How About A Roundabout? Or More Trees?

Allan Appel PhotoUrban designer John Anderson came all the way from California to weigh in on New Haven’s evolving Downtown Crossing Project. First he predicted the crumbling of the Air Rights Garage and its 2,600 above-ground parking spaces. Then he offered a solution: Build a series of small garages underground from Church Street to Park.

Anderson’s ideas were part of a weekend-long discuss/design/sketch public workshop that drew new urbanists from near and far this weekend to help the city visualize alternatives to the evolving $140 million plan to fill in part of the Route 34 Connector, throw up a new 10-story building, and rebuild 10 acres of downtown streets. (New urbanism = a movement to make cities denser, more walkable, more connected, with mixes of uses intertwined.)

The group formed not just to critique the city’s plan for Downtown Crossing,, but to come up with alternative ideas of its own. Like subterranean garages, a new “fork scheme,” and an expanded tree-filled median.

The New Haven Urban Design League organized the event; architect Robert Orr hosted it at the Bourse on Chapel Street. One hundred members of the public pitched ideas to architects, heard lectures, then nudged the designers in open workshop settings Saturday and Sunday.

The city declined to serve as co-organizers of the weekend. But several officials did participate, including Deputy Economic Development Director Mike Piscitelli and the City Plan Department’s point staffer on the project, Donna Hall.

Sunday night 40 gathered to share the results of the weekend “charrette,” or sped-up design process. The aim was to come up with plans to visualize more pedestrian and bike friendly and human-scale treatment of the city’s ambitious plan to turn the Route 34 mini-highway into a new network that connects the medical district with downtown and the train station. 

Allan Appel PhotoThe overall concept of repairing the scar of 1950s urban renewal that is the Route 34 mini-highway to nowhere has drawn general support in the community. The details of the design have not. Critics, including those who gathered this weekend, call the city’s plans excessively car-centric. The city won a $16 million TIGER grant for the first phase of the work of the $140 million project, which includes state and local matches.

The city has convened five discussions to show the public its work and solicit comment ex post facto. This weekend’s effort, billed as a community conversation on envisioning Downtown Crossing, was the first time tables were turned. One of the organizers, Ben Northrup said, “We want to share it with the city and we hope it’ll effect decisions in the project. And we hope it might inspire more full-fledged charrettes ideally initiated by the city.”

He was in luck.

His co-organizer, Urban Design League’s Anstress Farwell, said that before the weekend was out, “Donna [Hall] asked the design teams to figure out how Orange Street can empty traffic before it gets to Church. We’re very happy to have an assignment!”

Westville Mom’s “Fork” Emerges

Architect Ben Northrop and colleagues took on that assignment.They elaborated a “fork scheme” concept first mentioned by commenter “Westville Mom” in her response to an Independent article covering the most recent of the public discussions on Downtown Crossing. (He had invited her to the workshop; she couldn’t attend.)

Northrup’s elaborated plan places a roundabout on Orange Street where drivers would exit from the highway. This would instantly begin to distribute cars north on Orange to downtown or south on Orange to the train station or straight to the medical district. In Northrup’s scheme Orange and indeed all the streets of Downtown Crossing area, unlike in the city’s current plan, would be two-way.

“That’s absolutely key to creating a pedestrian environment,” he said.

The city’s current map for the exit at Orange shows a whooshing radius up to Orange. A radius turns tend to increase, not decrease car speed, said Northrup.

“A big objective is connecting. We’re asking that the $16 million be used to reconnect streets rather than widen them,” he said

Oh, That Garage!

Thomas MacMillan File PhotosDescribing himself as “a recovering developer,” John Anderson, a principal of a Chico, California, firm, said you can’t come up with an alternative “unified field theory master plan in two days.” He offered a starting point: envisioning life without the Air Rights Garage.

Above-ground garages in the Northeast tend to crumble when the rebar corrodes, he noted. So, he suggested, why not plan for five underground garages below grade? They could be built incrementally, each having from 550 to 750 parking spots, that in time would add up to over 3,000 spaces.

Such “distributed parking” is easier to operate than centralized, one-entrance parking, he said. He suggested the lots be public, providing revenue for the city, as opposed to the current parking plans for 100 College Street proposed building of Carter Winstanley. The city’s plans from a parking perspective are serving the needs of the developers more than the public, Anderson argued. (Mayor John DeStefano recently said the city has been examining whether it makes more fiscal and managerial sense to have private entities own and run parking facilities that serve primarily their own organizations.)

