would be developed as single large buildings, I thought she said they could not be divide into fifty-foot lots, which is not quite the same as fifty lots.  In either case, Jonathan Hopkins response was spot on.  The City could prioritize and facilitate smaller-scale development.  I certainly do not mind some large-scale development, and I want to see the medical center grow.  But there needs to be very careful design thought given to the challenge of how to integrate large-scale development into the surrounding fine-grained urban fabric.  It can be done.  As proposed, the new blocks on the Connector parcels will not feel integrated into the surrounding City.

Overall, the biggest problem of the scheme seems to be that Route 34 will be eliminated and all the traffic will be dumped onto widened surface streets.  This seems to be driven by maximizing Parcel 4.  However, if Parcel 4 were reduced, and Route 34 retained under the new buildings, the whole project would be vastly improved.

I applaud the rhetoric I heard, and I do not doubt the good intentions of many involved, but so far, the proposal does not come close to matching the rhetoric.  The City is literally planning around the traffic engineers.

posted by: anon on February 17, 2011  12:36pm

Good points, Ben. While all these meetings have been going on, the city has been silently advancing a very specific traffic engineering drawing for the area that does not take into account the considerations demanded by citizens (ask the consultants for it).  The soul-sucking plans for massive highways through Downtown, and massively wide streets with inadequate pedestrian infrastructure, should be thrown out. The city should start from scratch with something that will contribute to the city’s long term interests, not just please ConnDOT.

posted by: anon on February 17, 2011  5:50pm

The city’s traffic plan is driven by the Medical Area’s wish to build out all its projects with 5 parking spaces per 100 sq ft - a high and unsustainable proportion of Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOV) to usable space. This is a very backward and destructive plan which caters to businesses and commuters does little or nothing to relieve residents of the burdens and dangers of heavy traffic and pollution, or offer residents green space, commercial development, parks or transportation equity.

posted by: Chris O on February 18, 2011  9:58am

The City should be dense in this area.There is a great article in the Atlantic Monthly this month on Cities and density.  The context fits. This high density should move down to the train station and jump to Long Wharf. Boulevards with cafes and sidewalk life are charming. Boulevards like Church street- soul sucking. Montreal and Chicago do these so well. High density supports street level activity.  Lower density equals anemic streetscapes.

posted by: Ben Northrup on February 18, 2011  11:27am

I agree with Chris O’s point on density.  However, density by itself is not enough.  It turns out there is high density in some areas of new “Edge Cities” that have sprung up in suburbia around office developments and Interstates.  However, because those places are designed entirely around the automobile, there is no urban life.  So, good urban design is just as important as density.  So far, the City’s plans have made no concessions to the automobile, and they have presented no serious urban design.

In terms of locations for density, I also agree with Chris O.  If there is any location that should be dense, this is it!  We can better preserve our rural landscapes and picturesque New England villages if we encourage a high quality of life in our dense urban centers.

posted by: Jack A.B. on February 18, 2011  4:25pm

What I think people like Ben are forgetting here is that besides the “urban boulevards” which the intial designs have shown arials of, there will also be cross streets at Church, Temple, College, and York providing additional space for things like added streetscapes, outdoor cafes, and other sidewalk improvements that fit in with the City’s Complete Streets program; and what everyone wants to see with this project. Also, in the meeting I believe the presenter noted that the full design will be shown for the first time later on, maybe its in the next public meeting? I would think that’s when we’ll all get to see more of what these steets will look like potentially, and some more urban development plans- they’re still working on those designs from the community members feedback like us. I personally think that the designs which ECC showed were good. I hope that the firm takes them into consideration.