A new vision for New Haven: five Long Wharf districts
New Haven won’t have just one Long Wharf district if an ambitious new plan takes form. It will have five urban, walkable Long Wharfs connected by a ribbon-like park.
The new Long Wharfs would include a market district, an “innovation” district, a harbor district, a parkway district, and a “gateway” district.
Instead of being dominated by asphalt parking lots and inaccessible industrial space, the five interconnected districts will share a network of public parks. The districts will link to surrounding neighborhoods through bike lanes, bus routes and pedestrian-friendly streets.
And each district will be oriented around a public amenity, like a market hall, green space, or New Haven Harbor itself.
A group of urban planners and architects presented that mid- to long-term vision to 50 New Haveners on Tuesday night during the second public hearing in as many months about the future of the district. The meeting was held at the Besty Ross school parish hall on Kimberly Avenue.
The planners, Stan Eckstut and Eric Fang, work for the global architectural firm EE&K, a Perkins Eastman company that recently designed and planned a $2 billion transformation of a mile-and-a-half stretch of Washington, D.C.’s southwest waterfront.
The city hired EE&K with half of a $950,000 state grant to come up with a strategic and economic plan for how best to transform the Long Wharf district into a vibrant, accessible and mixed-use area that takes better advantage of the city’s waterfront property.
Eckstut and Fang workshopped with over two dozens attendees at a January hearing on a few broad, general ideas about how best to bring the city up to the water’s edge. The planners returned on Tuesday night with a more detailed vision for what a new Long Wharf could look like.
Along with representatives from the City Plan department and Economic Development Administration, they emphasized that this vision for Long Wharf is pragmatic rather than prescriptive. It is focused on transforming public space like parks, roads, bike lanes and piers with the hope of making the area more appealing to New Haven residents and out-of-town visitors.
The planners predicted that public space improvement, in partnership with current Long Wharf property owners, will attract big-dollar private real estate development without requiring the city or the state to spend money they don’t have.
Unlike during 1950s and 1960s urban renewal, city Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson said at the beginning of the hearing, “we don’t have the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to put in here. In fact, we’ve got almost no money. What we want to do is stimulate the private owners, the people who own those surface parking lots, the people who own those old buildings, and think about what New Haven is going to be like over the next 60 years.”
Before Eckstut and Fang shared their designs for a new Long Wharf, one of their colleagues, Patricia Adell, presented the economic and demographic research that her team had done on some of the key challenges and opportunities for developing the Long Wharf district.
Adell noted that private-sector employment in New Haven grew by 5,400 jobs, or 7.2 percent, from 2009 to 2016. If the city stays on or close to that trajectory of growth, she said, then Long Wharf will be well positioned to add hundreds if not thousands of new employees over the next two decades.
She said that the area currently has plenty of room for growth, with an estimated 130 acres of “underutilized” land (e.g. surface parking lots). She said that Long Wharf is already home to a mix of companies that work in the nationally burgeoning fields of health care, hotels and restaurants, and retail.
In a table outlining the district’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (aka a “SWOT” analysis), Adell pointed out that Long Wharf is accessible and visible from I-95, has waterfront access and is awash in “motivated sellers.” The last term refers to current private property owners who are interested in making underutilized space more economically dynamic.
She also said that Long Wharf currently has a particularly unattractive public environment and lacks a cohesive vision and zoning. And any prospective real estate development in Connecticut is going to be hurt by the lack of financial support from a state that is in permanent fiscal crisis, she noted.
All these factors, she said, both the good and the bad, make Long Wharf fertile ground for future economic development.
Fang told the group that he and Eckstut tried to come up with a design that took into account the results of Adell’s analysis, the feedback they received during the first public hearing, and takeaways from their own conversations with city staffers and current Long Wharf property owners about their hopes and concerns for the district.
They came up with five distinct districts connected by a ribbon-like park stretching from the north to the south that would serve as a public amenity for the entire district.
“The idea of this ribbon,” he said, “is that this takes care of circulation for cars, people and bikes, and also for drainage. It’s a total vision integrated into an attractive park that will also attract investment.”
The design calls for more pedestrian-friendly streets and smaller blocks. The city would need to work with existing property owners and new developers to build small, walkable streets over what is currently private property to connect the district to the Hill, Wooster Square and Downtown.
Fang said the ribbon park would connect existing pedestrian and bike paths. Extending the pedestrian tunnel under the train platforms at Union Station would transform a currently isolated district into one that is just an easy ten-minute walk away from the busiest commuter rail line in the country, he predicted.
