While recently Birmingham got the good news about winning a federal TIGER grant (which will allow, among other things, sidewalk and bike lane improvements around downtown), we also got the decidedly more challenging news that the downtown I-20/59 connector will be rebuilt by ALDOT pretty much in its current form–rather than sunken, or moved. Up in New Haven, CT another TIGER grant will allow the state and city to remove the Route 34 connector (above, ca. 1962) and replace it with landscaped streets, new mixed-use development, and bike access dubbed Downtown Crossing. New Haven and the state of Connecticut have been very deliberate in promoting the plan’s benefits to business growth, urban livability, and dispersal of car traffic along multiple city routes. It’s a big change in policy from the 1950’s, when that city was a national model for urban renewal and auto-influenced planning; this project alone displaced almost 1000 residents and hundreds of businesses in an effort to move cars more efficiently.
The connector effectively divided downtown: on one side lies the central business district and Yale University, on the other side Yale Medical School, the train station, and residential neighborhoods. In between became a no-man’s land of wide highway, parking lots, and garages, including the famous Temple Street Garage (Paul Rudolph, 1962, above) whose sinuous concrete curves have been much admired despite other, less positive attributes of this building. The urban impact of the garage, and the rest of the car-centric connector, can be seen in this photo where the historic fabric of New Haven faces a solid block of parking across a narrow street.
The map above shows the greater context, and how two cross streets will be reopened to traffic, extending the city grid (which by the way is also famous for being the first true urban grid in the US, ca. 1639). The center portion shown in yellow will be opened to private developers with an emphasis on the biotech industry.
Above is the rendering of one of the proposed new buildings. Despite the effort, there has been plenty of criticism of this plan, ranging from commuters anxious about how they will navigate the new streets, to citizens’ groups worried the plan is still too car-friendly, to local architects upset about the bland, “anywhere” quality of the proposed new architecture. Knitting the city back together across this wound while satisfying diverse constituencies is a real balancing act.
Another relic of the frenzy of automotive-related development from the heyday of this project is the Air Rights Garage (above), which perches over the connector and is slated to remain in the new plan. It will be fascinating to see how the development evolves. Kudos, overall, to New Haven and Connecticut at least trying to remedy old-fashioned ways of thinking about the city and its needs. Cars were–and are still–important. But they no longer should be considered the most important aspect of planning. Urban life is too complex for such simplistic thinking.
[thanks to new haven museum for the historic pic; payton chung for the Temple Street garage pic; Wall Street Journal for the graphic; New York Times for the rendering, and New Haven Independent for the Air Rights Garage pic]