Downtown Crossing Critics: City Meant Well, Did Badly

Allan Appel PhotoAs maverick architect Robert Orr received an “urban angel” award he spoke of a devil in the details—of the city’s plan to remake the Route 34 Connector into a project called Downtown Crossing.

Nearly 100 people gathered in the community room of the main branch of the library Thursday night to see Orr (pictured) receive his award from the Urban Design League. The gathering became not just an awards event but also a forum to promote alternative ideas to what critics called the city’s overly car-centric $140 million Downtown Crossing project to fill in part of the Connector, have a developer erect a new biotech building, and link Union Station, the medical district and downtown.

Phase One of that effort is to fill in the Route 34 Connector with two four-lane urban “boulevards” in place of the frontage roads and create between them four developable parcels, the first being Carter Winstanley’s 100 College Street medical and lab facility.

The city won a $16 million federal TIGER grant for this phase of the work. Local and state matches brings a total of $30 million for the project.

Thursday’s amicable but passionate meeting and discussion comes at a time of some urgency: officials say the city’s design plans for Phase One are 30 percent complete and Carter Winstanley is poised to sign a development agreement with the city for his 100 College Street building.

The plan’s critics, many of whom were in the audience, are working strenuously in the Community Development Committee of the Board of Aldermen to pass a resolution calling for Downtown Crossing project to, in the language of the resolution, “give equal planning priority to pedestrian, bicycle, mass transit and automobile traffic in the design.”

That includes substituting a pair of two-lane streets for North and South Frontage instead of the two four-lane roads in the current city plan.

Click here for a story on that four-hour debate before the aldermanic subcommittee on Sept. 28. The debate resumes on October 13.

And click here for a story on the critics’ alternate ideas that emerged from a weekend discuss/design/sketch workshop staffed by volunteer architects and planners and organized by the Urban Design League on July 30. 

They included, in Orr’s phrase, “a glamorous and affordable esplanade” with a tree-filled median on the order of Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. Architect George Knight offerred a rendering of an active, high-density street connecting the beautiful Union Station building with Church Street.

Thursday night Winstanley, along with East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker and city economic development officials Kelly Murphy and Mike Piscitelli and Kelly Murphy, listened attentively as Urban Design League board member Ben Northrup reprised the major concerns.

Among them: Discrepancies between the city’s graphic presentations and the reality of its submissions pertaining to curb radii at College and Frontage streets, and the height of the Winstanley building.

Click here for the city’s plan as presented to the Community Development Committee.

Deputy Economic Development Director Piscitelli said that the project is so dynamic, with so many moving parts, that sometimes there is a difference between a graphic provided at a public meeting and what he called “progress prints.”

“Because of the timeline, the funding, and the need to develop jobs [that is, through fast-tracking the 100 College street building], it’s an open design process. It goes through iterations,” Piscitelli said.

Economic Development Director Murphy noted that there have been 55 public meetings about Downtown Crossing, with the next one specifically on the Winstanley building scheduled for Oct. 11 at the Wilson branch library in the Hill.

“Plans are not finished,” she insisted; “30 percent [of the design has been] submitted. Our job is to listen and take in all people’s commentary. That includes these people [the critics] and traffic engineers.That’s why we’re here.”

Ben Northrup several times expressed appreciation for the regulatory, funding, and time constraints under which city staff is working. But he remained skeptical.

“The full build-out [i.e. after Phase One] is very vague,” Northrup said. He also worried that decisions made in Phase One, such as the position of the entrance ramps, will preclude the development of smaller, more human-scale streets designed to promote active street life as well as connections between districts as the projects moves into further phases.

Piscitelli: “Now that we’re committed, [the question becomes]: How do we do the phase-in?”

“We want to see a good project done better. We don’t doubt the good intentions of the folks in City Hall. Part of our point is to build momentum and public support to give the folks in City Hall the backup to do what they know is right. That said, we are concerned about the radii” and other issues, Northrup said.

He noted the language of the TIGER grant calls for enhancing walkability and biking and connecting, not for making it easier to move cars. He issued a challenge for a reimagined Phase One so that the TIGER money could be used right away for connecting Temple and Orange. And he suggested that maybe even the Winstanley building could be divided into two parts, so it might front on two streets, giving more doors and more street life.

“The TIGER grant money should be spent on place-making, not on making more places for cars,” Northrup said.

