Thursday, February 21, 2008

Knight vision at night

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
— The 1950s photo of Church Street showed varied styles of buildings packed jowl to jowl with multiple levels of commerce, from a hotel to Enson’s Men’s Store to the Bijou Theater.
The density, variety and commercial value were seen as a good model to emulate as the city goes forward to fill out spaces in the Ninth Square and especially the Chapel Street block ripped open by a devastating fire Dec. 12.
Architect George Knight of Knight Architecture, shown above, whose office is located a half-block from the fire site, Wednesday took several dozen design professionals and others through his vision of how the city can best move forward.
“New Haven was once and could be again an extraordinarily vibrant place. The world ... is going to be heading towards a more dense pattern of settlement and in that context New Haven is ... well positioned to become the new type of thriving environment,” Knight said.
It was the second in a series of talks sponsored by the Town Green Special Services District through its Wine Dine Design program, that features one architect, design ideas and later a trip to a city restaurant, in this case Zinc.
The block where the fire destroyed six businesses is bound by Chapel, Church, Center and Orange streets, a portion of the city’s main commercial district. Subsequent demolition cleared a path through the block, which matches up with a parking lot through the center of the next block bound by Crown, Orange, George and Church streets.
Knight, whose firm redeveloped the Simon-Johnson buildings on the corner of Church and Chapel streets into upscale apartments, suggested creating a new street through both blocks that would open up development opportunities.
He proposed a total of 8 buildings with residential and commercial uses on the first block, with a semi-private courtyard for parking and a two-story public market hall that would bisect it, followed by six more building sites on the second block.
Knight envisioned a range of prices for the housing units, while he would put parking underground across the entire footprint. The buildings would vary in height and design to avoid the cookie cutter recreations of early 20th century buildings, such as those at Blue Back Square in West Hartford, Knight said. He suggested building in incremental steps as less costly.
The architect also touted building “green,” where attention is paid to sustainable and energy efficient materials, but he said the structures have to incorporate the kind of architectural character and density present in an earlier era in the city.
“No development or building or space will be sustainable if it is not loved and it is our responsibility ... to make a world that we love,” Knight said.
He said the easiest thing to do at the fire site would be to cover it with a multi-level garage, ground level retail, and a tall recessed residential tower in the center. Knight rejected that as “analagous to fast food,” as it gets the job done, but it is not satisfying in the long run.
“I think that would be a mistake, a missed opportunity on a heroic scale,” Knight said.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731 or

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