Pedestrian Observations from New Haven

I don’t normally pedestrian-observe cities that I’ve been to so many times, and New Haven is the US city I’ve spent the most time in other than the two I’ve lived in. But my last visit, in which I looked at the closing time of each store and found it compares more favorably with Providence than I’d thought, led me to think why I have such a visceral response to New Haven’s urbanism.

The parking. It hurts. Providence’s Downcity has parking garages and surface lots, but it has nothing on New Haven there. New Haven’s Route 34 stubway is only an actual road for two and a half blocks west of State Street – 800 meters of actual freeway. Beyond that the full width of the block is occupied by a multistory parking deck for 250 meters, passing over York Street and making walking between downtown or most of Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital unpleasant. Farther out there are two full blocks, or 600 linear meters, of surface lots. On both sides, the parts of Route 34 used for moving cars are also flanked by surface lots.

Although Union Station is located outside city center, and the area immediately to its east is either empty or low-value, the station’s overflow parking lots are located between the station and downtown, on the downtown side of Route 34. There are special shuttles between the train station and the parking lots, and other shuttles between the train station and Yale. It makes Providence Station and Providence Place look like models of megaproject-city integration. To solve that particular problem, New Haven is proposing a circulator streetcar with practically no use other than a parking lot shuttle on rails.

Even inhabited buildings are often surrounded by immense amounts of surface parking. Immediately north of the elevated parking garage over York, there are several towers in parking lots. Even lower-rise housing is frequently surrounded by continuous parking; this is true of most blocks flanking State Street within walking distance of the State Street train station. What’s jarring is not just the percentage of space devoted to parking, but also the size of continuous parking lots; the more intact residential neighborhoods of both New Haven and Providence have small lots behind or between houses, rather than multiple continuous hectares of parking. It’s this preponderance of unlit parking that gives the city a post-apocalyptic feel.

Discounting the parking, the city is surprisingly monocentric. Most of the university and the secondary urban destinations cluster near downtown. Generally they’re west of the office towers – just far enough to avoid creating a true mixed-use neighborhood anywhere – but they’re theoretically within walking distance of everything. It’s not like the multiple cores of Providence and Cambridge. The upside is that Chapel Street doesn’t depopulate at 7 pm the way Downcity does; the downside is that it’s still nowhere as nice as Thayer or Wickenden Street and completely lacks their small cosiness.

It’s too bad, because there is a lot of usable space in New Haven that would make for great development, and also make the rest of the city more livable if built up. The individual buildings that aren’t recent urban renewal projects are fine; there just need to be more of them. Some, though by no means all or even most, of the pedestrian-hostility will go if Route 34 is removed as planned. But the current plans call for the first block removed to be 50% replaced with a parking garage. Moreover, there do not seem to be plans to tear the elevated parking garage over York, even though it’s York and not the streets intersecting the freeway proper that connects to the hospital.

The problem, I believe, comes from viewing freeway removal as yet another urban renewal program, on a par with one-way streetcar loops, sterile cultural centers, and other universal failures. It’s a preference for the iconic over the mundane that leads New Haven to spurn the idea of removing the freeway and the garage, not mandating any parking, and selling the land in small lots to allow for independent businesses.

Big things almost invariably present a blank street wall. It’s not impossible for big entities to coexist with reasonable urbanism – Brown’s own buildings aren’t the best, but they don’t prevent Thayer Street from more or less working – but big buildings in low-traffic areas do not. A skyscraper in a downtown area with enough demand for it will work – it can have retail in its first floor facing the street, as the Empire State Building does, and the adjacent blocks will also be able to supply urban amenities. A skyscraper surrounded by nothing will not. Neither, for that matter, will a four-story facility occupying half a block; those need to be somewhere, but New Haven has enough space for them already and has no reason to prefer them to blocks with multiple separate buildings owned by different entities.

The end result is that New Haven is likely to stay bad. The suburbanites think it has a shortage of parking; thus, the city builds more for them, instead of realizing that a city will always have a shortage of parking and if it is accused of something it might as well do it and cater to people who it can satisfy. It’s great for cars – even more of the region will be open to them to the exclusion of anyone who uses other modes of transportation. It’s just bad for people.


  1. Steve

    How would you say today’s New Haven stacks up against other infamously pedestrian-hostile urban cores (e.g. 1980s Houston)? Your comment about the “post-apocalyptic feel” suggests that New Haven’s well on its way towards becoming the 2010s’ 1980s Houston…

  2. EBS

    A few things from my experience:

    The population is (obviously) incredibly segregated and the fact that the undergrad population generally lives in their closed-off castles for 4 years (and has meal plans) means there\’s less of a demand for a lot of \’college town\’ food and retail than in many comparable towns. Exception is cafes, of which there are no shortage. On weekend nights the downtown is usually filled with people who don\’t live in New Haven. That\’s not an excuse for the parking situation, which is horrific, but it\’s a reason why downtown business restuarant and bar owners probably believe that there can never be too much parking, even when they find themselves surrounded by enormous parking garages.

