Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Route 34: Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past (Testimony)

Public testimony from David Streever at the recent Board of Aldermen hearing on Route 34 public safety. The resolution in question passed the committee by a vote of 4-3, and now heads to the full Board of Aldermen for a vote. Please contact your Aldermen and encourage them to vote for a safer street.

The image shown here is an existing view of College & North Frontage: One of the intersections that the city proposes to significantly widen, even though local residents already consider it to be exceptionally dangerous.


Earlier this year, I read a quote in the Independent saying the Route 34 project began almost a decade ago. In reality, the proposal you see celebrated its birthday over one hundred years ago. The city is unaware of the long history of this project, and unaware that they are repeating mistakes first made almost a century ago.

In 1905, George Santayana wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. A few short years later, Frederick Law Olmsted and Cass Gilbert released a report on how New Haven should address a growing population and improve the cities basic infrastructure and quality of life.

The recommendations included expanded rail coverage, trolley service, and the purchase and demolition of hundreds of properties along Oak Street to place a city boulevard which would be lined with high-value property.

Over forty years later New Haven built Route 34, demolishing hundreds of homes and displacing almost a thousand families, and leaving out the expanded rail service, trolley service, and other mass transit and walkable elements. The original Route 34 was built entirely with cars in mind, and became purely a means of driving in and out of New Haven.

The project was marred by setbacks and delays, and never reached the final phases. The city was left with a lethal expressway which devalued property and could not be expanded upon, while literally driving residents out of the city. The loss of our tax base coincided with the loss of Federally funded road projects, and we were unable to complete the project.

Our experts in City Hall have forgotten this history. The history touted by the City says that Route 34 began in the 40s. Their omission of the good work of Olmstead and Gilbert is notable--it shows that they do not realize that 30 years of good intentions went into the original Route 34 plan.

The city seems flabbergasted by the wide-spread disagreement with their current plan, citing their good intentions and the economic development aspects of the plan. They claim that this is a phase one plan--and that while it is far from ideal, the issues we’ve identified as being dangerous and out of scope with the proposal will be addressed in later phases. What they do not realize is that this is what happened to Olmstead, Gilbert, and the aldermen--amongst them my neighbor Henry Harrison--when the time came to built the original Route 34.

New Haven is not learning from history. Olmstead, Gilbert, and Harrison had wonderful intentions--every bit as good as our current experts--and the individuals responsible for building Route 34 shared them. Much like our city staff, they naively believed that a Phase II was guaranteed. A mistake which even now, over 70 years later, dogs our city. We pay for this mistake with a high rate of accidents and deaths, pollution, crashed property values, and rising asthma rates. This stretch of road creates a very real barrier between the Hospital, the Hill, and Downtown, encouraging residents to drive when they could walk, and keeping neighborhoods segregated.

The current plan only increases this problem, by widening the road, and widening curb radii--the turning radius of the streets. These changes have been proven to increase speeds in study after study, which will make the street less safe to use. The addition of no less than 3 separate types of bike infrastructure--all within a few blocks of each other--will only cause confusion and frustration. How can a cyclist who is being diverted to a different type of infrastructure every other block behave in a safe, predictable manner?

The city should have followed their own grant proposal and built a street around living, walking, biking, and using mass transit. Despite showing us dozens of photos of other progressive cities where highways have been replaced with parks and light rail, they have proposed a plan that increases the overall speeds, danger, and widths of the roads.

One has to wonder why the final plan is so different from the original proposal the city submitted, and why, despite hundreds of residents attending dozens of public meetings, the plan has remained virtually unchanged since 2008.

The basis of the plan--a car-centric and widened expressway--has remained the same for 3 years. The number one feedback at every single meeting I’ve attended is:

"Build a smaller road--an actual boulevard--consistent with your proposal. Build a road which is safe to walk, bike, and live on. Build a road with civic improvements, not office complexes that will be mostly staffed by Guilford residents who can drive directly to their office on the new expressway you are proposing."

The resolution as submitted echoes the spoken and written words of literally hundreds of our neighbors. I have not attended a single public meeting where a city resident said that they’d like to see the current plan built without changes. The alternate vision for Route 34, as articulated by a broad group of architects, urban planners, and neighbors is a safe, economically strong road which will improve our city and strengthen our communities. The city's current proposal will do neither of these things. It will deliver a large lot to a private developer and cause further danger to pedestrians and residents.

How long will it take to undo the damage that the cities current plan could wreck? It has taken us 60 years to begin talking about how to undo the damage caused by the original plan. I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait another 60 to have a safe and livable Route 34.

David Streever
Ward 10 Chairman
Board of Directors Elm City Cycling

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