It still boggles the mind. In the 1950s, public officials thought it would be a good idea to demolish a large neighborhood and run an expressway from New Haven to Derby.
After nearly 900 households and 350 businesses were cleared so people could get to the Derby-Shelton game a little faster, only 0.8 miles of the road — Route 34 — was ever built. It became a fiasco, a long-running joke, the highway to nowhere. It cut downtown off from the railroad station and from some neighborhoods. Some previously vibrant streets just died.
"They called it the Oak Street Connector," said Herb Newman, the nationally-known New Haven architect. "They should have called it the Oak Street Disconnector."
It is about to become the Oak Street Reconnector, and Newman will play a key role, if all goes well.
For more than a dozen years, New Haven officials have been developing a plan to remove Route 34, now named for former Mayor Richard Lee, and replace it with an urban boulevard connected to city streets. The project, called Downtown Crossing, allows the city to recapture 11 acres of land, essentially doubling the size of downtown.
The project garnered national attention as part of a small but growing movement to eliminate expressways such as Route 34 — freeway removals in San Francisco, Portland, New York and Milwaukee led to the creation of vibrant neighborhoods with higher property values.
I've been watching the New Haven project for years; it is one of the most ambitious in the Northeast. It will happen; the question is whether it will be the dense, exciting, busy, urban place that everyone wants, a city for people instead of cars. The early signs are good, though some major obstacles remain.
The sine qua non of such a project is that it makes sense to funders, and Downtown Crossing so far has met that test. The project won a $16 million federal TIGER II grant in 2010 to get Phase I started, and started it is. The first building in the area, 100 College Street, the $100 million global corporate headquarters of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, is going up.
The next piece is the 4.48-acre site of the former New Haven Coliseum. Almost everyone is impressed with the developer, LiveWorkLearnPlay, Inc., of Montreal. Newman, the architect, has designed what he calls a mixed-use urban village, a half-dozen buildings that include offices, retail, residential mix and a hotel. A former Hartford planner once offered me a hard-earned nugget: The sketches always look great. That said, the sketches look great. Newman is trying to make the site both a destination and a connector, restitching the mostly mid-rise Ninth Square area to Union Station and to the high-rise Knights of Columbus headquarters.
His proposal has a mix of mid- and high-rise buildings, along with a large public square and a pedestrian lane. New Haven is blessed with an active design community whose members have weighed in with praise and criticism (Why an urban village?). The discussion should serve the ultimate product well, as it has with the roadway.
Members of the New Haven Design League as well as a bicyclists group objected to the design of the urban boulevard, saying it was too wide, and there was little point in replacing a highway with another highway. The city responded by narrowing it somewhat and adding bike lanes and wider sidewalks. Officials hope to narrow it further as the project proceeds.
A major factor in the success of Newman's project, particularly the hotel, is extending Orange Street to the railroad station, an engineering challenge but one that will make it easier to get downtown and encourage the redevelopment of the aging, privately-owned Church Street South housing project across from the station. Because of the Route 34 wall, the station seems farther from downtown than it is.
So, things are moving. The city has an excellent development staff, headed by the estimable Kelly Murphy, that is busily planning and rezoning for the development of the land the highway removal will make available. The booming medical sector is exerting good pressure on the project. The biggest challenge may be continuity. After 20 years, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. leaves office this fall, and many key staffers will go as well. Hopefully the new mayor keeps the ball rolling.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.