Building Blocks

Posted on 01. Oct, 2008 by in Features

John DeStefano is a development man. Since his mayoral inauguration in 1993, his administration has directed billions of dollars, year after year, to rebuilding New Haven—gutting and renovating its schools, developing blighted neighborhoods through the Livable City Initiative, and revitalizing empty business districts like Orange Street and the Ninth Square. DeStefano sees his work as a march toward the future, but the future he envisions is very much like the New Haven of 90 years ago: a living, walking, and working urban environment with a dense and vigorous downtown, a population center that will lure outsiders into New Haven on Friday nights. At the core of his vision is the revival, through economic development and infrastructure improvement, of an urban middle class that vanished decades ago in many pockets of urban America.

The latest step toward this future was taken on a crisp morning this September, when bulldozers and backhoes moved in to officially break ground on the site of the long-defunct Shartenberg’s department store. In its place will rise a cutting-edge, 32-story housing and commercial complex. The top floors of this mixed-use building, the so-called 360 State Street project, will hold a collection of luxury rental apartments, while the ground floor will include twenty thousand square feet of retail space, including a grocery store. On the terrace will be a swimming pool, a rooftop garden, a fitness center, even a library. Nearly every aspect of the design—from its recycled and local materials and Energy Star appliances to a fuel-cell generator that will produce clean, renewable power—will be green enough to earn the building a coveted Gold LEED certification.

“I designed [the project] with the intent to attract well-educated young professionals,” says the project’s developer and architect, Bruce Becker. He wants 360 State Street to become an urban hub serving “lots of little markets—faculty and staff at Yale New-Haven Hospital, attorneys working downtown, young professionals who commute out of the city by train, graduate students with the means, and retired people who want to be downtown.”

The inclusion of affordable housing in this urban vision was crucial to the success of Becker’s bid for the site. New Haven’s Chief Economic Administrator Kelly Murphy emphasizes that the City is committed to “making sure that there is affordable housing downtown,” and Becker stepped up to the challenge.

“You won’t be able to differentiate between the affordable houses and the market rate and won’t be able to distinguish tenants living in affordable housing,” he predicts.

The 360 State project encapsulates DeStefano’s vision for New Haven’s redevelopment. It is not only mixed-use, affordable, and green, but it also represents the first large-scale development in New Haven since the ambitious urban renewal schemes of the 1950s and ’60s. This is the new wave of New Haven’s transformation: Instead of demolishing blighted neighborhoods and delineating separate commercial and residential districts, as New Haven administrators did fifty years ago, DeStefano has launched a comprehensive effort to restore a sense of urbanism to downtown New Haven. And 360 State is only the beginning. Forthcoming development projects include extensive housing developments, an overhaul of Union Station, and downtown relocation of the Long Wharf Theater and Gateway Community College. Together, these projects could leave DeStefano’s biggest mark yet.

Following a national trend, New Haven’s development is of the New Urbanist family. Born as a reaction to the urban sprawl of the 1980s, when cities like New Haven lost population to the suburbs and watched their downtown cores erode, this design movement aims to re-create cities and neighborhoods with discernable centers to serve as civic hubs for residents. New Urbanists envision an urban home for people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic classes, dotted with businesses, schools, parks, and residential sections.

Today, housing in New Haven is surprisingly scarce. Although the city’s housing projects supply a fair amount of centrally located, low-income living quarters, the market offers few downtown options to middle-class residents. “Our vacancy rate in residential rental is under two percent,” Murphy explains—a number which means that the housing supply is far too small to meet demand.

The shortage in the center of town especially affects the middle and high-income bracket, says Robert Stern ARC ’65. The dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a New Urbanism specialist, Stern is integral to the city’s initiatives: In addition to Yale’s new residential colleges, he will design two of the major downtown development projects, one at College Square and the other at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum site. Stern sees housing, especially high-end housing, as an integral part of building a vibrant downtown community. He claims that if decent housing were available, “people living in single family homes in Guilford, Hamden, or even on St. Ronan’s would say, ‘Let’s get an apartment downtown with all of Yale’s cultural opportunities, these restaurants, these shops, the theater at our fingertips.’ ” Such movement, he explains, “happens in many big cities—New York and Chicago,” but not in New Haven because there isn’t anywhere for them to go.

