Let’s Play Charrettes: Criticism for New Haven Downtown Redevelopment Plan

New Haven, Conn., has a planto redevelop its downtown to make the area more pedestrian friendly and reconnect it to surrounding neighborhoods. However, a new report claims that the city can do even more to make downtown more suitable for non-drivers.

An alternate vision for New Haven’s Downtown Crossing. Ben Northurp/Urban Design Leage

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This piece originally appeared on the New Haven Independent.

Instead of “super blocks” surrounded by super-wide, one-way streets, why not break the New Haven’s Route 34 corridor into smaller chunks, and knit them together with two-way cross streets?

That’s one question posed by a new in-depth critique of the plan for Downtown Crossing, the development project featuring a $140 million 10-story office building and dramatic roadway changes for the stretch of the Route 34 Connector that divides the the Connecticut City’s Hill neighborhood from downtown.

As it stands, the first phase of the plan calls for the creation of the new high-tech office building geared toward science and medical companies to be erected to the west of the Air Rights Garage, between MLK Boulevard and South Frontage Road.

The plan has been the subject of over 70 public meetings. Supporters say it will bring needed jobs and taxes to the city while undoing a planning mistake of the urban renewal era by filling part of a mini-highway to nowhere. The project would create an estimated 2,000 construction jobs, then 600 to 900 permanent jobs, according to planners.

Critics have called the design insufficiently bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Others have complained that the proposal won’t do enough to bring people to the area after work hours, and that it will be a ghost town after dark.

Perhaps the most comprehensive critique arrived last month in the form of a report put out by the New Haven Urban Design League, a local city planning and preservationist organization. The 30-page document says that Downtown Crossing will repeat the planning mistakes of the past by creating a car-centric thoroughfare that will not serve its stated purpose: To connect downtown to the Hill and Union Station. 

It’s such a bad plan, the report says, that the design might even jeopardize the project’s $16 million in federal funding.

But it’s not too late to fix it, the report says. The city should put together a multi-day public planning process known as a “charrette” to come up with the design the city truly needs, the report suggests.

Nothing doing, the city responded. A charrette would cost too much and take too long, according to city spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton. She said the new Downtown Crossing will be a vast improvement over current conditions in the area, and just the first step toward creating the walkable vibrant neighborhood the Urban Design League is looking for.

Mistakes Repeated?

The report lays out the problem on the second page:

Vision documents for the Downtown Crossing project, and the publicly expressed hopes of New Haven city officials, set laudable objectives for changing an unsafe sprawling auto-centric area into a compact and bustling people centric neighborhood by eliminating separated thoroughfares and by expanding connectivity. However, technical engineering documents submitted at this stage of the design fail to meet these objectives, jeopardizing its suitability for TIGER II funding.

Specifically, the plans do not create any new cross streets, which would increase connections between downtown and the Hill. The plans also don’t deal with the trench that separates the neighborhood, the report says.

Credit: Urban Design League

Another plan, from 2006, called for decking to be built over the trench, with the area underneath to be used for parking and service lanes. But a later plan by Carter Winstanley, the developer driving the first phase of Downtown Crossing, did not include that idea. “The design hampered, perhaps eliminated, the potential for reconnecting the streetscape in a way that would promote a healthy urban development,” the report says.

Even after dozens of meetings, “where community groups have consistently beat the drum for safe streets, improved transportation options, reduced vehicular traffic, clean air, sustainable land use, mixed uses, public spaces and a human scale project—neither the lead developer or the City of New Haven have moved from the original car-centric conception of the project. Essentially, the highway is being re-configured and re-built rather than removed—an outcome that does more harm than good,” the report says.

It’s a case of the city designing the project to serve one developer—Winstanley—then seeking to justify the decision afterwards, said Anstress Farwell, head of the Urban Design League.

In contrast, a planning workshop created by the Urban Design League came up with a number of alternatives that emphasized “a residential esplanade; a mixed-use infill plan; and a multi-way, mixed-use boulevard.” Drawings that emerged from that workshop show public parks and green spaces mixed into a street plan with blocks of varying sizes.

More cross streets could be introduced to the corridor by extending Temple and Orange streets (as shown above). The city has said such extensions will be part of Downtown Crossing eventually, but they need to be placed higher on the agenda, Farwell said. Making more two-way cross streets would break up “super blocks,” create shorter distances to walk or bike, and even ease traffic.

When cars are forced to loop around long blocks on one-way streets, traffic gets worse, along with pollution and wear and tear on roads and cars, Farwell said. Smaller blocks create quieter streets that are better for retailers and for people to hang out, and the denser the network of streets, the fewer lanes you need, Farwell said.

“If you have more connectivity, you can narrow the streets,” she said. That means shorter crossing distances, which means fewer pedestrian injuries or fatalities, which increase with road width, according to the report.

The report describes the ways that poor traffic planning can actually increase traffic congestion. For instance, it’s better to create networks of two-way streets that give drivers multiple routes to choose from, rather than funneling cars onto wider one-way thoroughfares, as the plan currently calls for.

The report concludes with a suggestion. “The solution is instituting a meaningful public process. There is a known, accelerated, compressed, and inclusive way to do this: The community planning and design charrette.”

A charrette brings together all public and private parties affected by a development and, with the facilitation of a professional organizer, helps them to come up with a plan that meets the needs of all concerned.

The report names the National Charrette Institute as a respected facilitator. “Professional charrette organizers know how to calm a municipality’s fears that a truly open public process will lead to unending and unhelpful public demands, while at the same time fully listening to and addressing the public’s concerns, culling out the best of their ideas,” the report states.

Farwell said it’s hard to predict how many days long such an event might be, but it could be as few as three.

A multi-day charrette might cost as much as $135,000 and “even that would be a tiny fraction of the costs of the Downtown Crossing project, and it should pay for itself many times over in the comprehensive planning that comes out of it,” the report states. 

Mixed-use design concept. Credit: Urban Design League

No Time To Wait?

In a five-paragraph response to the Urban Design League’s report, city spokeswoman Benton wrote that a charrette would cost nearly three times as much as the report estimated and would prevent the city from cashing in on federal dollars:

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 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 ‘charrette’ 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.

Farwell disputed the city’s cost estimate:

The charrette Hamden did for a town-wide plan for its neighborhood and commercial centers cost $125,000. This is a smaller area, and we have the advantage of much of the preparatory work (survey and engineering studies, some market analysis) already done. The concepts that came out of the simmer community workshops would also compress the time line needed. How much? I think it would depend on how committed all the vested stakeholders where to working on a plan that focused on public interest design, rather than the narrow expediences of a single project.

The current plan is just the first step toward creating the neighborhood the Urban Design League wants to see, Benton said. “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.”

Benton also touted the plan’s traffic-calming measures, including bike lanes, pedestrian refuge islands, raised crosswalks 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.”

Delaying the project would mean threatening a plan that’s predicted to bring in $1 million in taxes each year, as well as “hundreds of new permanent jobs,” Benton said. “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.”

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Tags: built environmentnew haventiger grants

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