What’s the purpose of a war memorial in a shopping district? To honor history? To protest future conflicts? To shade shoppers? Or to serve as the launch point for a bike ride home?
Members of the City Plan Commission said they aren’t exactly sure. But that uncertainty led them this week to table plans for a proposed bike-share station and accompanying ad panel near the Civil War Memorial on Broadway and to call on alders to take another look at the program before it expands deeper into six neighborhoods.
The commissioners said that they still strongly back Bike New Haven’s mission to provide alternative forms of transit. But they said they hadn’t initially realized what was coming along with it when they approved the first set of stations.
Now that they’d seen the eight-foot-by-five-foot, double-sided advertisements for fast food and beer on sidewalks around the Elm City, they said they felt uncomfortable giving away more public space without having decision-makers revisit whether the program’s worth it for New Haven.
“It’s not a problem with the bike share,” said Commissioner Leslie Redcliffe, a Hill resident who chaired the meeting. “It’s those doggone ad panels and what goes on them.”
“It’s one of those classic trade-offs,” said Michael Piscitelli, the city’s deputy economic development administrator.
“But what I think we’re realizing is that we’re not comfortable with those trade-offs anymore,” Radcliffe said. “We saw what those tradeoffs could be. The onus is on us: we didn’t take that into consideration initially.”
The commissioners technically don’t have power to halt the expansion, because the city doesn’t need their approval to build in the public right-of-way. And the city itself exchanged rights to public ad space for a subsidy-free bike share, according to the terms of a five-year contract alders approved in May 2017 with a subsidiary of P3 Global Management (P3GM), the New York-based company that runs the program.
In back-to-back unanimous decisions at the meeting Wednesday night at City Hall, the City Plan Commission voted to table site plan approvals for two proposed downtown bike-share stations and to approve 13 other docking ports. Commissioners also agreed to send a detailed memo recommending that the Board of Alders City Services & Environmental Policy Committee review the program, its siting process and its roll-out.
The two stations and ad panels that the commission put on hold were planned for 296 Elm St., on the median across from the old Trailblazer store, and 160 Temple St., adjacent to the plaza between Temple Grill and Pitaziki Mediterranean Grill.
Two more stations and one ad panel will finish up the original round of 30 installations:
- 8 Park St., across from Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital.
- 15 Church St., between Gateway Community College and the Knights of Columbus headquarters.
- 50 Union Ave., near the train station.
A planned expansion to 10 additional stations will bring bikes farther from the city center:
- To the Hill, 695 Washington Ave., outside of Truman School.
- To West River, 35 Sherman Ave. and 467 Legion Ave., both near the edge of a stretch demolished a half-century ago during urban renewal for Route 34.
- To Edgewood, 1471 Chapel St., across from Yale-New Haven Hospital’s St. Raphael Campus, and 468 Whalley Ave., by the Sherwin-Williams Paint Store and Walgreens.
- To Beaver Hills, 501 Crescent St., on Southern Connecticut State University’s campus.
- To Newhallville, 714 Dixwell Ave., near Visels Pharmacy close to the Farmington Canal.
- To Fair Haven, 163 Chapel St., about a block from Fairhaven Furniture, and 470 James St., on private property at the District technology park, paid for by the owners.
Designs that were planned for 351 Long Wharf Dr., by the pier, and 927 Whalley Ave., by a Westville parking lot, were both pulled before the meeting, said Matthew Finelli, P3GM’s operations manager.
Those stations were picked through a combination of user input and data, including proximity to activity and employment hubs, transportation connections and usage and census figures.
At each dock, users can log into a mobile app to check out bikes for 45 minutes on a per-ride, daily, monthly, or annual basis. They can ride to their destination and relock the bike at a new station.
So far, six months in, users have made over 8,600 trips, cycling over 4,700 miles across the city.
Currently, 2,300 users have made an account that gives them a chance to buy single rides. Over 440 multi-use passes have been sold, including 41 annual passes, 90 monthly passes and 25 discounted memberships. The company said it did not have statistics on the number of unique users who’ve taken a ride so far.
Bike New Haven’s team is most proud of the results from a survey of roughly 160 riders, in which one-quarter said they would have made the trip by car without a bike share, said Carolyn Lusch, the program manager.
No one took issue with those numbers, but five residents, including a neighbor who wasn’t notified and one active bike-share user, all testified that they just can’t look past the signs. They said that the public is ceding its walkways to an “advertising company with bicycles,” as Dick Lyons phrased it.
“We’re talking about the long-term lease of public space to private, commercial interests,” added Lucile Bruce, who’s organized local opposition to the ad panels. “That is not something that we should take lightly.”
Bruce and others took exception to the company’s decision to move a planned station across Broadway. The other side of the street, between Barnes & Noble and Patagonia, is too crowded, so the company planned to put it near the 1905 memorial to Connecticut regiments that had fought in the Civil War.
Plopping an ad panel on the corner, squarely facing the monument, “would cheapen this memorial site” and “effectively block this park from view,” Bruce argued. She added that it might impair drivers from noticing pedestrians at the curb.
“Why are we even considering doing damage to this restoration and the public investment of time and resources that it represents? Many U.S. cities are doing the opposite, delving into their histories and installing new signage to commemorate the past,” Bruce said. “We should be joining this movement, inviting resident visitors to think about the past and its impact on the present-day, rather than obscuring places of historic value behind large commercial advertising signs.”
Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League, added that it was unclear what made one side of Broadway so much busier than the other, requiring the station to be placed so close to the monument.
That points to a larger problem, she said, with a lack of clarity around the guidelines for where stations should be placed.
“There aren’t clear standards,” Farwell said. “How do you judge busyness? How do you judge the impact on one commercial establishment versus the public interest in a beautiful park? And which businesses have more of a role? If you have McDonalds advertised in front of Lalibella’s, is that fair?”
The commissioners agreed that the city should reevaluate the program, now that its initial rollout is almost complete.
City Plan Commissioner and Westville Alder Adam Marchand, who serves on the City Services & Environmental Policy Committee that originally vetted the program, said that he’d been shocked by the actual size of the ad panels once they were installed, even though the company had presented documents in hearings.
Now that decision-makers had that life-size view, he said, they can better judge how to proceed with the bike share.
“I think we have learned something that we didn’t quite know before,” Marchand said. “We had a few ads on buses and trash-cans; it’s not like the public right of way is completely devoid of commercial information. It’s there, but it’s not like the Strip in Vegas.
“I do think we need to know where that line is, how clear or cluttered we want our streetscapes and our walkways,” he added. “I think this issue has really been instructive, because at the time I was excited to approve this program — and I still am for its benefits for what it brings to the city — but those ad panels do look a lot bigger in life than in a schematic.”
Marchand suggested tabling the station near the war memorial, saying that was the most concerning to him, while letting alders know about their thoughts on the process overall.
He said he wasn’t sure what could be done at this point, whether the alders could amend the five-year contract with P3GM — if that’s what the committee would even want to do.