Elicker, who had been listening in the back of the room, called the spirit of the discussion great. However, “our goals with the resolution are a little less ambitious. Our focus is making the streets more humane and reducing the scale,” he said.

He added that public safety is his paramount concern, and that perfection should not be the enemy of good: “I want to make sure the resolution is as practical and achievable as possible.”

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posted by: robn on October 10, 2011  11:30am

Too many bad ideas for temporary structures become permanent for any number of reasons including bureaucratic laziness). Stop fast-tracking bad ideas and just accept good ideas in the first place.

Incrementalism does not equal mediocrity.

posted by: HhE on October 10, 2011  11:51am

Thank you very much for covering this.  I wanted to go, but had a compelling family obligation.

As a city, we need to get this right, because whatever happens, we will be living with it for 50 years.

Why City Hall thinks making New Haven more car friendly for out of town commuters is beyond me.  With the increasing demand on fossil fuels, I believe that walkable cities, designed along the lines of street car build out (which is exactly what New Haven is, except for the bits that have been ruined) is the future.  I have lived in picturesque suburbia, and its quite nice if one has a motor car, ample petrol, and lots of money.  My brother’s house is in such a neighborhood, but he is also two blocks away from the T, and can walk to the shops.  When we commit to public transport and walking, we will be healthier and wealthier.

posted by: Name Withheld on October 10, 2011  11:52am

While driving on Route 34 during rush hour on Friday, I was completely appalled by the aggressive and dangerous behavior exhibited by suburban commuters. What a zoo!

So I asked a police officer why they don’t “rein it in”. He told me that they don’t have jurisdiction, and that enforcement would be up to the State Police. (has anyone ever seen a state trooper on the Connector?)

In any case, I would hope that the Mayor or some of our elected officials would lobby the State Police to do traffic enforcement on our interchanges, at least once or twice a week until the out-of-control behavior changes for the better.

Am I wrong, or is it that bad?

posted by: Icarus on October 10, 2011  12:23pm

To Name Witheld,

You are right. I drive on the connector almost everyday and it is by far the most dangerous road/highway I travel on. Cars merge aggressively from both sides of the connection. There are never, ever, cops on the connector and the road is now half dug up.

I have never seen anything like it.

posted by: HhE on October 10, 2011  1:17pm

Name Withheld, I have never seen a Police Officer on the connector.  Then again, I am hardly ever on the connector in part because it is so dangerous and unpleasant.  So, no, you are not wrong. 

Icarus, I have seen roads nearly as bad, but they were in China.

Well said, robn.

posted by: Paulette Cohen on October 10, 2011  2:58pm

The New Haven Urban Design League is grateful to Joe Schofield, Executive Director of CTV, for taping our annual meeting, which was devoted to presenting a broad overview of ideas developed during our interactive weekend community workshop, Envisioning Downtown Crossing.  Mr. Schofield is currently editing the tape, and hopes to have it on the air by mid-week.  At that time it will be possible to access the on air dates, and the program itself, at CTV’s website http://www.citizenstv.org.

Mr. Schofield will also devote another program to Robert Orr’s full power point presentation from the Urban Design League’s July workshop, hopefully as early as next week.  The full presentation is an excellent example of the breadth and depth of plans that can be developed when community groups and design professionals spend a weekend talking to each other in an environment structured for developing practical plans. Please keep checking http://www.citizenstv.org for updated information.

For additional information on the New Haven Urban Design League’s work contact:

Anstress Farwell—President
New Haven Urban Design League
203/624-6603

posted by: Paulette Coheb on October 10, 2011  3:57pm

Corrected contact info for NHUDL

Anstress Farwell, President
New Haven Urban Design League
129 Church Street Suite 419
New Haven, CT 06510
203 624 0175 t

posted by: anon on October 10, 2011  9:11pm

Astonishing that City Hall is moving forward with a plan that uses tens of millions of dollars in and City and State taxpayer funding, plus a $16 million Federal “livable cities” infrastructure grant, to make some of our most important streets even less accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists—effectively, barring them from using the streets.  

When Kelly Murphy mentions “those people,” she means the thousands of New Haveners (including many on city staff) who have volunteered untold hours at City workshops, and successfully helped pass multiple City, State and Federal laws that require the accommodation of all road users within sustainable developments.  In its present form, the Route 34 plan appears to violate every single one of these policies and requests.  

