Redevelopment: The Story of Church Street South
In ancient Rome, the Forum Romanum served as a center for civic life, a place for monuments and commemorations, and the nucleus of commercial affairs. In an age of the internet, web-based social networking, and online shopping, do such spaces still have a role to play in contemporary cities like New Haven?
Tabula Rasa, a Latin term used by modern city planners to describe the clearance and preparation of obsolete urban sites for new construction, is often interpreted to mean “clean slate,” but is more accurately translated as “scraped tablet.”
“Redevelopment: The Story of Church Street South” attempts to recover, display, and preserve a message that was inscribed into the design of an affordable housing complex in New Haven by its architect. As Church Street South is being demolished, the message is being erased, and the tablet is being scraped, New Haven may be at risk for losing much more than 300 units of attainable housing and a notable work of postmodern architecture.
The Nine Square Plan: An Introduction to Planning and Redevelopment in New Haven
“Designed originally to be the capital of a large colony[,] New Haven was laid out in the form of a large square divided into nine smaller square—the central one reserved as common land—with a tenth square going off at a diagonal to meet the harbor. This compelling diagram is recognized today as one of the earliest and most important in American planning history.”
—Elizabeth Mills Brown
“The Squares were problematic from their inception because they were too large and improvidently located. To adapt to land conditions and a commercial future far from what the town’s founders anticipated, eighteenth-century civic leaders resorted to a variety of processes to revise the layout, including a major subdivision that required use of the eminent domain power without payment of compensation in the 1780s. Town planning within the grid contrasted sharply with planning in areas surrounding the grid during the same time frame. In other parts of New Haven, incremental street decisions, legal mechanisms for resident involvement, and laws permitting in-kind compensation for new road ways allowed the town responsively to plan streets suited to changing land and settlement conditions[.]”
“The Nine Squares failed because they were planned by an uninformed central authority without regard for how that plan would support the settlement which followed.”
—Maureen E. Brady
1800-1900: Early Planning
“When growth beyond the [Nine Squares] began, it came in four major waves. [The] third wave, refl ecting the euphoria of the Canal Age, came with explosive force. [The] city itself burst its bounds on all sides, forming a loose circle of satellite centers on its edges. [Four] principal clusters formed, [including one] to the southwest [in an] area across the West Creek[.]
The map will show you that Spireworth is the central square of a miniature nine squares whose outer dimension is the same as one of the nine squares of New Haven. [The land was] acquired by Nathaniel and Simeon Jocelyn—artists, social reformers, crusaders for black rights, and among the biggest real estate speculators in the city’s history. It was the Jocelyns who designed the model layout and its tiny green, refl ecting the formal grace of the wealthier center of the city.”
“ … the name Spireworth alluded to ‘a slender spindling sort of grass’ that grows only in poor soil … ”
—Elizabeth Mills Brown
1910: The Plan
In June 1907, Yale instructor George Dudley Seymour lobbied a group of civic leaders to fund a ‘City Beautiful’ plan for New Haven. The services of Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. were retained soon after. Published in 1910, the Report of the New Haven Civic Improvement Commission contained 93 specific recommendations and suggestions, which included the regulation of unplanned development, the preservation of parkland, and several large scale urban design projects for the city’s center.
Principal among these large projects was the creation of a boulevard linking the New Haven Green to a new passenger railroad station. This 120-foot-wide boulevard would have originated from the New Haven Free Public Library, progressed along a widened Temple Street, and terminated at Union Station. Boutique shops, restaurants, and hotels interspersed by a series of public squares were envisioned along this grand promenade.
1912: Implementation of the Plan
“Significantly, [the City of New Haven] hired Frederick L. Ford, a Sheffield Scientific School-trained architect and engineer (PH.B. 1893), to develop the avenue connecting the train station to the Green[.]
In September 1912, Ford released his report on the avenue or, as it was commonly called, the railroad approach. Following Gilbert and Olmsted’s plan, he used the axis of Commerce Street to connect the station plaza with downtown George Street, but he reduced significantly the size of the civic plaza at the avenue’s north end, where it intersected with Congress Avenue. He also introduced another public square at the avenue’s midpoint, to be used as a market garden for New Haven County farmers. Like the civic plaza, the new square deflected the avenue’s axis, a move motivated in part by the need to find the most economically feasible route. Indeed, his elaboration of Gilbert and Olmsted’s schematic design typified the process of translating the broad gestures of City Beautiful planning into physical reality.
The result, far from compromising the plan’s intent and principle, was a richer, more complex scheme. It provided a succession of civic spaces, varied in shape and function, which inflected the approach to the Green.”
1920-1930s: Limitations of the Plan
By the mid-1930s, a portion of the railroad station approach was built from Union Avenue to Orange Street. The extension of the avenue up to Temple Street and the Green, however, was never completed. While retail stores did open along Meadow Street and a handful of hotels located in the vicinity, the area primarily remained a warehouse, wholesale, and market district.
