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.