    Yale has an extensive private bus system which takes away demand from the local public transit, but also allows some students to go car-free in situations where they otherwise might not due to location and safety concerns.

    Turnover in downtown businesses is very high and there are tons of empty storefronts in some of the most centralized, pedestrian friendly areas. I don\’t know if this suggests that commercial rent is too high or if it\’s just a difficult place to make anything work. (Probably both.)

    Residential rent, on the other hand, is very clearly too high, nearly at NYC levels, and the housing vacancy rate is among the lowest in the country. I think there are plenty of grad students, adjuncts, young faculty who would live downtown instead of East Rock (the semi-suburban alternative, where many of them end up) if it were affordable and if a few more amenities existed. The new grocery store co-op at the bottom of the luxury tower that\’s across from the State St. station is a huge step in the right direction, but if it closed, as many grocery stores in New Haven have, then downtown residents would be miles away from a decent sized grocery store again and the difference between having a car and not having a car goes back to being enormous.

    Downtown New Haven isn\’t *that far* from having a downtown that offers car-free residents a fairly convenient lifestyle + an easy commute to NYC and the residential rents and vacancy rates suggest that there is certainly room for a lot of new housing. If the city takes steps in the right direction, it could be better off than a lot of places in 20 years. There\’s even talk of bikeshare:

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  4. ITB

    I lived there in 2001-2006 as a graduate student at Yale. After less than a year, I decided I needed a car, as much as I hated that. You could hardly go grocery shopping or go to the movies without a car! (Things got a bit better in the latter years; for example, a new movie theater opened downtown and a small but nice grocery store opened close to where I lived.) Public transportation sucked, with very infrequent buses. My pet peeve was the route that went to the movie theaters close to I-91: it only ran M-F 9-5 or something like that.

    I only used the car for special trips, as I lived close to campus and close to downtown and could walk or bike. But I was surprised when I realized that very few people in the Yale community (other than undergrads) chose to live in New Haven. Most of the professors and staff that I knew lived pretty far, some with 30-40 min commutes by car (that takes you almost as far as Hartford or halfway to Rhode Island or New York!) The people who lived “close” lived in Hamden and also commuted by car. Only grad students tended to live in New Haven, and even some of them moved out as soon as they could. I never understood why, because I actually liked New Haven, or at least the neighborhoods that I frequented.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, but the fact is that New Haven is basically seen by it’s “users” as a giant parking lot. Too many people live too far from it and drive in every day. Even people who take the train towards New York drive in to the train station. I think the city does need to reduce parking, but it will have to be gradual, while simultaneously increasing housing options in New Haven and improving public transportation. You can’t remove a lot of parking overnight, because then all those people who live 30 miles away and work in New Haven will be in serious trouble. But *increasing* parking is insane!

    • Beta Magellan

      I have family that lives in suburban New Haven, and when visiting we tended to refer to the trips as “to Connecticut” rather than “to New Haven,” whereas my family (which lived in the Merrimack River family) tended to refer to their area as “Boston” more often than “Massachusetts.” Of course a lot of this is due to the smaller population and economy of New Haven relative to Boston, but I think it still says something about the city’s weakness as a regional center.

  5. Adirondacker12800

    Big things almost invariably present a blank street wall.

    If it didn’t have a blank wall it would corrupt it’s tower-in-a-park motif.
    Blank street walls are a post World War II blight. You cite the Empire State. The Empire State occupies one block. Rockefeller Center covers blocks of Midtown and has a vibrant streetscape. And a vibrant, well maybe not vibrant, underground mall. The GE building is the tenth tallest in Manhattan, 32nd in the US and 93rd in the world.

    Look at the pictures of Penn Station’s construction. It’s surrounded by a sea of low rise tenements.

    Neither, for that matter, will a four-story facility occupying half a block

    Upper Broadway is lined with buildings that take up the whole block or half a block.

    prefer them to blocks with multiple separate buildings owned by different entities.

    It doesn’t have to be separate buildings, the landlord just has to be willing to subdivide. Witness the whole block buildings on Upper Broadway. Macy’s takes up the whole block. Compare that to the Empire State building or Rockefeller Center….

    • Alon Levy

      The reason this bigness works in New York is that there’s demand for it. Manhattan is a dense place, which means people can go to the stores provided by multiple big buildings in close proximity. There’s also a lot of street activity no matter what, and so a big building will find it natural to add storefronts.

