Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coalition for a Livable Whalley Press Release on Community Workshop and DOT Hearing


For release July 22, 2008 - Camera Opportunity!

WHAT: Community workshop on Whalley Avenue traffic safety.
WHERE: Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI), 85 Harrison St. at Whalley Avenue, New Haven.
WHEN: Thursday, July 24, 6 p.m.
CONTACTS: Coalition for a Livable Whalley, Carole Bass, bass.carole /at/ gmail.com or Chris Heitmann, kibbitz77 /at/ gmail.com, 203-745-3173

Coalition for a Livable Whalley to hold community workshop on Whalley Avenue reconstruction project
- Event part of growing support for citywide traffic safety movement -

As part of the growing "safe streets" movement in New Haven, the Coalition for a Livable Whalley, a group of concerned citizens, will hold a community workshop this week to help gather ideas and support for making Whalley Avenue safer, calmer and more vibrant. The workshop will take place at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) on Thursday, July 24, at 6 p.m., in the Westville section of New Haven.

The event precedes a public open house with the state Department of Transportation about DOT's plans to reconstruct and widen a 3/4-mile stretch of upper Whalley. That meeting, convened by state Rep. Pat Dillon and state Sen. Toni Harp, is scheduled for July 31 from 5 to 8 pm at Edgewood School, 737 Edgewood Ave., in New Haven.

The Coalition for a Livable Whalley came together after last month's hit-and-run killing of 11-year-old Gabrielle Lee on the stretch of Whalley Avenue that the DOT intends to reconstruct. DOT's plan, in the works for decades, includes widening Whalley between Emerson Street in Westville and Rte. 69 in Amity. Construction is slated to begin in spring 2009. The group’s immediate goal is to re-envision and re-design the plan to calm traffic and prioritize access and safety for pedestrians, bus riders, and bicyclists, especially children, senior citizens, and disabled people. In the long term, the group hopes to create safe, active, and vibrant places along Whalley Avenue for both residents and visitors, in the process encouraging greater livability and local economic development.

Traffic safety, walkability and their impact on economic development have always been a major concern in New Haven and Connecticut cities. But New Haven's patchwork of individual residents and groups were not always sure what to do about it.

This spring, in the wake of a number of high-profile traffic-related injuries and fatalities -- including that of Gabrielle Lee -- the community has been galvanized into taking urgent citywide action. A number of community organizations, advocacy groups and elected officials formed the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, which published an online "Petition for Safe Streets" seeking specific measures needed to create a 50% reduction in citywide traffic-related injuries by 2009, and a 90% reduction by 2015.

According to Chris Heitmann, one of the Livable Whalley group’s coordinators, the approval of state funding for the DOT’s plan is “a tremendous opportunity to rebuild this stretch of Whalley Avenue in the long-term interests of the community, rather than trying to move more traffic through as quickly as possible. While the current plan has some merits, the DOT sees the new road accommodating over 40,000 cars a day, which nobody wants. We see a more desirable future for Whalley, one that’s safer for people walking, taking the bus, and riding their bikes, and which is actually pleasant to be on."

The effort to re-envision Whalley Avenue as a more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly place is being echoed in similar efforts all across New Haven. In June, a series of neighborhood planning meetings in Fair Haven, organized by Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale (D-New Haven), was funded through neighborhood contributions and attended by over 100 local residents. Since that time, the list of Safe Streets Coalition supporters has grown dramatically, and now boasts over 1,400 signatures on its online petition, plus the support of 28 elected officials and nearly two dozen community and advocacy groups, including, most recently, the Upper State Street Association, Westville Village Renaissance Alliance and the Town Green Special Services District's Board of Commissioners, three influential business improvement districts.

"The Safe Streets Petition was an easy signing for all who were present the evening that the Upper State Street Association voted to support," said Ben Berkowitz, president of Upper State Street Association. "Upper State Street wants to continue to see its reputation as a safe place to walk and bike grow and we feel that efforts like the Safe Streets Petition will help to foster that growth."