For example, Church Street, currently a popular route for children and families walking from the Hill to Downtown, will have far more dangerous pedestrian crossings after the road is widened.  Similarly, the City will widen College Street, possibly our downtown’s busiest commuter route, but will not provide any infrastructure for the hundreds of bicyclists who fuel our “meds and eds” economy by traveling along it each day.

The funding for reconstructing Route 34 and College Street was awarded as part of one of Obama’s “livable and healthy cities” grants.  Unfortunately for many, particularly our most disadvantaged residents, the legacy of this project may be to create precisely the opposite.  

posted by: first observer on October 10, 2011  9:44pm

The George Knight rendering of a street to connect Union Station to Church Street is EXACTLY what needs to be thought about and accomplished in connection with the redevelopment of the Church Street South housing complex.  NOW.

Is anyone else paying any attention to this essential idea—even more essential now than it was when a somewhat analogous idea formed part of the backbone of the Gilbert and Olmsted plan for New Haven of 1910—a hundred years ago?

The current mayor, feeling, at the moment, the pressure of a contested reelection campaign for a change, should be asked point-blank—does he support, will he work for, such an idea?  If reelected, will he make it happen?

posted by: Ben Northrup on October 10, 2011  10:49pm

Dear Justin,

Thanks for coming out to the event at the Library, and thanks for your support on urban issues.  I read your quote in the article above:

“Elicker, who had been listening in the back of the room, called the spirit of the discussion great. However, “our goals with the resolution are a little less ambitious. Our focus is making the streets more humane and reducing the scale,” he said.”

Given the urgency and importance of this issue, I respectfully write this open letter to challenge you to be a little more ambitious.  As you know, the importance of this project to New Haven cannot be understated.  This is at the core of New Haven, and will shape the City for decades.  It is our opportunity to write the final chapter on the one of the great disasters of urban renewal.  I’m afraid that with the City’s current plan—though well-intentioned—the story will remain incomplete.  We’ll have to come back again in the future to get it right.

The types of plans we are advocating are actually quite realistic.  They are being done in countless cities across America.  It may come as a surprise to learn that New Haven is behind the curve—we are not ambitious enough.  These approaches are based on the timeless principles of city building, which humans did instinctively for millenia, until the advent of the car and modern zoning.  The type of approach we are suggesting—which is more fine-grained and can be implemented incrementally—is more appropriate than ever right now with our current economic circumstances.  Wynstanley’s interest is a blessing, but projects of that size are few and far between.  We should certainly make room for Wynstanley’s building, and for future bio-medical expansion, but we can get more done by also platting some of the new blocks or adjacent parcels into smaller plots.  This will open the doors for smaller-scale investors, and help make the area a desirable place to be.  It is also good for democratic politics.

Finally, I would say that your less ambitious goals simply cannot be achieved without a more holistic approach.  If your goal is to reduce the scale, that is not just a matter of slimming down the streets (though that is critical.)  The building frontages are also critical to establishing a safe and well-scaled environment.  Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs first observed that the primary mechanism of urban safety is “eyes on the street”, which is achieved by having lots of windows on buildings that clearly face the street.  We don’t have to determine the style of the new buildings, but we should ensure good urban massing, appropriate scale, and adequate fenestration.

If we only pay attention to street design, and not to building frontages and platting the blocks, we could end up with a slice of Stamford.  If there were ever a site that deserved good urban design, it is this one.

I am encouraged to hear that Kelly Murphy is open to changing the plans, which are only at 30%.  I hope the Aldermen will encourage City Hall to rethink the Phase I infrastructure improvements, which should be a step towards a better, more clearly-defined vision for full build-out.

Yours truly,
Ben Northrup

posted by: DowntownRider on October 11, 2011  8:50am

I ride to work at YNNH and back home Downtown everyday. The worst part of the commute (by far) is the area of Rt. 34… I know this historically has been a bad area for accidents with walkers and bicyclists with cars, and as a tax payer I’m glad that the city is doing what it takes to work out a plan with residents involved that is looking to remedy this issue. I applaude both the city and the folks in the community as well as the UDL for all working together on what could be a great, positive addition to the city.

posted by: anon on October 11, 2011  1:29pm

DowntownRider: Your commute may actually get much worse, or even be impossible to do by bicycle, as a result of this “livability” project.  College Street is currently planned to be converted into a widened, higher speed, 5-lane one-way road with bus stops and on-street parking (similar to Elm Street downtown, which is widely acknowledged as one of the worst streets in the city to bike on).

