Thursday, April 17, 2008

City urged to reclaim connector

Ex-Milwaukee mayor says it can be done

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
— If you think it’s impossible to deal with a state bureaucracy and reclaim the land from a freeway that cuts through your city, think again.
John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and the president of the Congress For New Urbanism, is living proof it can be done, and he came to New Haven Wednesday to encourage those who want to engage the same battle in this city.
Referring to the Route 34 connector, which splits the Hill and Dwight neighborhoods, as the “disconnector,” Norquist told the 50 or so city officials and residents gathered at Career High School to “move quickly” to take back the 10 acres that drain traffic off Interstate 95 to downtown.
“It’s obviously just a blight. New Haven will be a sensation all over the world if you remove the disconnector and put the street grid back,” Norquist said.
The former mayor led the long effort to remove Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway, which freed up 26 acres of land for new development there and has already attracted over $300 million in construction.
Depressed limited highways have been reclaimed around the country and converted back to landscaped streetcapes with a mix of small-scale retail, commercial and residential, based on the traditional model of main street development in the United States common until modernism took shape in the late 20th century.
NOther success stories involve Harbor Drive in Portland, Ore., Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, the West Side Highway in New York and the Cheonggye Freeway in Seoul, South Korea.ew Haven already has participated in one study and is starting a more detailed one to quickly end the I-95 turnoff to downtown New Haven and reconnect Orange and Temple Streets across what is now a freeway.
Norquist’s first piece of advice to New Haven was to “roll it (the connector) back as close to the interstate as possible.” His second suggestion: “Don’t contemplate it forever.” The area in question extends east from the Air Rights Garage to Orange Street.
Bringing back the street grid will absorb traffic and distribute it more evenly, just as it has done in other cities, Norquist said, pointing to Chicago as a good example.
Hundreds of homes and businesses in the Oak Street neighborhood were razed in the 1960s and ’70s to create the connector under New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee, a road that was originally scheduled to connect to West Haven.
A No Man’s Land for four decades, the highway extension plan was finally abandoned in 2004 and the strip of land turned over to the city. Separate plans to reconnect the area west of the Air Rights Garage and fill this additional 26 acres with housing and retail are in the beginning stages.
“Dick Lee caused a lot of damage, although he thought he was doing good,” Norquist said. He blamed the changes on a planning movement that created sterilized streets with no connection to the built environment.
However, he said, a political system that underwrites highways to the detriment of building small-scale city streets is beginning to change. “The ingredients that created sprawl are now in decline,” Norquist said. “It can be done. You can get back to that urbanism that we had in the past.”
Alderman Allan Brison, G-10, and Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale, D-14, did not have to be convinced of the need to reclaim the freeway, but both were concerned that the models used by the city to show potential future growth in the area seemed to imply a series of high-rises.
City Economic Development Director Kelly Murphy said the graphics are only meant as “placeholders” for development, and she favors small-scale neighborhood friendly growth.

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