New Haven's Road to Revitalization: Re-creating a Community from the Route 34 Connector

L-R: New Haven’s Oak Street neighborhood in the 1950s, the area in the 1970s after the construction of the Route 34 Connector, and today.

The negative impacts of postwar urban renewal — wanton highway construction, residential displacement, social fragmentation — are still felt in cities throughout America. New Haven, the recipient of more per capita federal dollars spent on urban renewal projects than other U.S. city, suffered disproportionately from these misguided policies. Anyone traveling to New Haven today will see the remnants of this planning philosophy, epitomized most prominently by the Route 34 Connector, which has been derogatorily nicknamed “the road to nowhere.”

Initially built to connect the junction of I-91 and I-95 in New Haven through to Derby, the 1.1-mile, unfinished road cuts through the Oak Street neighborhood. More than 600 businesses and families (some of whom still gather at the annual Oak Street Reunion) were displaced between 1955 and 1957 to make way for the Rt. 34 Connector.

Plans to extend the highway to the West Haven/Orange town line were eventually abandoned, leaving it a stub of a highway. But the damage had been done. The urban freeway cut downtown off from the city’s regional transportation hub, Union Station, and further exacerbated automobile dependency and suburban sprawl.

Recently, however, a unique plan to mitigate these impacts has emerged. The proposal, developed by local activists and the City of New Haven would redevelop the Route 34 Connector into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of workforce housing, retail, and open space. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.’s Future Framework 2008 plan proposes to tear down the Rt. 34 Connector, restore the long-lost street grid, and reconnect downtown to Union Station.

To rally support for the project, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Urban Design League of New Haven are hosting a symposium highlighting the plan on April 16th from 6pm to 8pm at New Haven’s Career High School. The event, headlined by John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee, is sponsored by the City of New Haven, the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at UConn, Yale University Sustainable Transportation, the One Region Funders Group, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and the Fairfield County Community Foundation. (For more information, read TSTC’s event flier.)

Mr. Norquist will discuss how, as Mayor of Milwaukee, he led the successful effort to tear down the Park East Freeway and create a vibrant community in its place. ConnDOT Deputy Commissioner Albert Martin will also speak about Connecticut’s broader efforts to promote transit oriented development, and how these efforts relate to Rt. 34’s redevelopment.

The Rt. 34 tear-down proposal now joins a handful of similar plans throughout the region, including proposals to remove the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx and the Skyway in Buffalo, and a proposed underground relocation of I-84 in Hartford. The Campaign hopes this quartet can spur additional community-driven proposals to rectify the damage caused by urban freeways.

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