Rescuing a botched expressway removal

Author: Philip Langdon

Twenty architects, planners, and other professionals from across the country attempted last weekend to stop the City of New Haven, Connecticut, from trading one automobile-dominated corridor for another.

For months, New Haven area residents have expressed disappointment over the city’s plan for converting the short Rt. 34 expressway into a reconfigured network of streets and blocks. Critics have charged that a pair of traffic arteries envisioned by the city will make pedestrians and bicyclists feel unsafe and will usher in a characterless form of development.

To help put the city’s planning on the right track, the New Haven Urban Design League organized a two-day workshop in which new urbanist professionals from as far away as California donated their time to collaborate with local people on alternative ideas.

One member of the workshop team — Norman Garrick, a transportation specialist in the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering — said a key flaw in the city’s current thinking is an insistence on having the principal new streets carry just as much traffic as the expressway now does.

Garrick urged New Haven and Connecticut officials to look closely at American cities that have already removed expressways. A crucial reason for the success achieved by San Francisco, Milwaukeee, and Portland, Oregon, was that “they did not try to replace the capacity of the freeway,” Garrick argued.

The Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco used to carry about 100,000 vehicles a day; the boulevard that replaced it accommodates about half that number. A section of San Francisco’s Central Freeway that carried 97,000 vehicles a day has been replaced by Octavia Boulevard, which accommodates 52,000. In Milwaukee, a freeway segment that carried 52,000 vehicles a day was replaced by local streets carrying 18,000 vehicles. The reduction in the number of vehicles enabled those corridors to redevelop successfully and thrive.

The feared congestion never materialized when the freeways were no longer available. “There has been no sign of congestion” in the parts of San Francisco where freeways were replaced by the lower-capacity boulevards, he said. “There has been no outcry from a public wanting to kill the officials. The traffic basically redistributed through the city.” Motorists found other routes or they switched to other forms of transportation, he said.

Yet in New Haven, officials are behaving as if the streets in the corridor just south of downtown must handle the entire 70,000-vehicle load now carried by Rt. 34 at its peak location, near where it meets Interstate 95, Garrick observed. Insistence on high capacity is why the two principal roads envisioned for the corridor are too wide. It’s why the intersections are too broad to be inviting to people on foot.

Led by New Haven architect Robert Orr, workshop participants generated a variety of alternatives for the city to consider. One proposal called for a roundabout to be built where the traffic to and from Interstate 95 meets Orange Street. New Haven architect Ben Northrup said the roundabout would give motorists the ability to choose from different routes into downtown, toward the city’s train station, or toward the city’s medical district — rather than overburdening a single route.

Northrup urged the city to have two-way streets in the corridor being reclaimed from the less than one-mile-long Rt. 34 expressway. With two lanes for driving, two lanes for on-street parking, and bulbed-out corners, the traffic would move at a speed that’s not threatening to pedestrians and cyclists, he said. The extension of the corners into the streets would make it easy for pedestrians to cross.

Orr said traffic would find its way over many different routes if the blocks were kept small — 200 feet by 200 feet. He characterized the issue facing New Haven as “adding lanes versus adding connections.” He argued for creating a setting in which “you are constantly given choices” of how to get around.

Until now, New Haven, probably in part because of the state Department of Transportation, has been looking toward having three lanes of moving traffic in one direction on the principal street that would carry vehicles from Interstate 95 toward the medical district. There would also be a dedicated bike lane. Garrick warned, however, that if there are three lanes going in one direction, cyclists will be intimidated by the speed of the traffic. A bike lane next to three lanes of moving vehicles amounts to no usable bike lane at all, he declared.

“With the plans they have now, there’s just too many lanes of traffic, too much opportunity for cars traveling at unsafe speeds,” Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League, was quoted as saying by the New Haven Register.

John Anderson, a new urbanist developer from Chico, California, cautioned New Haven against opening the newly available land in the expressway corridor to a series of large developments, most of them filling entire blocks. An emphasis on big buildings will undermine the appeal and livability of the area to be developed, he said. “A lot of New Haven has been developed, in ways that people love, in smaller pieces,” Anderson pointed out. Also, when the buildings are smaller, it’s easier for a wide range of local people to rent or own space in the redeveloped area and put their enterprises there, he added.

Architect Catherine Johnson of Middletown, Connecticut, presented ideas for linking the downtown to the heavily used train station, a major hub on the Metro North commuter railroad, which runs to New York City. Sara Hines, an architect from Ashland, Massachusetts, sketched ideas for development in the station’s vicinity.

Unlike other participants, Orr proposed that an esplanade — walkways among trees — be built in the center of the corridor. Along both sides of this green corridor would be residential buildings about four stories high. He modeled his proposal on the dimensions of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and said it could become a prestigious place to live. It would terminate with a view of a research and office building that developer Carter Winstanley has been hoping to erect near Yale-New Haven Hospital.

By making Winstanley’s building a focal point, Orr’s design would also put pressure on Winstanley to produce a design much more compelling than the initial rendering of the building by Elkus Manfredi Architects, which was released by the Winstanley months ago.

In the Sunday New Haven Register, area architect and writer Duo Dickinson described the Elkus Manfredi design as a “a blank, slightly bent, glass faced hulk,” a design that falls pathetically short of making “a gateway statement of arrival and promise.” The “quality of what is offered up,” Dickinson said, “is almost absurdly generic and scaleless.”

Part of the problem, according to individuals who have followed the Rt. 34 project, is that the city government, under Mayor John DeStefano, has not put a major effort into producing a sophisticated and pedestrian-oriented design, even though the work is being aided by a $16 million TIGER grant from the Obama Administration. “We know that the peoplewho are trying to do good things have their hands tied,” Orr told roughly 35 people attending the Sunday evening final presentation in The Bourse, his “co-working loft” downtown.

“The city declined to serve as co-organizers of the weekend,” the New Haven Independent reported. “But several officials did participate, including Deputy Economic Development Director Mike Piscitelli and the City Plan Department’s point staffer on the project, Donna Hall.”

Farwell said all the ideas are “predicated on holding onto the TIGER grant” and on having discussions with the city, developers, and property owners about how to move forward. By August 5, sketches from the workshop are expected to be posted on the Route 34 Coalition website.

Posted by Philip Langdon on 01 Aug 2011