Advocates call New Haven’s ‘Downtown Crossing’ a broken promise

Correction: Bruce Becker of Becker + Becker built New Haven’s highest residential tower at 360 State St. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carter Winstanley was the builder.


New Haven — After years of planning and re-planning, contentious public hearings and workshops, and budget cuts, the city is poised to begin construction on its $140 million “Downtown Crossing” project. But many New Haven residents, along with transportation advocates, say the plan fails to deliver on its promise to undo decades of highway division and stitch neighborhoods together.

The project will fill in part of the Route 34 corridor to make way for a 10-story biomedical office tower. The corridor was built decades ago as a portion of a highway that was never completed.

Nearly 50 people showed up on a day’s notice Tuesday night to discuss their concerns with the project design. The meeting was called by bicycling and pedestrian advocates, along with some members of the Board of Aldermen. Their main concerns: Narrow sidewalks and wide streets that, they say, encourages high-speed traffic both pay homage to the vehicle, rather than the pedestrian or cyclist.

“A lot of community members feel like the current design doesn’t reach their vision of a bikeable and walkable and safe community,” said Justin Elicker, aldermen for the East Rock neighborhood.

City officials have said the plan is the best they can do with a constrained budget. New Haven applied for a $21 million federal grant to get the project done and received only $16 million; earlier grant applications, which were denied, were for twice that. The city points to bike boxes (safe standing areas for bicyclists at intersections), bike paths and landscaping that has been added to the design at the request of pedestrian and cycling advocates and aldermen in the past several months.

Traffic planners for the city also say that wider boulevards don’t necessarily speed up traffic.

Elicker has voiced concerns for months about the five, one-way traffic lanes that will make up new streets. During nearly a five-hour-long public hearing at City Hall last year, Elicker brought a tape measure and extended it through the Board of Aldermen’s meeting room to illustrate the challenges a pedestrian would have in crossing the roadway.

He and others have also protested private developer Carter Winstanley’s plan to build an 850-car parking garage next to the office tower, which will be known as 100 College Street. Advocates persuaded Winstanley to lower the number of spaces from 1,000, but they still say the garage will force sidewalks to be as narrow as 7 feet wide at some portions. A typical city sidewalk width ranges from 12 to 15 feet; Winstanley has said the sidewalks are narrow only in small portions of the project and are generally very wide.

‘Very disappointed’

“We have been very disappointed, both in the current design and in the process for the last year and a half,” said Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League. “It is just too car-centric. It doesn’t create a balanced transportation network.”

Residents were also incensed recently when the city eliminated one of two “traffic island” in the project that it had originally proposed to help walkers crossing several lanes of traffic. City and state planners said the island wasn’t feasible when considering the ability of cars and trucks to turn.

Farwell said her group worked with the city years ago to develop a plan for Downtown Crossing that included far more green space and options for walking and biking. Now, she said, that plan has been severely watered down.

“They had one plan based on a single developer’s preferred plan,” Farwell said, referring to Winstanley.

Winstanley will get the land for 100 College Street free of charge, but he is expected to spend $500,000 to improve the site and another $100 million to erect the office tower. About $30 million more will be spent by the city and the state on the next stages of the project.

Filling in what’s called the “mini-highway to nowhere” is one of the city’s biggest development projects in decades. The promise of temporary construction jobs and possible big-time economic development in the area has bumped up against protests about the project’s design — creating tense situations at the more than 70 public meetings that have been held about Downtown Crossing.

“I think it’s a great project in bringing some temporary jobs to the neighborhood for residents that live in New Haven,” said Dawn Gibson-Brehon, who lives in the Hill neighborhood adjacent to the project. But she has concerns that car-centric development will cause more air pollution in the area, which already suffers from higher child asthma rates than the rest of the state.

“I think of moms with strollers in the wintertime, I think of kids on bikes in the summer time,” said Rachel Heerema, who works for the New Haven-based City-Wide Youth Coalition. “This is not a highway through a city, this is a project happening in a city, and it needs to be structured that way.”

The Board of Aldermen is slated to vote next week on the land disposition agreement, or contract, between the city and Winstanley. The vote, expected to pass, will pave the way to beginning construction for 100 College Street. But that’s just “Phase I”; Phase II includes the other road improvements and highway changes.

At the meeting, Elicker urged everyone to look beyond Phase I and start proactively discussing Phase II.

“The community has been reacting to what is given to them by the city, by the state, by the developer,” Elicker said. “And we need to come up with what we would like to see for this project and articulate that to the city.”