Increasing automotive travel such as daily commuting and intercity trucking contributed to declining use of railroads. As Union Station became less of a prominent entrance to New Haven over the course of the 20th century, the surrounding area became less appealing for upscale commercial investment.
1930-1940s: The Plan As-Built
The project began with a budget of $600,000, which grew quickly to more than $2 million. Although Gilbert prepared several presentation drawings in the spring of 1907, the design was not officially chosen until two and a half years later. Further complications occurred when the railroad encountered difficulty in obtaining the land that had been chosen for the project. Change in leadership occurred in 1913, when Howard Elliot became the new president, having come from a post at the Northern Pacific Railroad. His administration was short-lived; he was forced out in 1917, only months after Gilbert’s original design had been radically stripped down. The onset of World War 1 was also a factor in the delays.”
“Union Station epitomizes Gilbert’s personal architectural credo: that ‘no matter how ornate or how simple and plain a structure may be, in the last analysis, its principal claim to beauty lies in its proportions, not in its adornment.”
—Stephen J. Raiche
1950s: Evaluation from Above
“Not every structure in this area is sub-standard, but like cutting a rotten spot from an apple, some of the good has to be cut away too to save the whole.”
—New Haven Redevelopment Agency, 1955
“It is altogether too easy to forget the New Haven of a decade ago. Neither our eyes, nor our memories are any longer jolted by the vision of the old produce market that had operated near the Railroad Station for more than half a century. The old market was a tangle of stress, often so congested that normal business was impossible. Most business was conducted from the tailgates of trucks. This was a truck market in every sense of the word, with little tax return to the City and few permanent jobs. The buildings that were used were obsolete and inefficient, relics of a bygone age. Streets were too often littered with refuse and filth and infested with rats and vermin. This was the sight that greeted visitors to New Haven as they left the railroad station. One can hardly imagine a less impressive entrance to a city.”
—Mayor Richard C. Lee, 1965
1950-1960s: Views from the Ground
“I lived on Carlisle Street, which is off of Howard Avenue right near the railroad station, and that was completely destroyed. As a matter of fact I always remember with a little bit of bitterness because the neighborhood was structurally—the buildings were—sound. And it was a nice neighborhood and it certainly was a safe area. And they knocked my house down and they didn’t do anything in that neighborhood for ten years. They just left it a mess [and] you sometimes wonder—why did they do that? Everything was fi ne there, it wasn’t a problem. For redevelopment purposes, they did that and it took so long for them to do anything to make it a better place. But most of the neighborhoods, especially the Italian neighborhoods, coincidentally were strongly affected by [redevelopment].
[My family] had no choice. It was either [move] or face the wrecking ball while you were in the house. [I] was 12 when we moved. And my mother had lived there I don’t know 40, 50 years—before that—in the same house. It was a difficult transition and I fought it tooth and nail. I refused. We moved to North Haven, [but] I used to actually take the bus almost every day after school just to go hang around the corner with my friends.
We—the group of men that I hung around with when we were growing up—were of all backgrounds. Irish, African American, Jewish, Portuguese, and we all did the same thing. We all came back to the neighborhoods.”
Resulting from the City’s redevelopment efforts, it is estimated that 2,064 individuals in 707 households were compelled to relocate from their dwellings in the Church Street Area between 1954 and 1968.
“The cataclysmic epoch in New Haven’s history was initiated, here as in hundreds of other American cities, by the coming of the interstate highways[.] Indeed, the experience of the past thirty years has shown that everything […] New Haven Redevelopment wanted to do was utterly wrong in every way. This was true in all urban categories. [The] urbanism of high modernism, unlike some of its buildings, was almost universally destructive to everything[.] New Haven was among the first American cities to be torn to pieces by it.
None of that was Lee’s fault; he and his colleagues were getting the most up-to-date professional advice that was available from architects, planners, and all too many of the social scientists of the time [and] it was all bad advice.”
—Mayor Richard C. Lee
In response to the widespread demolition of neighborhoods during urban renewal, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, which made individual landmarks and contributing buildings within a designated historic district eligible for historic preservation tax credits for rehabilitation work.
Union Station, “left as a forlorn palace in a decaying part of town”, was closed in 1970 and slated for demolition. In 1975, however, the railroad station was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Preservation grants for rehabilitation work in conjunction with the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project in 1979, provided funding to improve passenger service and restore the building.
Houses near the train station on Columbus, Portsea, Carlisle, and Putnam Streets that were identical to those torn down by the Redevelopment Agency are now eligible for historic preservation tax credits for renovation work, entitled to a 90-day delay from demolition, and designated with other privileges. Two decades after bulldozers ravaged the Church Street area, Trowbridge Square was designated a National Historic District notable for: “its retention of substantially intact, first-generation streetscapes comprised of extremely small and modestly scaled, stylistically reduced residences built over the course of six decades for members of the city’s working-class population.”
—New Haven Preservation Trust