Urbanists Sketch Garage-Free Union Ave.

Christopher Peak PhotoTwo 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.

CHAFor 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.

In recent years, the city government has been asking for permission to build the garage itself, complete with retail shops and a bus depot, on the state-owned land.

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?

Christopher Peak PhotoOn 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.

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posted by: ItsGettingBetter on January 7, 2019  9:43am

This is great. We don’t need a parking garage. If we did it needs to play second fiddle to any public space, residential or commercial development that should be occupying this location.

@Gioa et al, Check out http://CouldBeFund.com for opportunities to activate public spaces throughout downtown over the next year.

posted by: 1644 on January 7, 2019  10:26am

What happened to this plan? https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/new_tod_vision_for_union_station_unveiled/
We do need parking, as evidence by the coliseum site usage, but that need not exclude some retail and residential. Most of all, Union Ave should be shifted away from the station for a larger drop-off/pick-up area.

posted by: Noteworthy on January 7, 2019  11:30am

It’s amazing how big the ideas get when spending other people’s money. Ok. Don’t build the damn garage, don’t take another 600 cars off the road. Keep it a surface lot. But don’t tell statewide taxpayers to pay for your wet dreams of development especially when the Harp House abetted by the rubbetstamping BOA, keep giving away our tax base.

posted by: Patricia Kane on January 7, 2019  11:58am

It’s great to see some 21st century planning instead of the 1950s approach to dead space for cars.

posted by: Brewski on January 7, 2019  12:15pm

Some great ideas, but I’m not so sure about those residential towers. Idling trains make a lot of noise, specifically low frequency noise which is challenging to dissipate.

posted by: BhuShu on January 7, 2019  12:50pm

Bottom line is parking is a bitch and we definitely do need space but put it underground that’s the best solution. Use the pre-existing parking attached to the train station for people who are handicapped, The generation of baby boomers is booming in terms of handicap need for parking and why shouldn’t they travel and use the train.  Walking a big distance would be too hard on them no one is considering disability issues . Love the beer garden and development idea however before we have more abandon apartments make sure they would actually get filled take a survey of who would want to live where trains are coming in and out it would have to be a very well insulated building .  Let’s have some nice restaurants and food place options it is awful to have just Dunkin’ Donuts take a look at what they did with Grand Central to get a better idea of what New Haven could be as a hub. And one dayIf the state ever got wise enough to put in a rapid train bringing you into the city within 30 minutes New Haven would be booming there would not be the tax issues everyone is facing however Yale needs to assume much more responsibility than it has instead of weaning what it should be paying in tax’s onto city taxpayers.

posted by: __quinnchionn__ on January 7, 2019  1:23pm

I love the idea of there being residential towers with office space, a public plaza, restaurants and shops instead of another parking garage for the train station. Long term I think it will better serve the area much more for sure. I honestly think it would be even better if there was a bus station included with that plan.

My personal idea for Union Avenue was for there to be a two-way cycle track as a median with only one travel lane for traffic in both directions. On both ends of Union Avenue there should be a speed hump just to give drivers a hint that they shouldn’t go fast through the area. The buses should have their own lane only to pick up and drop off people in front of Union Station. A lot of the bus stops should be upgraded too. Especially locations where lots of people are known to commute to and from. I always thought that it would be a smart idea to put a roundabout right at the intersection where Union Avenue and Church Street (South) connects.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on January 7, 2019  1:26pm

With all respect to Anstress et al., the question is not whether you use the $60 million authorized for the garage or for other developments. I suspect Gov. Lamont and the legislature would be open to changes in the DOT, including some of those proposed in the charette. But I doubt they would be OK with using the bulk of the funding for non-transportation purposes.

The proposed garage would be funded by state bonds backed by revenues generated by the garage. The economic development projects proposed in the charette could be funded by tax increment financing. I think this is worth exploring. But TIF is an entirely different funding mechanism. The TIF bonds would be issued by or on behalf of the city, backed by growth in tax revenue, and would use different underwriting procedures.

Having said that, I think it would be prudent for the state to re-do its economic analysis of the garage. When the garage was proposed Uber, Lyft, etc. were far less commonly used. I suspect they are routinely a cheaper option than parking in the garage at this time. In the longer run, self-driving cars pose a real threat to parking economics. They won’t be on the market soon, but the bonds issued for the garage will run for 20 years.

posted by: new havener on January 7, 2019  3:02pm

this was a really neat trick. very well played.

attempt to get buy-in to a pie-in-the-sky concept by including a beer-garden.

nice. but it won’t work.

posted by: Annie on January 7, 2019  4:09pm

What’s missing from this article is the robust discussion about municipal tax revenue from private development around a train station. We analyzed Stamford and just four of the uses around the train station bring $10 million to the city. Those properties would pay millions less if they weren’t trying so hard to grab the limited SF right around the train station.

