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A Failure of Design in Downtown New Haven

9:48 AM EDT on June 17, 2009

Today, from Design New Haven, a tale of two shopping plazas. 

One, anchored by a Shaw's supermarket, is in the thriving heart of downtown New Haven, a city that was just ranked in the top 25 "Best for Gen Y" nationally. The other is a Target complex in the middle of an industrial wasteland at the city's edge. Which is more friendly to human beings?

We'll let Design New Haven's editor, Mark Abraham, tell the counterintuitive story:

Shaws-Plaza-NewHaven_1.jpgShaw's Plaza is in the heart of downtown New Haven, but connected to nothing.

The Shaw's Plaza, built in the mid-1990s, is home to the only major
supermarket in Downtown New Haven, and attracts many local residents
and Yale students.…

Despite
the supermarket's popularity and the incredibly high density of the surrounding neighborhood (according to the Census, the Dwight neighborhood just west of Downtown has a population density close to those of many of the central boroughs of London, 50-60% higher than that of Chicago or Downtown New Haven, and about 3X higher than that of the East Rock neighborhood), there are no crosswalks or traffic calming measures anywhere near the store. In addition to the lack of any pedestrian plaza right at the store's entrance, DNH readers regularly observe families of all ages, even people in wheelchairs, trying to cross Whalley Avenue near the Shaw's plaza. Usually, they dart across
under great stress. To make things worse, vehicles regularly speed in excess of 50MPH down the 4-lane, median-less highway….

In contrast…the Target Department Store in North Haven, Connecticut…opened about five years ago
as part of a National Realty project, and is located in an industrial zone near the city's old landfill (known as "Mount Trashmore"). Other than its location off of I-91, Target has no physical relationship with any surrounding residential or commercial areas.

The store is the epitome of "dumb growth." But wait!

Look at the beautiful Dutch-inspired, textured, shared space plaza at the front of the store. Chicanes, vehicle bollards, traffic calming, medians, brightly-striped ladder crosswalks, and pedestrian walkways can be spotted throughout.

Those who frequent this Target report feeling exceptionally comfortable and safe walking to it. Families with children are regularly spotted walking, skipping, or hobbling into the store's entrance with ease. The Starbucks located at the store's entrance does quite well, with people spilling out to enjoy their coffees in the nice weather. This despite that the area often smells like industrial emissions or manure processing, and has views of abandoned rail tracks and one of the largest parking lots in New Haven County.

As Abraham, points out, the contrast is illuminating in two ways. First, it shows how much design principles have advanced in the last ten years, and how they can make a difference in people's experience of space, even in a poorly placed development. Second, it raises this question: "Why are residents living in sections of one of the densest downtown areas in the United States -- a very large proportion of whom are unable to own or operate a vehicle -- treated like second class citizens?"

More from around the network: Transportation for America reports on a study that shows Americans continued to use public transit in record numbers during the first quarter of this year. City Parks Blog writes about the concept of "the humane metropolis." And Urban Review STL asks the timeless question, "Are developers evil?"

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