Perhaps most impressively, the Safe Streets Coalition's petition has now been approved by 9 of the city's 12 Community Management Teams (known as CMTs), neighborhood policing organizations which each can boast dozens of active members and serve as forums to discuss all issues related to public safety and neighborhood economic development. At its June meeting, the Westville-West Hills CMT, which represents the neighborhoods surrounding the Whalley Avenue project area, joined with groups from Newhallville to the East Shore in voting unanimously to support the petition. Safe Streets Coalition organizers expect the remaining 3 Management Teams to endorse the petition when they reconvene for voting later this summer, at which point they plan to launch additional grassroots campaigns to change policy at the local, state and national levels.

According to Alycia Santilli, an active member of New Haven's Quinnipiac East Management Team and the research coordinator for the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement at the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, the safe streets effort is important for its public health benefits as well.

"With obesity on the rise nationally and locally—obesity is more than 20% higher in New Haven compared to the rest of Connecticut and greater still among our children—it is imperative to increase physical activity options throughout the city. An integral component is ensuring that our streets are safe for walking and biking," she said.

Although New Haven has its work cut out in overcoming decades of automobile-centric policy and planning at the state level, the city is an ideal place for more progressive traffic planning to take hold. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, New Haven has a higher percentage of residents who walk or bicycle as their primary mode of commute to work than Boston, New York City, Hartford, Providence, Worcester, Bridgeport, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Stamford. Its dense urban center, founded in 1638, has a strong base of institutional and commercial employers. The potential for balancing regional traffic concerns with the principles of safety, walkability, bikeability and improved neighborhood development in this city have been widely recognized. A recent article by the American Podiatric Medical Association and Prevention Magazine ranked New Haven as the 19th most walkable of 501 U.S. cities.

But of the top five pedestrian commuter cities in the country, New Haven's city center has the closest direct proximity to major interstate highways. As a consequence, pedestrians routinely encounter high-speed traffic spilling from I-91 and I-95 onto major urban streets. Significant citywide focus has recently been given to the Route 34 Connector, a six-lane highway which runs directly from I-95 to the Air Rights Garage adjacent to Yale-New Haven Hospital. It bisects New Haven, creates an extremely dangerous situation for pedestrians, and according to the city, significantly inhibits downtown growth.

The city has an ambitious vision to remove the highway, re-create the street grid, and develop housing, parks, and offices in the highway's place. A group of community leaders came together in a letter dated May 27, 2008, to the governor of Connecticut to support this vision and demonstrate the overwhelming public support for the proposal. The letter was preceded by a March 2008 public event attended by over 125 community members and elected officials. In addition, the Yale Medical Campus Traffic Safety Group, one of the original founders of the New Haven Safe Streets Coalition, boasts an email list of nearly 200 citizens and has been conducting extensive organizing efforts to improve pedestrian safety around the hospital and on the Yale campus.

All of these concerns seem particularly urgent on Whalley Avenue, not just in the wake of the fatal traffic injury, but because the avenue is a key commercial corridor whose success or failure will have a major long-term impact on surrounding neighborhoods. Coalition for a Livable Whalley organizers are expecting a strong turnout at the two upcoming events.

Above all, residents see an improved Whalley Avenue as an opportunity to build community. According to Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, a supporter of the Coalition for a Livable Whalley, "two-thirds of the members of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) live in the City of New Haven and spend a lot of time walking, biking and driving around town. Many of our families choose to live in New Haven specifically so they can walk or bike to synagogue, which is part of a devout lifestyle. Our existence as a community depends on the safety of the streets and sidewalks."

“Spiraling gas prices have many Americans – some right here in Connecticut – reconsidering urban life as an attractive alternative to the auto-dependent sprawl of the past hundred years, but for this to become a realistic alternative in the future we must ensure a suitable urban environment for all who use city streets, including bicyclists and pedestrians,” explains Senator Toni N. Harp (D-New Haven), a coalition supporter. “I hope many New Haven-area residents participate in the imminent traffic safety public hearings so we gather a complete range of ideas and opinions about how to modify our city going forward to provide vibrant neighborhoods and safe streets throughout.”

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