New housing, then, is an important step in New Haven’s redevelopment. But housing alone will not a new city make. “You can’t build a viable downtown on any single use,” argues Stern.

And you can’t build a viable city on a single source of investment. Currently, the city’s economy is institution-based, meaning that it depends on its many colleges and hospitals to fund development. One benefit, according to Murphy, is that “we don’t have the high highs but we don’t have the low lows…Yale and Albertus and Southern and Quinnipiac and Gateway and the hospitals are always investing, always building and are not going to pick up and move somewhere else.” This also means, however, that the city has become largely dependent on Yale’s investment. The University recently sponsored the creation of an Economic Development Corporation and has been instrumental in redeveloping Broadway and mid-Chapel. Becker cites a “symbiotic relationship between Yale and New Haven,” and Stern characterizes the relationship as “two peas in a pod, if you will, two sides of a coin; their fortunes are linked.”

Luring consumers and commerce back into the city will entail, in part, weaning the city off of its reliance on Yale and building an enduring, non-Yale-based middle class. “It’s dangerous to have essentially one financial backer,” Becker explains. He believes an influx of non-Yale funds will transform the city, making it more like “Cambridge or Palo Alto. Stanford, Harvard, and M.I.T. play large roles but they’re not the only game in town.”

Toward this end, the City expects its large development projects to generate more non-Yale jobs. According to DeStefano’s Future Framework Plan, downtown development will generate over 30,000 jobs, both directly and indirectly. The former Coliseum site, according to Chuck Coursey, who handles public relations for its developer, Northland Investment Corporation, is likely to include Long Wharf Theater, relocated from its current home on Sargent Drive. Administrators hope the theater will bring retail, housing, and culture to the downtown area. Stern claims that Long Wharf will be more than just a cultural draw. “The nice thing about Long Wharf—and this is true of Yale’s strong drama school as well,” he says, “is that it’s not just actors but electricians, set builders, sound people who have to go to have lunch.” Ideally, the theater will encourage a dynamic urban environment made up of interdependent businesses. The City hopes the project will recapture the commercial buzz of New Haven’s industrial prime, when this area, situated between the New Haven Green and the city’s port, was a mercantile hub.

The final element of this reinvention, argues Douglas Rae, New Haven’s former chief administrative officer and currently the Richard S. Ely Professor of Management at Yale, should be developing an improved transportation network to connect New Haven to the rest of the Northeast. “The reason that New Haven exists as a substantial city is transport,” he explains, alluding to the pre-automobile epicenter of rail lines and sea transport that connected New Haven to economic behemoths like New York and allowed the city to emerge as an industrial center. “We are the fringe of this gigantic mountain; we’re a foothill…and we should think of ourselves in that connection more than anything else,” Rae continues. With the growth of its transportation infrastructure, New Haven would have the potential to become almost a reverse commuter city. People could live in New Haven and contribute to its tax base while working in Stamford, Hartford, or New York.

While the burden of improving transportation falls partly on the State, the City is trying to apply as much forward momentum of its own as possible. Murphy hopes that the impending demolition of the former Coliseum’s massive parking lot will finally spur the construction of a second parking lot at Union Station. Eventually, the City hopes to comprehensively redesign the station, making it a retail as well as transportation hub. Administrators have proposed a three-phase project that would not only provide parking but remake Union Station à la its D.C. and New York counterparts by attaching it to a large, mixed-use development complex. Murphy points out that since the project “finances itself,” New Haven will be able to begin work on the site as soon as it reaches an agreement with the state.

By piecing together housing developments like 360 State, economic independence from Yale, and a revitalized transportation network, city developers hope to recapture early 20th-century New Haven in its heyday. Despite admitted flaws—like tenement houses, for example—in this now-antiquated urban plan, this city once tied residents to their urban environment in a very concrete manner. In 1909, Frank Rice was elected as New Haven mayor on a platform of redoing the city’s sidewalks. Factories like Winchester and Sargent provided a steady supply of jobs while prominent community organizations constructed tight social networks. This New Haven was densely populated, home to the wealthy and the poor, descendants of Puritan settlers and immigrants newly arrived from Europe. New Haven’s current leaders are particularly nostalgic for this urban setting, perhaps because the city strayed so far from it during the 1950s and ’60s, when agents of Urban Renewal razed entire neighborhoods to make way for highways and department stores.