Commonwealth Ave. West

Weekend host Robert Orr came up with what colleagues called an “esplanade” plan—a monumental avenue with an expansive median planted with beautiful green trees and lined by buildings that Orr sees as largely residential.

While that plan sacrifices buildable land in the center, Anstress Farwell said, new buildable land for apartments would be achieved in the Orr plan by extending the side blocks into the current Frontage roads.

Orr said that the architects and planners, all of whom volunteered their time this weekend, were not speaking with a single voice. Each addressed only a single aspect of the whole Downtown Crossing project.

What did he hope the forced march of the charrette process would achieve?

“We know people [on the city’s Downtown Crossing team] who want to make a good thing feel their hands are tied. Part of the focus is to untie their hands,” he said.

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posted by: anon on August 1, 2011  9:29am

Thank you to all the people who volunteered their time to make this happen, and to the organizers of the event.

According to the organizers, detailed plans will be posted at the community website, in the coming days.

The City can not ignore this type of process, which represents the the first time that the community, rather than the City and developers, has driven a design. 

This could be the best community development project in generations, and actually reconnect the downtown, but only if the City doesn’t squander the opportunity as it seems poised to do.

posted by: Jenn R. on August 1, 2011  9:44am

I applaud this group of concerned citizens for getting together outside the confines of a city-sponsored workshop for Route 34 to discuss options and potential solutions to the “problem” scar through our city that is the current Rt. 34 situation. Way to go folks! The roadway is dangerous right now, plain and simple. Can’t wait to see the project take shape in the years to come!

posted by: streever on August 1, 2011  10:50am

This is incredible! Kudos to Farwell and Orr—I’m really happy to see such knowledgeable people working so hard to help the city re-focus away from car-centric, suburbanite-focused development.

By building New Haven for local residents, we will encourage more people to live here, instead of living in Orange & driving in for work.

That approach will lower housing costs, improve quality of life, and keep more of our local money in our local economy—helping to take our restaurants and shops away from over-priced boutiques into real commercial enterprises which can be sustained on residents.

New Haven is a job center for the entire region—there is no reason why we need to prioritize out of towners who come here for 8 hours a day, many of whom would be happy living here if the schools were better and there were decent grocery stores and clothing stores accessible. By developing for residents, we can create a market for the types of commerce that the employees of our large companies would like to go to.

By getting them to move back into New Haven, we can have a more equitable and fair tax base, which will help us to provide the high quality of life and education which they are looking for.

These plans are a step closer in that direction, and a step farther away from the massive highways the city has long endured—and encouraged—in the middle of our neighborhoods.

posted by: anon on August 1, 2011  11:09am

Streever wrote: “massive highways the city has long endured—and encouraged.”

Indeed, one of the problems in this process is the “credibility gap,” currently faced by the city.

See: Whalley Widening Project

The city has a great Comprehensive Plan from 2003, and continues to talk constantly about safe and walkable roadways and a “reconnected downtown”, but then proceeds with widening enormous highways right through our densest neighborhoods.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 1, 2011  12:56pm

I tend to sympathize somewhat with the city when it comes to involving the general public in the design process for major projects. The public is usually very good about synthesizing the main things that they want for a given project. Unfortunately, the public is not good at converting those ideas into actual implementable plans, and schematic drawings. I understand the need for the city’s design team to work separately from the public then present plans and ask for feedback.
However, the current public process needs to be completely overhauled. Design charrettes, like the one conducted over the weekend, would ideally be at the beginning of the process and sponsored by the city. At the end of the charrette (usually a week long), the city would present initial concepts and rough plans, as would other volunteers (like the excellent line up that was there this weekend) who work with the general public to turn goals into actual drawings.
From this point, public meetings like the city usually does could continue, but with multiple alternative plans that the public can pick and choose from and take from one plan and add to another.
By having only one plan that the public can cooment on and critique creates a charade that leads to very small if any changes and does not allow the overall concepts to be dictated by an open and fair public process. While expert knowledge is vital to the planning process and solutions to any problem will inevitably involve decision-making that trumps the public’s desires, it is equally vital to have the initial phases of the development be open and collaborative. Lectures in addition to workshops should be the goal for public meetings from here-on, where the publics involvement is emphasized in the conceptual phases instead of on commenting on engineering plans.