It is not the only place where the pedestrian, bicyclist and transit user realm will be degraded by this project.

posted by: DowtownRider on October 11, 2011  2:07pm

@anon-

I don’t believe on what I’ve seen of the current plans that College Street will be much wider? I think N. Frontage is going to be 3-4 lanes wide at points, not College. And Elm really isn’t bad at all to ride on- I moved here from NYC a few years ago, and that is a normal city street. What do you expect? We live and ride in an urban environment… Lol. The fact that they’re putting in Bike only lanes alone is awesome!

posted by: Stephen Harris on October 11, 2011  2:49pm

Transportation planners have outdated models. They always seem to assume the future will be pretty much like the present, maybe more so. It won’t.

If we look at the world energy situation we can see that a heavy reliance on automobiles can’t be sustained due to cost; auto use will have to contract. Likewise the global economy will contract for the same reason. Multi-modal transit and a more localized economy will become the new reality.

In my opinion the City needs to get ready for this new reality now; waiting only makes the problem harder to solve. The City should plan and build truly multi-modal streets, convene a Peak Oil Task Force to prepare for a lower energy future and adopt a modern zoning ordinance to guide new development in a less car centric manner.

The alternate Rt. 34 ideas should be taken seriously.

posted by: Westville Mom on October 11, 2011  2:50pm

Unfortunately, it looks like this project was begun backwards.  The transition between the highway and city streets should have been resolved, at least from the organizational standpoint, before building on parcels.

Ironically, the flyover (which was not particularly welcomed by the design community) has turned out to be a dramatic entrance, which performs the second function of providing space and time for drivers to orient themselves as they enter the city—so that a quick transition to streets is more possible than previously with the shorter ramp.

The person with the power to provide pressure for better implementation of planning principles is Mr. Winstanley.  It was encouraging to see that he attended this event and seems genuinely engaged.  Can he be persuaded to modify his plans to accommodate more enlightened urban design and perhaps a cross street on his parcel?

To facilitate better understanding of the scale, I have posted a comparison of Rt. 34 and Upper West Side (NY) blocks.  Sometimes it helps to see things side by side.

New Haven’s blocks are more squarish in many cases, but their large overall size is counterproductive in the quest for a busier, more bustling city texture.  What’s needed is narrower streets, but more of them—and no ramps!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/new_haven/6235417644/in/photostream

posted by: anon on October 11, 2011  2:55pm

DowtownRider: I know you left there a few years ago, but you should be aware that over the past few years, New York City has installed separated cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes on major streets and avenues throughout the entire city.

Some folks might like a simple bike lane right next to 4 lanes of speeding traffic and merging on-ramps, but many people do not.  That’s a basic principle of engineering now used in tens of thousands of other cities worldwide.

I’m glad you mentioned NYC, which was key in developing the latest and most progressive design manuals for pedestrian and bike friendly streets that are usable for everyone, not just bridge and tunnel commuters.  Let’s follow their example.

posted by: Curious on October 11, 2011  2:58pm

What about all the cars that routinely run the stoplights on N and S Frontage where they intersect Dwight and Howe, and that routinely speed down those streets when the lights are green?  Is that going to be even worse?

posted by: Icarus on October 11, 2011  3:05pm

Downtown rider is correct about this. Frontage roads are impossible to ride on right now. Suggesting it could be worse is insane and shows how stubborn some folks have become.

I am unsure why so many posters cannot fathom the idea of compromising their exact beliefs in order to move this project forward. It is delusional. The area is so bad right now that even just paving the roads would be an improvement.

If this project falls through because of the selfish and over the top demands of the “Urban Design League” it would be a missed opportunity for New Haven.

posted by: Ben Northrup on October 11, 2011  3:37pm

@Downtown Rider:  I appreciate your enthusiasm for good urbanism and your commitment to cycling.  However, I have to take issue with some of your comments.  I’m guessing your a young male, based on your comfort with riding on NYC streets.  That’s fine.  I’m also pretty comfortable cycling in most conditions.  But we have to recognize that what suits us is not necessarily suitable for many women, children, the elderly, and the disabled.  We live in a society that has given itself over to the automobile, but fully half the population does not drive because they are too young, too old, or unable.  We need to be careful not to perpetuate similar biases in our urban design.