      New Haven is not like that. The downtown skyscrapers aren’t like in Midtown, which has one skyscraper after another and there are so many employees that they can fill a huge pedestrianized city square. Because they think they need parking, those skyscrapers have to come with an assortment of garages, and so density is limited, and away from 9-5 the only thing that can fill the streets is Yale students and people providing them services. As you go out of the center of the center, density decreases in both cities, but remains far higher in New York. So Upper Broadway and Amsterdam can have 12-story buildings built to the lot line and they’ll do well, and New Haven looks sterile when it puts in a single Yale building.

      It’s similar to enclosed shopping centers, by the way. Orchard Road in Singapore is flanked on both sides by malls, one after the other. But there’s so much pedestrian street traffic that there are stores and restaurants that open to the street and not to the malls, and close to the center there are advertising screens facing the street, similar to those at Times Square. And those malls have parking garages – they just put them behind the mall or otherwise at a place that doesn’t hurt the streetscape. But take one of these shopping centers, pluck them out of Singapore and put them in Providence, and for good measure keep the street-facing restaurants, and you’ll still get an auto-oriented urban disaster. (And it’s not even a parking matter in Providence, but one of being able to cross the street safely.)

      • Adirondacker12800

        You’d have an auto oriented disaster whether or not the street facing stores were rented out by multiple landlords or one landlord. Finding 30 developers to redevelop a block in downtown New Haven isn’t going to generate any more foot traffic than finding one developer who commits to street level retail. One developer might even be better, get them to commit to an alley so deliveries and garbage collection can happen in the middle of the block instead of on the street.

        • Peter Brassard

          This urban condition in smaller cities like New Haven and Providence and dozens if not hundreds of others is more about the de-centralization that’s a result from car culture, rather than parking by itself.

          Using Providence as an example, the Providence Place Mall is effectively a high-rise shopping center with a rough total of 1.4-billion square feet (130-million square meters). If all those retail establishments were re-distributed and added to Downcity’s existing retail/restaurants using the historic retail patterns, there probably wouldn’t be enough room on Downcity’s streets to accommodate it.

          Along Exchange Street leading from Kennedy Plaza to the train station there have been repeated complaints of the lack or retail along that path. The Waterplace Park condos has a never been used empty store, the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building has a similar empty store, and the Avalon apartments is lined with retail on Exchange Street and across from the train station mostly used as street level law firms. Unless Providence Station quadruples the number of train passengers or there’s a massive infusion of residential population or both around the station, the Exchange Street retail will likely remain empty.

          Not that long ago in New Haven there was still a substantial retail district on the south side of the green. In a sense New Haven is behind Providence. Providence began losing its street retail to the suburbs in the late 70s and early 80s and it was empty by the late 90s. New Haven’s retail was still functioning in the 90s before vanishing.

          Haldeman’s expression “the tooth paste is out of the tube” applies. Small city downtown’s that were once traditional regional retail hubs and pedestrian environments will not likely return, as long as private automotive transportation is the dominant mode. Simply providing street level retail space will not necessarily create or recreate a pedestrian environment as Exchange Street demonstrates.

          Filling in parking lots by adding significant population density might be the key component to creating a pedestrian environment in these old downtown cores. Would downtown New Haven or Providence be more like midtown if there were an additional 50,000 or 60,000 people living in them?

  6. Peter Brassard

    Just for the record the Empire State Building takes up just a half block. The rest of the block is filled with an assortment of other buildings.

  7. Benjamin Hemric

    Hi, Alon!

    Intersting post! (Although I’ve never reallly been to New Haven (I’ve just passed by), I’ve always wondered about it.)

    One thing that interests me about New Haven’s future is its past — given it’s small size (approximately 120,000 according to Wikipedia — or two of the Bronx’s Co-Op cities) it’s hard for me to imagine what it was like during it’s “heyday” (e.g., population of 164,443, 1950 census). I’m wondering if the walkable downtown of New Haven was ever really that good an “urban” place to live then? (From Wikipedia, Providence, Rhode Island has a population 50% higher.)

    In my mind, New Haven “might” have been. From readings here and there where mention of New Haven crops up (e.g., biographies of theater people who opened their plays and musicals in New Haven), it seems kind of urban, with people hanging out at the theater, at the hotel(s), in nearby coffee shops etc. But beyond that — and being a main shopping / hotel district for Yale University — it’s had to imagine it having much urbanity, and thus it’s hard to imagine it having much urbanity in its future (when urbanity is even harder to come by). For instance, was there every a big department store or two big department stores? How many movie theaters, restaurants were there? Etc.? (I realize that New Haven was also something of a manufacturing hub, and even something of a transportation hub (?), at one time — but it’s hard to visualize.)

