How New Haven Plans to Fix State DOT’s Blight

From vacant lots to community-designed public space.

Downtown New Haven (Photo by Roman Eugeniusz)

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A long back-and-forth between the city of New Haven and the Connecticut State Department of Transportation is finally working its way to a resolution that could benefit neighborhoods with troublesome vacant lots.

Earlier this month, a bill transferred 16 parcels of neglected — but state-owned — property to municipal control. Now, the city is soliciting resident input on one of those blighted tracts to see how it should be revitalized.

The property in question could become a dog park, a community garden, a playground or a public plaza, among other things. A new city survey asks for residents’ opinions on each proposed use.

The bill, which became law in June, transferred ownership of the mostly empty lots to the city with one caveat: that it be used as publicly accessible open space, the New Haven Independent reports. It was the culmination of a long tussle between the city and state over the land. In March, one New Haven official told state lawmakers that the city spent “untold hours chasing down people at DOT to clean up its property and stop contributing to neighborhood blight,” according to another Independent story. Often, city officials would resort to cleaning up the land themselves.

A majority of the parcels are located in an area known as the Route 34/West River corridor.

From the paper:

Intended a half-century ago as the location for a mini-highway connecting I-95 to the suburbs growing west of New Haven, the corridor, where construction cut up the city and displaced thousands of people, ultimately was abandoned to become open grass space and surface parking lots. The city has been working since the 1990s to knit that part of the city back together … .

At the March hearing, a DOT commissioner explained that the state entity would support turning two of the 16 over to the city for free, but could not hand over all of them. Many of the properties were purchased with federal money, and the state argued that they should go through a disposal process so the federal government could be repaid.

A city official, however, argued that as part of that process, the DOT put the property out to bid without notifying the city. That apparently happened in February with a 1.86-acre parcel holding an office building and warehouse that had belonged to the DOT.

The Senate mostly sided with the city in June, transferring one property at “fair-market value” and the rest for “cost equal to administrative costs,” the Independent reports.

In January, Lisa Prevost reported for Next City on another New Haven effort to overcome challenges left by a legacy of highway planning that damaged communities. The hope is that converting an unfinished highway spur into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard will reconnect two neighborhoods.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: public spaceblightcommunity-engaged designnew haven

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