What if New Haven were a destination, instead of an origination. With all the innovation and entrepreneurial uses beginning to explode in New Haven, it’s not out of the question. Many more transit lines converge on New Haven than any other city in Connecticut, including Stamford. No other city in the country would give up that platinum deal for a non-tax paying garage providing 350 free spaces to transit personnel, and sucking free city services and infrastructure benefits year after year.

posted by: Brian Tang on January 7, 2019  4:39pm

A public-private partnership in Minneapolis built a parking garage designed for an office tower to be tacked on top in some future year.
Here is the existing parking garage: https://goo.gl/maps/B7Mm4VYUpuQ2
Here is the planned addition: http://www.mplsbuild.com/projects/block-one-office-tower/
The footprint of the tower will be about half above the parking garage and half on the turf area visible in the Street View link.

posted by: Cove'd on January 7, 2019  5:19pm

The biggest thing here is that if a mixed-use development on the parking lot site was to be built, it would almost certainly bring in a lot more tax revenue to the City of New Haven than that from a new big parking garage next to Union Station.  Last I checked the city is in financial hard times.  We need the tax revenue more than hundreds of additional motorists driving to/from the Union Station area each day.  Those hundreds more motorists would be better off taking the train in via Shore Line East or Hartford Line to then connect to Metro North or Amtrak at Union Sta.  That or take the bus in, bike in, or park and walk from further away.  The more people on-foot the better.  Spend some of the $60M to improve train and bus frequency, and retrofit Union Avenue to be safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.  This would be a benefit to CTDOT as well - more people hoping on transit closer to their homes (instead of driving to Union Station) means fewer cars clogging the highway, less pollution, fewer crashes, and more ridership on other state investments like the new Hartford Line.

posted by: wendy1 on January 7, 2019  11:52pm

This city has enough parking lots and garages and dirty air.  The age of automobiles is over.  Union Ave has enough ugly buildings not to mention an “electrical garden” of high voltage whatnots and transformers.  Read Currents of Death to learn about the hazards of electromagnetic radiation.

posted by: missthenighthawks on January 8, 2019  10:05pm

It’s a train station.  Train stations need passengers.  There isn’t enough parking. If you use it at all you know that when you try to catch a train and miss it because you have to park somewhere else.  Try as we may, we aren’t going to get enough people to bike, walk, take a bus, or take another train connection to get to Union Station, its only wishful thinking.  It just isn’t going to happen no matter how hard we try. Just look at the aldermen as a case in point. Are they all biking or taking a city bus to city meetings - No, and they live here. Even self-driving cars, at least the earliest ones, will need a parking spot, and my guess is I wont be able to afford one.
I would strongly support adding housing or retail to a new garage design, but we need to look at the problems that exist today, and most likely for at least the next 20 years.  Build the garage with the State’s money.

posted by: new havener on January 9, 2019  12:13am

Interesting take on this…

We don’t need cars, the age of cars is over…

We don’t need electrical substations, they cause cancer…

We need to ride bikes…

Well, next time you want to take a train(your choice, clean electric or dirty diesel), ride a bike or walk, those are the options. No thanks.

These are the the most utopian/nirvana-esque, visions of a regressive future I never would have imagined.

I like my car, I like my independence, I enjoy taking the train up and down to NY & DC, and I’d like an expanded garage. And throw in a bier-garten at Union Station. Please.

posted by: RobotShlomo on January 9, 2019  2:53pm

“The age of cars is over”.

To quote Jeremy Clarkson; “Rubbish!”.

Not as long as it takes OVER AN HOUR to go from Fair Haven to Hamden by bus, and that’s IF the buses are running on time (which they never are), and it takes ten minutes by car.

I know how many in New Haven have this fantasy of the city being populated by hipster Millennial “freelance graphic artists” dressing like lumberjacks living a hundred miles from the nearest tree, overpaying for Soviet style apartments, who ride a penny farthing to an office once a week and shop at an organic co-op, the reality is it is never going to happen. Surely not as long as the public transit system in the U.S. is hilariously underfunded, and still running routes from the 1950’s.

You want to go from being New Haven to being Copenhagen or Amsterdam overnight, but without actually addressing the other things that factor in it. Those cities have robust transit systems and much, much smaller areas per square mile. We don’t. It’s the same strategy that New Haven has employed. Make a few token changes, ignore the elephants in the room, and then sit back and HOPE things get better. As we all know hope is not a strategy.

posted by: Brewski on January 9, 2019  3:27pm

I think there’s an important point here that many posters are missing. An increase in parking largely benefits suburbanites who drive to the station from miles around to commute to jobs elsewhere. In exchange for providing this regional benefit, New Haven is losing out on significant tax income from what could be very valuable commercial properties adjacent to a transportation hub. There are other sites for parking nearby. And maybe if you build a bigger garage, more people will come to fill that bigger garage, solving nothing. These people are trying to envision what is best for the city in the long term.

posted by: Cove'd on January 9, 2019  3:52pm

This is not a black and white, cars vs no cars thing.  What this is, however, is the argument between (1) wanting development at this site that’ll help lower our mill rate vs. (2) some folks not wanting to sometimes have to walk a few blocks.

posted by: wendy1 on January 11, 2019  5:36pm

Listen, forward thinkers always get laughed at and that’s a good thing.  Laughing and humor is one treatment for cancer and I’m all for it.

P.S.  I use and love Metro North.  I can walk to the station.