    So along these lines, it would kind of fun to see a “historical” book/article along the lines of your Pedestrian Observation post –which got me thinking about Arcadia Publishing. Perhaps you and your readers are already aware of this publishing house, but in case anyone is not and is interested, they apparently have six books on New Haven. Three of which seem like they might be along these lines: “New Haven,” by Colin Caplan; “New Haven Streetcars” by the Branford Electirc Railway Association; “New Haven: Reshaping the City, 1900-1980,” by the New Haven Colonial Historial Society. (I haven’t read or seen any of them, myself, just learned about them now.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Tues., June 26, 2012, 6:40 p.m.

    P.S. — In terms of the future, part of me says that Yale is too big, both in terms and influence and size for New Haven ever to be more than just a “company town” and slight adjunct.

    • Alon Levy

      Oh, New Haven is definitely a company town. The street life it does have reflects that. People hang out at cafes (in fact, I’d say it has a better student cafe scene than Providence and better bookstores), eat out at restaurants, and go to the theater. But it all takes place in a small student ghetto. As you head out, the density, which isn’t high in the first place, drops steadily; beyond a few blocks of brownstones, you get the strip malls on Dixwell and the suburban-density residential blocks on Whitney. There’s still manufacturing tucked away in various corners of the waterfront, but it’s not that important to the city.

      The issue in New Haven’s case is urban design more than economy, anyway. It’s a poor city, but Providence is poorer, and Providence still does better on metrics like crime. New Haven just doesn’t feel as safe, with the project towers and such.

      • Nathanael

        Looking at the map, I think the freeway teardown probably will actually help. It’s noticeable how much more “parking lot” filled New Haven becomes as you approach the “Oak Street Connector” from either side. I could see redevelopment working south from Crown St. & State St. towards the New Haven Police Department if that monstrous lump of freeway is removed. But of course the city would have to authorize building small buildings on parking lots.

        • Alon Levy

          The problem is that the parking is not being redeveloped. There are no plans to tear down the elevated parking garage over York, which is the worst offender. It’s even worse than in the Jewelry District, where it’s possible they’ll redevelop without including massive amounts of parking for people who live in Seekonk.

          • Alon Levy

            That parking lot’s annoying and I have to go through it every time I walk between the train station and the parts of the city north of 34, and it’s good they’re trying to put something more interesting there, but I was talking about the Air Rights Garage.

          • DingDong

            Some other factual corrections. They are not building a streetcar (which is too bad)

            The streetcar would have been much more than a parking circulator; it had planned extensions to Hamden and West Haven and could have revitalized Whalley. Even in its initial phase it could have helped bridge the gap between downtown (major employment center and increasingly a residential one too), the medical district (employment) and Union station.

            New Haven is monocentric only if you forget about Upper State Street and consider Ninth Square part of the same area as Broadway (which seems forced) and ignore that the densest part of town is Dwight and Dwight-Kensington which conforms to many new urbanist ideals (just no white people); Fair Haven is a close second and is teeming with street life, though only a few white people.

            There aree two major employers in New Haven Yale and Yale-New Haven hospital (despite the name its unrelated to the university).

            There were a number of department stores through the years downtown, the largest of which was Shartenbergs (at the site of 360 State Building).

            Plenty of Yale professors live in New Haven; the few I know who don’t live in Cambridge or New York. Don’t have any stats to back this up but neither did the commenter above making the contrary claim.

            A lot went wrong in New Haven and a lot is still going wrong but things are getting a lot better. Each year in the past ten years or so has seen major improvements. The prediction that things will stay bad assumes that things are bad now; but plenty of people live here and like it quite a bit.

          • IT

            I’d be interested in seeing stats too. Obviously, my unscientific sample is very small!

            To be fair, I do remember at least a couple of professors who had homes in New Haven.

          • Alon Levy

            The “planned extensions” issue also crops up in Providence, and is equally disingenuous. Why not start with the busiest bus line, and then, if there’s extra money, build extensions? Like it or not, the choice of where to put the first line says a lot about priorities. So I know that New York’s SBS, for all its faults, is not an inner-urban circulator because the first line was Fordham and they only even added in 34th much later (34th has the same problems as any circulator, but it was not the focus of the program). With New Haven and Providence, maps showing a detailed routing downtown with multiple arrows pointing in vague directions outward tell me the exact opposite.

            The same is true of the “linking the job centers together” argument. At the distances of both the New Haven and Providence streetcars, people walk. New Haven doesn’t even have the steep hill of Providence that would make transit so much more attractive, at least if it treated the bus tunnel better. The problem with walking to the YNH hospital is 100% one of bad urban design, and because the street that connects to it is York, the 34 removal plans aren’t going to help.

            To New Haven’s credit, going by your link the aldermen voted it down precisely because of the lack of service to neighborhoods beyond downtown.

        • DingDong

          A number of Yale professors also live in Hamden. I forgot about it, as it often seems an extension of New Haven but for many purposes obviously it’s not. I’d agree that streetcar was not well-designed. Much of that has to do with the buses being run by a state agency and the streetcar being a city project (an explanation, not a justification).

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