posted by: Thomas on August 1, 2011  12:56pm

OK so we bring everybody back into the city then all those dollars and delays will have made the 10 year I-95 expansion irrelevant? I guess it’s just a lot of make work.

posted by: Stephen Harris on August 1, 2011  2:01pm

I didn’t find out about this charette until I read this story today or I would have been there to contribute. I understand there is a meeting/lecture related to this project at 6:00 pm, August 3rd in the atrium meeting rooms (1 & 2 I think).

posted by: Morris Cove Mom on August 1, 2011  3:21pm

Besides the budget, what should be taken into account when discussing this is the long term stability of it.  It’s nice for the city, or whomever, to say it is going to rebuild a bridge, a street, a city, but to never move forward, or do shoddy work… Well, that cannot continue to happen.  I am happy to see people come together here to share new architectural ideas, but wonder if anything will actually come of it?  At the end of the day, city and state government still looms.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 1, 2011  3:26pm

Let’s follow that logic.
We invested enormously in widening I-95 between West Haven and East Haven, adding a fly-over exit, and building a new bridge. In order to make this investment worthwhile, we should continue to subsidize and encourage greenfield, suburban development in a pattern that requires automobile use for mundane tasks and takes up capacity on roadways so that the next generation has to spend billions widening highways further? Does that make sense? (The correct answer is no. No, that does not make sense).
Instead we should rewrite zoning ordinances throughout the State, overhaul ConnDOT, expand the State historic rehabilitation incentive program, and enact other policies that encourage a pattern of development designed around walking and transit use, with the accomodation of automobile access where possible and practical. The model for this new development pattern could be the Route 34 East redevelopment project in which streets are designed for residents first, then for regional travel. Existing models for walkable places are pre-Civil War villages and towns such as the Westville Village, the Quinnipiac River Village, Downtown New Haven, Centerville in Hamden, and the town centers of Branford, Guilford, and Madison. Existing examples of places designed well for transit use are many of the post-Civil War - pre-WW1 neighborhoods that were developed for working and middle class people such as Whitneyville, Lower Westville, Edgewood, Goatville, Chatham Square, Beaver Hills, Highwood, Kimberly Square-Howard Avenue, and West Haven.
New growth that does not increase demand on road capacity (like walkable, transit connected neighborhoods) means that the existing infrastrucutre can actually be used for multiple generations without the need for replacement and expansion, only routine maintenance. Whereas, new growth designed soley around car use has the impact of taking up existing road capacity and leading to large scale investments for road widening, and replacement in the future.

So yes, we spent a buttload of money on I-95, which is precisely why we should now promote new growth that does not cause that expanded capacity to be squandered. That new 10 lane Q Bridge will be uncongested at first, but unless we change the way we grow and our development pattern, gridlock will quickly take over just like what happened to the old bridge.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on August 1, 2011  7:32pm

We are sponsoring a talk, “Building Strong Communities Through Participatory Design” with Dr. David Brain

Dr. David Brain, a social scientist and board member of the National Charrette Institute, is coming to New Haven and discuss charrettes and participatory planning. Dr. Brain has worked with many communities to design a planning process that both revitalizes their neighborhoods’ physical structure and its community bonds. Dr. Brian’s visit will offer an ideal opportunity for the broad spectrum of groups and agencies beginning to explore the charrette process to discuss best practices and New Haven interests with a national expert.

Building Strong Communities Through Participatory Design
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
6 - 7:30 PM
City Hall, Atrium Meeting Rooms 1 & 2
Refreshments will be served

For more info on Dr. Brain see:

posted by: Stephen Harris on August 2, 2011  11:11am

After re-reading the latest downtown crossing document and this article here goes:

Great Street Concept: It has one-way streets with too many travel lanes in each direction. This would lead to cars speeding to get to the ARG. It would be hazardous to get from one side to the other.

Urban Blvd. North: This just moves all the travel lanes to one side making it a highway with a planting strip. No real difference from what we have now.

Multi-lane Blvd: A Parisian style treatment. New Haven is too small a city for this and the proposed distance too short (it only leads to the ARG) for this to work. It’s over ambitious.