He and Eckstut are working with the City Plan Department to make sure that the final design incorporates the coastal resiliency recommendations from the city’s Long Wharf Flood Protection Plan.
“We’re trying to change what’s a suburban, auto-oriented part of the city into a place that is much more urban, much more walkable, mixed use, denser, a place where people would spend much more time,” Eckstut said.
“It’s all market driven,” he continued. “There’s no plan to force anything [i.e. any specific private development] to happen.”
Eckstut said that each district follows a model of urban planning exemplified by the New Haven Green and its surrounding downtown: First lay out a public space, then allow streets and offices and commercial and residential development to blossom around it.
“The history, the popularity, everything you are,” he said about New Haven, “grew around public realm.”
He said that he and Fang envision the five districts similarly anchored by public spaces — maybe not by a town green, but instead by wharves, smaller parks, market halls and main streets.
The Harbor District will find its centerpiece in Long Wharf’s port, which Eckstut described as providing access to “one of the most amazing bodies of water anywhere in the world.”
The plan calls for the area around the new boathouse to be a “rowing pond” for personal boat use; a new transit pier open to water taxies, tour boats and charter boats; a day pier for shorter visits and an inlet for larger ships; and a harbor park and a harbor garden to provide pedestrian-friendly greenspace for picnics and walking.
“This is what cities that have great waterfronts do,” he said. “They plan the water even before they plan the land.” He said that, once residents, visitors and current property owners realize the full economic and recreational potential of the water itself, then private developers will jump at the opportunity to build restaurants, apartments, and other shops and stores along or near the water.
Eckstut said that the Parkway District was inspired by Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace of parks in Boston. He said that the plan proposes converting the current post office property into a public park, and working with Ikea to build a parking garage at the far end of its surface parking lot.
He said that the ASSA / Innovation District and the Gateway District, with their focuses on housing new tech businesses, medical facilities, recreational destinations and residential development, would similarly be connected to the other areas of Long Wharf by the ribbon park.
“When they founded the City of New Haven,” Eckstut said, “they had a city plan. One drawing. Essentially streets and blocks around a Town Green. In fact, you can say we’re doing very much the same.”
After the presentation, the 50 attendees peppered Eckstut and Nemerson with questions about the viability of the plan and the potential impact on neighborhoods.
One attendee asked if the city staff and planners would be open to manufacturing as well as commercial and residential development in the new Long Wharf.
“Think of this more like a Jackson Pollock,” Nemerson said. “We’re just throwing paint on the wall. It could be anything.”
He said that the city is open to talking with all different kinds of businesses about relocating to or building facilities in these five new districts. He cited ASSA ABLOY (the successor to the Sargent hardware factory), which employs both security programmers and door knob manufacturers, as a good example of a company currently based out of Long Wharf that works in both high tech and manufacturing.
Amber Suess, a Hill resident and Ward 5 Democratic Town Committee (DTC) member, asked Nemerson if this plan would transform the Hill into an East Coast San Francisco, where “black and brown people are pushed out of their own neighborhoods by tech bros.”
Nemerson said that there are several “super cities” in the country, like San Francisco and New York, where a shortage of land and an inability to build houses have resulted in consistently increasing rents.
In New Haven, he said, that has not been the case. What he has found instead is that rents in New Haven have actually gone down over the past three years.
“We don’t seem to be in a marketplace where there’s a shortage of housing or where we’re constraining the building of housing,” he said.
He said that rents seem to go down as more housing is built in New Haven. He said he is most concerned about the decay and neglect of New Haven’s current crop of affordable housing, like that at 66 Norton St.
But, he said, if Suess notices that her or her neighbors’ rents are increasing as the Long Wharf plan proceeds, then she should reach out to him directly and his department will investigate how best to mitigate the side effects of the development.
Jeff Wolcheski, one of the handful of Local 326 carpenters union members at the meeting, said that he was encouraged by the prospect of more construction projects in town. He asked how committed Nemerson and his department currently are to courting high-spending developers from cities like Boston and Jersey City.
“We meet with new developers a couple times a week,” Nemerson said, “and we’ve got 30 or 40 projects going up right now.”
He said that the current land owners would get 10 or 12 percent of whatever development deal they worked out on their existing, underutilized property. “For them,” he said, “bigger is better.”
The next public hearing on the Long Wharf development plan is scheduled later this spring back at Betsy Ross school.
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