Instead of Reclaiming a Despised Highway, New Haven Plans a Close Replica

The “most defacing scar from the 1960’s Urban Renewal era” — that’s how local advocates describe the Route 34 Expressway through downtown New Haven. Just about a year and a half ago, this small New England city won a TIGER grant to heal that scar. But another disfiguration may be growing in its place.

New Haven won federal support for its plan to tear down the Route 34 Expressway. But the city is on a course to build something similar in its place. Photo: ##http://www.cnu.org/highways/freewayswithoutfutures2012#Section3##CNU.org##

The city’s plan to dismantle about one mile of the road in 2016 was sold as a way to open up 11 acres of downtown land to development and increase walkability and connectivity. But local advocates are sounding the alarm that it’s starting to look like 1960 all over again. Instead of reclaiming urban fabric from car infrastructure, New Haven is dangerously close to replacing one urban freeway with another urban freeway.

Last week an independent group called the New Haven Urban Design League issued a scathing, 30-page report titled “A Highway Rebuilt, Not Removed” [PDF]. In it, the League — one of the biggest proponents of the highway teardown — says the city of New Haven should scrap its current plans to build a partially grade-separated, limited access roadway and begin the process from scratch, with a public planning process.

“Essentially, the highway is being re-configured and re-built rather than removed,” the report states. “We don’t feel that $30 million in public funds … should be used to create a plan that fails.”

The problems with the existing plan are many, the League says. The plan contains two four-lane roads, less than a block apart — an “eight-lane monstrosity,” according to Norm Garrick, a transportation specialist at the University of Connecticut.

The plan doesn’t add any cross streets, obliterating any claims to improving the street grid. Furthermore, much of the new roadway design would be sunken below grade, portions of which the League claims could create an “even more formidable barrier to connectivity than the previous formation.”

The idea to tear down Route 34 began with a push from the Urban Design League in 2004. After a series of public meetings, the organization, working with other advocacy groups, was able to win city support for the tear-down concept, plus $5 million for engineering studies. But the actual planning phase was held up by a peculiarity of Connecticut state law. The planning process had to be put on hold for a year and a half while the regulation was revised.

Meanwhile, Carter Winstanley, a prominent developer and owner of a local biomedical firm, hired a design team and developed a plan of his own. The plan centered around the construction of a large office building to house his firm — complete with a 800-space parking garage (which would add to a 2,600-space structure nearby) — in the existing highway trench. At first the city said it was out of the question, said Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League. After all, the public had been completely left out of the planning process.

But city officials changed their tune when the TIGER program launched and the feds started offering millions for “shovel-ready projects.” The city took up the Winstanley plan and won $16.5 million to make it a reality.

Farwell was surprised that the Winstanley plan, with all its shortcomings, won the highly competitive grant.

“There’s an astounding amount of parking in this area,'” she said. “We thought, ‘How could they even look at a project that has an 800-car garage attached to a 2,600 car garage?'”

Meanwhile, City Hall has been less than responsive to public misgivings about the plan. The League organized public workshops last summer to gather ideas to improve the plan, but so far they haven’t swayed officials to adopt changes.

The Urban Design League says even without eliminating the Winstanley building and parking garage, the plan could still be salvaged if “adequate traffic, transit, market and environmental studies” are conducted and the remaining portion is reworked with the project’s original goals in mind. But time is running out. Under the terms of the grant, the city needs to obligate the funds for the project by September of this year.

“This is public land. I think you really have to engage in a public process, you really have to work with the intelligent desires of the public when they come out to public meetings,” said Farwell. “We’re not going to have this opportunity again.”

  • CNU Fan

    Norquist, one of the nation’s most respected urban leaders, called this “the worst highway project since the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska”.

  • Omartson

    I live in the Dwight neighborhood and see the massive development going on. We need to integrate the existing neighborhoods together not create more divisions. The TIGER grant should be used for developing a urban setting not for a single developer lab building.

  • Elizabeth Benton

    Downtown Crossing seeks to remove the Route 34 Connector and replace it with a street grid that not only reclaims nearly 11 acres of key developable downtown land, but also creates a safe, vibrant, and inviting environment for pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit users, and drivers alike.  New Haven was very fortunate to receive $16 million in competitive federal TIGER II funds for the first phase of this effort. The City requested $40 million. Of over 1,000 applications, only 42 were funded nationwide. The City shares the Urban Design League’s vision of a dense, mixed use, transit enabled, walkable, bikable downtown. But we cannot get there overnight, particularly when we are talking about removing a major highway with ambulance and delivery traffic. Traffic can be tamed, diverted, and managed, but it cannot be abruptly stopped. We have to get there step by step, street by street, and building by building. The Phase I work funded by the TIGER II grant is the first step in an ambitious effort. The current Route 34 Connector is a speedway with no accommodations for pedestrians or cyclists. The re-envisioned street grid introduces a broad array of traffic calming measures designed to create a safe and inviting environment. The new streets will feature bicycle lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, raised cross walks, exclusive pedestrian walk phases, and on-street parking. The new streets will be consistent with other downtown streets, and in some cases will be narrower than streets such as Elm Street that currently enjoy a rich mix of uses by pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit users, and drivers. There have been more than 70 public meetings in neighborhoods across the City regarding the Downtown Crossing project. Experts across a variety of fields have been consulted, as have elected officials and neighborhood activists, including members of the Urban Design League. The City’s project team includes highly regarding traffic engineers, architects, urban designers, and economists. The Urban Design League is asking the City to spend thousands of dollars, and to delay progress on this important project for an undetermined amount of time, in order to hire a specific firm to host another public meeting. The City has previously considered the “charette” model discussed in the report, but found that it would cost about $350,000 and take at least eight months to organize and execute. That kind of delay would cause the City to default on its federal grant agreement.This project is too important to delay. The first development at Downtown Crossing, 100 College Street, is projected to bring in more than $1 million in annual tax revenue and hundreds of new permanent jobs. As many as 4,000 new permanent jobs will be created as the full 10-plus acre Downtown Crossing development is completed. These economic benefits are in addition to the public safety and public health benefits that come from removing a highway and replacing it with a vibrant street grid and mixed-use community. Elizabeth BentonDirector of CommunicationsCity of New Haven165 Church StreetNew Haven, CT 06510(203) 946-7660 (office)(203) 675-8291 (cell)ebenton@newhavenct.net

  • L.Yeostros

    The destruction and elimination of the RT34 Connector is the ultimate act of NIMBYism.  While I whole heartly support good urban design at the pedestrian level, the impact on the regional transportation infrastructure is less than optimal.  The entire highway should have been placed underground all the way to the Boulevard.  The road that will replace it will be always congested as RT34 is a critical link in the Merrit-Cross/I-95 system of highways.  The lack of regional planning considerations will mark any future plans to contious traffic and congestion

  • douglasawillinger

    ‘Downtown Crossing’ is a boondoggle- 34 should have remained underground as intended with the Air Rights garage, what they have now built needs removal, not this putting all of the vehicular traffic upon the service roads.

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