During this era, under the flag of Urban Renewal, Mayor Richard “Dick” Lee and his administration pushed mass development to revitalize the city. But by building so quickly and on such a large scale, with so little regard for the communities they destroyed in their wake, Rae recounts, they “dramatically plundered, sundered the urban fabric.” Worse still, the projects failed to create a strong mercantile sector that could compete with suburban alternatives. The large department stores—Shartenberg’s, Malley’s, and Macy’s—did not foster a smaller business community, which meant that once these stores closed, they left an urban wasteland in which, Clark recalls, “every other store was boarded up.”

Decades of slow and patient City Hall effort eventually drew tentative shopkeepers and residents back to downtown. Around 2003, the City first began to think about developing the abandoned department store sites in an effort to undo Lee’s mistakes. But there is only so much that this downtown restoration can achieve for the rest of the city. “There are cases where you have spectacular downtown redevelopment like Baltimore, which has no favorable impact on the city at large,” Rae warns.

And the project comes with steep costs. The City is investing significant funds in the development projects via tax abatements and land grants. 360 State will only pay a fraction of assessed property taxes until 2014, and the land cost Becker a single dollar. City officials are nonetheless quick to defend the deal. The site has been vacant for 42 years, according to Murphy, and although the City has given developers like Becker significant incentives, the potential revenue lost is negated by the fact that he is building on a lot that for years has provided the City with no revenue whatsoever. Even when Becker is only paying a fraction of the taxes assessed on the site, this revenue will be more than the City received before. With Becker’s development, Murphy says, the site will gross “close to two million dollars a year. They’re going to be the biggest taxpayer.”

Rae predicts, however, that it “will be a long time before there’s much positive impact on the tax base,” and with the City having recently laid off 35 people in a budget crunch, New Haven is in a poor position to be hemorrhaging money. These fiscal problems will almost certainly be compounded by the state of the national economy, and already, many of the city’s ambitious plans have been put on hold. One must walk no farther than College Square to see the effects of the credit crunch on New Haven. This block of College Street between Crown and George is barren, its previous small business owners evicted in order to make way for a new, large-scale project. But redevelopment has been stopped in its tracks and the storefronts sit, unnecessarily abandoned. In August, City officials cringed when the developer of a 225-room luxury hotel slated for the site announced a financially-motivated delay of at least six months.

But given the costs of the economic collapse on a national level, New Haven may have caught a bit of a break. “In terms of our development schedule, we happen to be in a good place,” claims Murphy. The City hopes that two years from now, when the 360 State project wraps up, the market will have reversed.

Becker is similarly optimistic. “One thousand people will be hired between now and when we open,” he says. More importantly, since the City does not currently need to pursue financing for any future projects, administrators do not have to struggle to sell bonds in today’s credit market. And, of course, Yale and other institutions around town will never stop building buildings, hiring residents, and keeping the city’s economy afloat.

The new breed of businesses that the City hopes its development plans will attract may drastically differ both from the city’s current smattering of chain stores and its mom-and-pop stores left over from the New Haven of yore. A few long-standing, successful independent stores were already evicted to make way for the stalled hotel project on College Street. Some, like Cooper’s Dress Shop, had been there since the strip opened in 1961, as part of the supposed Urban Renewal mercantile district. Now, except for College Wine and Liquor, all of them have left or will leave soon.

Few small businesses, however, bemoan the changes to downtown. “At the moment those business are happy about this,” Clark says. Many of these stores actually testified on behalf of the developers and pressured aldermen to accept the proposals. The business owners who remain recognize that new housing units and the relocated Gateway Community College will bring thousands of people downtown who will need coffee, lunch, and clothing.

This active interchange of residents, businesses, and visitors is the urbanist city that John DeStefano hopes to recreate. A place, in Stern’s words, where you “walk out of your apartment and walk down the street, see the shop that has just changed their window, bump into someone you know, walk into a bookstore and buy a book or not or a cup of coffee, or walk across the Green, whatever.” Though DeStefano wants to restore the urban fabric of yesteryear, the fabric of New Haven has been torn so many times that his dream may be more of a mirage. But whether or not he can recapture the old New Haven, he can still—if the economy allows—create a New Haven where people want to be.

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