Downtown Crossing and Rt. 34W have to work together. The street has to have to have the same geometry and flow from the highway exit to the blvd to work well. Downtown Crossing is all about getting to the ARG as fast as possible. The link to Rt. 34W is weak.

A modified Great Street concept would work. Two lanes in each direction for North and South Frontage (no one-way streets) with on-street parking fronting 4-6 story buildings (cheaper to build, maintain and house a variety of uses).

The idea of a roundabout at Orange on the north side seems an excellent way to transition traffic into the city. A second roundabout on South Frontage and South Orange would mirror those travel options.

There are multiple ways to get into and out of the city: The Kimberly and Trumbull exits compliment the downtown exits at the I-91/95 interchange. Everyone doesn’t have to enter the city via the downtown exit. And there are also two train stops, Union Station and State St.

The Great Street concept can be continued down to E.G. Blvd. in a seamless transition. As to the ARG, I’m not sure that will come down any time soon (money for demo and money for new underground spaces). If this was a greenfield we could plan for it.

The goal is to create ground rent and knit the city back together. Reducing street width increases buildable land. Eliminating one-way streets (the bane of getting around in New Haven) increases travel options Eliminating high-speed multi-lane, one-way streets and replacing them with low-speed two-way urban streets and reconnecting the crossing streets would be the best thing to do, I think.

posted by: Anstress Farwell on August 2, 2011  11:45am

Want to read more? New Haven’s own Phil Langdon has posted an article on the project at New Urban News:

Rescuing a botched expressway removal

posted by: Westville Mom on August 2, 2011  12:38pm

Have the results of this charrette been posted?  I haven’t been able to find them.  Based on what I see and read here, I have to agree in general with what Stephen Harris has said.  Also, Ben Northrup’s “roundabout” development of the fork scheme makes a lot of sense, in that a (perhaps larger?) roundabout would seem to be a logical and legible way to filter traffic to multiple destinations on the way into the city.  I’m not sure how that would work with traffic exiting the city because of cross-traffic merging (based on the small image above), but maybe he can develop that further in future. 

What the roundabout does very elegantly, though, is create the possibility of a “grand gesture” at the entrance to the city.  [Fountain? Monument? Sculpture?]  While I fully support all the notions expressed regarding real and complete two-way ordinary streets, the opportunity presents itself in this large urban design project to incorporate a couple of grand gestures – an opportunity that comes along only rarely.

What seems to be the real challenge of this process, though, is overcoming the psychology of the “corridor.”  After decades of splitting the city, Rt. 34 needs to be consciously erased in the mind as well as in the city.  Maybe future workshops can include teams tasked with perspective visualizations to try to break out of the plan/section methodology?  I will try to attend, should there be another one.

posted by: Stephen Harris on August 2, 2011  1:32pm

The Winstanley building design, like many things built today, is a cold placeless cube. I would like to see something that echoes the gothic style of Yale’s central campus. Something built out of Portland Brownstone with towers on all four corners. At least it would be an eye-catching vista termination.

posted by: Stephen Harris on August 2, 2011  2:00pm

@Westville Mom,

The psychology of corridor hits the nail on the head. We’re trying to create a destination, not just a way to get from here to there. We’re not trying to cross over the downtown bridge (so to speak) to the other side.

posted by: anon on August 2, 2011  3:18pm

“Maybe future workshops can include teams tasked with perspective visualizations to try to break out of the plan/section methodology?”

There were lots of these created at the charrette, actually, including beautiful, pencil-drawn 3-D renderings from a pedestrian perspective.  I agree these are just as, if not more effective, than plans and sections. 

It would be nice if our local media outlets could post a few!

posted by: Anstress Farwell on August 2, 2011  4:23pm

Westville Mom - we hope to have the concept plans scanned and posted on the RT 34 Coalition site by the end of the week. We did bring in a wonderful architectural renderer who prepared the pencil sketches mentioned by anon. These sketches will be included on the website. We hope to find funds to produce four watercolors -two aerials and two street views. Anyone who would like to help, and anyone who would like to receive updates and invitations to future workshops and meetings can contact us: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

posted by: Westville Mom on August 3, 2011  7:27am

Thank you!  I look forward to seeing them.