New York City is wonderful, but it is only one type of urbanism—the most extreme urbanism in the United States, in terms of density and hectic lifestyles.  It suits many, but there are other models of urbanism that appeal to a broader range of Americans.  We may have a hard time luring folks out of the suburbs if the only choice is Manhattan.  The one-way, north-south avenues in New York City are arguably not the greatest strength of New York as a city.  The traffic is much too fast and the sidewalks too narrow.  They work because there is no alternative within the confines of Manhattan.  But if you could somehow lay in a good multi-way boulevard in place of one of the Avenues, I would be willing to wager folks would choose to live, work, and play on the boulevard instead of the adjacent avenues.

I, for one, think Elm Street in New Haven is badly in need of repair.  The pedestrians on Yale campus who have to cross it several times a day are in near universal agreement.  Something about the geometry seems to encourage motorists to threaten pedestrians.  The architecture is spectacular.  Imagine what that street was like before WWII!  It would not be hard to restore two-way traffic and widen the sidewalks.

Unfortunately, the City of New Haven explicitly regards Elm Street and Church Street, in their current condition, as acceptable models.  When asked about new streets in the Route 34 redevelopment, they point specifically to these streets.  I find this quite disturbing.  It is no wonder the proposed project is so problematic.

At one time, our cities were much more hospitable, comfortable places.  It is possible to restore that humane, gracious, bustling atmosphere if we put a priority on the pedestrian experience.  This will de facto create a good bicycling environment, with less need for special, segregated bike facilities.

posted by: anon on October 11, 2011  3:56pm

Icarus - Sure, let’s take your point and assume that the Frontage Roads would be “improved” for pedestrians by widening them and striping a bike lane in a couple spots.  But then what about the status of College and Church, which are the main commuter routes for so many of our residents going to and from the hospital, train station, and Hill?

posted by: SteveOnAvon on October 12, 2011  6:08am

While there are a lot of very good points being made and I always learn a lot from the discussions here, I find it a bit alarming that there is no mention of Yale, YNHH, and the medical school here. Whenever I’ve looked at what is going on with the proposed Route 34 projects, what jumps out is the degree to which this project is about expansion of Yale’s medical campus. I hope people are concerned about the issues Name WIthheld brings to light, because this isn’t just about “car-centrism,” it’s about creating a structure that basically facilitates easy in-and-out access to the city for the bio-medical people.

posted by: StateSt on October 12, 2011  6:53am

@Ben Northrup

do you really think women are less capable of crossing a busy street than men are?  I’m a female who manages to comfortably cross Elm Street as a pedestrian several times a day.  Its offensive that you lump women in with children, the elderly, and the disabled as people who need help crossing the street.

posted by: Ben Northrup on October 12, 2011  9:58am

@StateSt:  No offense intended.  My actual point was about bicycling, not crossing the street, but point taken:  there are lots of male bicyclists who are not comfortable biking on busy streets like Elm Street, and there are lots of women who are.

But this does not obviate the larger point, which is that pedestrians and bicyclists who don’t mind taking risks, regardless of gender, need to be mindful that there are large segments of the population, both male and female, who flee our cities because of these stressful and dangerous conditions.  In almost every case, these undesirable conditions have been created where they did not exist sixty years ago because we put such emphasis on the automobile.  We narrowed sidewalks, we widened travel lanes, and we made streets one-way, all in a fruitless, and ultimately self-defeating, bid to compete with the suburbs on suburban terms.  The best way to compete with the suburbs is to offer a genuinely urban alternative, where different modes of transportation are balanced, but the pedestrian experience is given priority.

posted by: HhE on October 12, 2011  9:10pm

Icarus, I do not find the “demands” of the Urban Design League over the top or selfish.  They have wisely pointed out systemic problems with the design, and—unlike most naysayers in this world—have proposed sound alternatives.

(Or maybe they are selfish since they take pleasure from good urban design, and not from pedestrian death traps.)

As bad as it is ( was on it tonight, and hated getting off 34 and into a left hand lane), it could be worse.  What is really scary is how if we get it wrong, how long it will stay wrong.

posted by: Icarus on October 13, 2011  9:50am

HhE,

I apologize for calling them selfish. That was childish. Just pointing out that if it does not get done on this grant, nothing will ever get done considering the financial burdens.