Two 10-story residential towers, skirted by businesses and artist lofts. A village of shipping containers, arrayed by young architects. An outdoor beer garden. Protected bike lanes. Parks and plazas.
Fifteen New Urbanist advocates presented those ideas as better alternatives to a massive new parking garage at Union Station.
The experts — architects, engineers, planners and developers with practices in New Haven — came up with those alternative plans for the proposed 1,015-space, seven-level parking garage that the state wants to plop down on the current surface parking lot near the train station at an expected cost of $60 million later this year.
The dreaming and scheming took place during a two-day “charrette” (a solution-mapping brainstorming session) hosted by the Urban Design League, held Friday and Saturday in the basement of the Ives Branch public library. There, 15 professionals heard from neighbors and commuters, then turned the feedback into visions for what could rise from the surface parking lot on Union Avenue, right next to the existing city-run Union Station garage and across the street from the the Police Department headquarters.
“Do you spend $60 million to take 1,000 cars off the highway every day from commuters or do you use that for building up the tax base with a hotel, a company headquarters or shops?” asked Anstress Farwell, the Urban Design League’s president.
For almost a quarter-century, the city and the state have been wrangling over building a second parking garage at the train station, intended for commuters who often have no place to park on weekdays.
Within the last few months, as Gov. Danell P. Malloy (who publicly said he wouldn’t budge in the negotiations) leaves office, the city’s position seems to have shifted yet again.
Maybe there shouldn’t be a second parking garage at all, New Haven’s leading urbanists have argued. They’ve been clamoring for more more residential, retail and office space by the train station in what’s known as “transit-oriented development.” Their arguments reflect the move in city circles toward embracing “New Urbanism” principles in development — dense, mixed-use blocks geared to people rather than cars.
City officials have said they’re open to a more forward-thinking design, and the incoming gubernatorial administration has said it’s also listening.
The designs that the professionals sketched out on Saturday were positioned as real alternatives to the parking garage. Aaron Goode, a member of Urban Design League’s board, said he wanted to offer choices, not just criticisms, and proactive plans for the whole area, not just a response to one project.
Big Development Or Millennial Self-Builders?
On Saturday afternoon — after five mad hours of brainstorming and argument with no time for bathroom or snack breaks — four working groups each presented their vision for the public.
Two of them shared early examples of the types of mixed-use developments that they’d prefer to go up instead of a second parking garage.
In the first, Fereshteh Bekhrad and Rick Weis proposed a unified development with an underground parking lot, a raised walkway of retail outlets and then towers of apartments and offices.
“What’s developed here over the last 50 years is dysfunctional streets and layouts along this avenue. On Union, really the one viable, street-friendly building is just the train station. Everything else has been antithetical to access,” Wies said. “We were making sure a site could respond to future changes and set the tone as Church Street South gets redeveloped.”
In total, they imagined two 10-story residential towers with eight 750-square-foot units on each floor. Those residences would add vibrancy, especially after hours, Bekhrad said, while right now, it feels “so dead and ugly.”
In the second, Robert Orr suggested letting a series of designers make their mark on the area, using pre-fab containers as a building blocks. They’d be double-stacked, with half the units facing the street and half facing an inner courtyard. Echoing Yale’s residential colleges, a tower would look over Meadow Street.
“This could be built by a developer or many small developers, out of pre-manufactured containers that you can stack so that it’s very inexpensive. Then, you just clad it with something appealing,” Orr said. “We think that it’s practically doable and dynamic.”
Christopher “Kip” Bergstrom, a consultant leading the state’s Innovation Places program, said that he thought that type of project would up the Elm City’s “coolness factor.”
“What would take it off the charts is if we took all of our surface-parking lots in the city, parcelize them, entitle them with permissive zoning and allow millennial self-builders to build their own creative habitat,” he said. “It won’t look finished for 10 or 15 years, but that’s how New York and London and every good piece of urbanism got built: It was piecemeal.
“We have to get out of the big-developer idea, and unleash the energy of millennial self-builders and small-cap developers,” Bergstrom added. “Especially for us. Why would a millennial want to be in New Haven rather than Brooklyn? Because we’re smaller, they can actually help make the space. If you can literally allow them to physically build the place, that’s cool.”
The “Purgatorial Knuckle”
Another group looked at the wider area around the parking lot.
The group said the other spot that needs the most attention is the underpass at the intersection of Water, State and Union. They called it the “purgatorial knuckle,” “the creepy tunnel,” and “the sigh under the bridge.” They proposed putting a beer garden underneath, if the city could figure out how to not interfere with the electrical transformers.
“What is now a dark hole may become a usable space,” said Gioia Connell, a dual-degree student at Yale’s Architecture and Forestry Schools.
The group also suggested making use of Church Street South’s construction site as an interim parking lot to test if demand for spots would change in the next few years.
“Why not drive 500 cars there and see?” asked architect Ben Ledbetter. “The danger in that is that everyone relies on that parking lot.”
If the need remained, they added, placing a garage at the other end of the block might be better, closer to Church Street. That layout would book-ended the century-old train station, rather than placing it at the end of the block.
“Fine Line” On Transit
While the charrette’s attendees largely agreed that the state should put the brakes on the parking garage, figuring out what will go in its place instead will likely be a more contentious process.
That’s especially important, though, as the whole area changes, with other projects moving ahead simultaneously to erect housing at Church Street South and the Coliseum site, develop Long Wharf (including with Yale-New Haven Hospital’s new primary-care facility), reconnect the Hill-to-Downtown Crossing, and possibly even move the Police Department headquarters.
“To me, I look at it as basically an open canvass. But you also have to look at it [in the context] of how you are utilizing it in the city,” said Bill Long, a semi-retired architect who lives downtown. “Do we want to be proactive and really push mass transit and do off-site parking? Is that the best use of that area for the people that live there? Is it the best use for the people that are traveling to Union Station every day and [commuting]? It’s a fine line there.”
Several attendees pointed out that whatever development arrives on Union Avenue would have to play by the rules of the market, not just the principles of New Urbanism. If shops are barely hanging on in the Ninth Square, would retail be able to survive by the train station? Would anyone pay to live next to an active rail-yard? Would anyone actually ride a CT Transit bus to Union Station?
Some also didn’t see it the proposal as a hard choice between individual cars and public transit.
Jeff King, a Wooster Square resident, said he wants to see Union Avenue become “nicer than it was,” less like a “hit-and-run-kind of place.” To him, that meant both more parking and more retail. In particular, King added he wanted another dining option in the area than Sbarro’s and Dunkin’ Donuts inside the train station.
In the end, who’d be responsible for deciding what the area ends up looking like? “All of us, when there’s publicly-owned land and public money,” Farwell said. “I’m like a dog with a bone: We have every right to be involved when it comes out of our pocket.”
The project engineer at the Connecticut Department of Transportation is accepting comments through Jan. 8, either by emailing John.Wyskiel@ct.gov or by calling 860-594-3303.