The Failure of Design in Downtown New Haven

Today, from Design New Haven, a tale of two shopping plazas. 

One,
anchored by a Shaw’s supermarket, is in the thriving heart of downtown
New Haven, a city that was just ranked in the top 25 "Best for Gen Y"
nationally. The other is a Target complex in the middle of an
industrial wasteland at the city’s edge. Which is more friendly to
human beings?

We’ll let Design New Haven’s editor, Mark Abraham, tell the counterintuitive story:

Shaws-Plaza-NewHaven_1.jpgShaw’s Plaza is in the heart of downtown New Haven, but connected to nothing.

The Shaw’s Plaza, built in the mid-1990s, is home to the only major
supermarket in Downtown New Haven, and attracts many local residents
and Yale students…

Despite
the
supermarket’s popularity and the incredibly high density of the
surrounding neighborhood (according to the Census, the Dwight
neighborhood just west of Downtown has a population density close to
those of many of the central boroughs of London, 50-60% higher than
that of Chicago or Downtown New Haven, and about 3X higher than that of
the East Rock neighborhood), there are no crosswalks or traffic calming
measures anywhere near the store. In addition to the lack of any
pedestrian plaza right at the store’s entrance, DNH readers regularly
observe families of all ages, even people in wheelchairs, trying to
cross Whalley Avenue near the Shaw’s plaza. Usually, they dart across
under great stress. To make things worse, vehicles regularly speed in
excess of 50MPH down the 4-lane, median-less highway…

In contrast… the Target Department Store in North Haven, Connecticut opened about five years ago
as part of a National Realty project, and is located in an industrial
zone near the city’s old landfill (known as "Mount Trashmore"). Other
than its location off of I-91, Target has no physical relationship with
any surrounding residential or commercial areas.

The store is the epitome of "dumb growth." But wait!

Look at the beautiful Dutch-inspired, textured, shared space plaza at the front of the store. Chicanes, vehicle bollards, traffic calming, medians, brightly-striped ladder crosswalks, and pedestrian walkways can be spotted throughout.

Those
who frequent this Target report feeling exceptionally comfortable and
safe walking to it. Families with children are regularly spotted
walking, skipping, or hobbling into the store’s entrance with ease. The
Starbucks located at the store’s entrance does quite well, with people
spilling out to enjoy their coffees in the nice weather. This despite
that the area often smells like industrial emissions or manure
processing, and has views of abandoned rail tracks and one of the
largest parking lots in New Haven County.

As
Abraham, points out, the contrast is illuminating in two ways. First,
it shows how much design principles have advanced in the last ten
years, and how they can make a difference in people’s experience of
space, even in a poorly placed development. Second, it raises this
question: "Why are residents living in sections of one of the densest
downtown areas in the United States — a very large proportion of whom
are unable to own or operate a vehicle — treated like second class
citizens?"

More from around the network: Transportation for America
reports on a study that shows Americans continued to use public transit
in record numbers during the first quarter of this year. City Parks Blog writes about the concept of "the humane metropolis." And Urban Review STL asks the timeless question, "Are developers evil?"

  • What is so special about the Target? Textured plaza? Not bad. But other than that it is just like any other Target, a big parking lot in front of a big box. Neither place look like anything interesting to me. In contrast the picture of the German town via the “shared space” link easily trump both places with its first impression.

  • sarah

    I lived in New Haven, CT for many years and used both the Target in North Haven and the Shaw’s in New Haven. Both stores function fine for the environments they are in. Target is in a suburb defined by long roads, spread-out houses, and large suburban malls. Consequently, that Target store fits in with how people live, drive, work, etc. It’s very convenient and located with other big stores. Is that how cities and suburbs of the future should be designed? Probably not. But currently Target fits its environment. Change housing density, at least in new developments, and you will find a willing and eager consumer base for differently designed shopping areas. But don’t pillory Target for having built a store to match an existing town’s layout. That town, to repeat, is North Haven, not New Haven.

  • Art

    It’s worth underscoring a very big, important difference: the Target store is in North Haven, while the Shaw’s is in New Haven. I grew up in North Haven and spent many years living in New Haven as well. North Haven is worlds away from downtown New Haven, even if it’s just a few miles away. It’s an independent, suburban bedroom community that was once home to some larger industries, which is why you have a lot of shopping plazas on formerly industrial land with no particular connection to residential or commercial areas. The fact that the Target project has pedestrian amenities is primarily because it was developed quite recently, not because Dwight residents were necessarily being discriminated against when Shaw’s went in. And at the end of the day, the Target plaza is still highly auto-oriented, with a big-box footprint—a far cry from some of the more progressive Target designs that have been built recently in other cities. The Shaw’s plaza, in contrast, was developed nearly 15 years ago (and was a very big, and complex, deal at the time because it represented the return of a full-service grocery store to the inner city—but came long before pedestrian amenities were expected in a project of this sort, and also at the very beginning of New Haven’s recent renaissance, which brought an influx of people and tax dollars into the city and laid the groundwork for pushing for bike/ped improvements on later projects). Yes, it could absolutely benefit from some investment by the city in the form of streetscape improvements (as could the entire Whalley corridor, for that matter). But the bigger story here is really about how to retrofit older design and development in center cities as we move away from a car-centered society. (Incidentally, downtown New Haven’s Chapel Square Mall is a great place to start exploring that question: the suburban-style mall, built in the 1960s in the heart of downtown opposite the historic city green to “save the city,” was flipped inside out to open to the street instead of to the interior, and a community college moved in. On the street level, new retailers were willing to go in once there were windows and direct access from the sidewalk.)

  • Wai Yip: The Target entrance design may not look very interesting, but it really works (once you get out of your car that is; forget trying to bicycle or walk there).

    Sarah wrote: “The fact that the Target project has pedestrian amenities is primarily because it was developed quite recently, not because Dwight residents were necessarily being discriminated against when Shaw’s went in.”

    ConnDOT is notorious for placing the needs of vehicle drivers and “smooth traffic flow” over the needs of pedestrians. Given the demographics of the residents of the Dwight, Downtown and Dixwell neighborhoods bordering this site, I don’t think that a discrimination charge is really that far out of line.

    If the DOT had been more progressive and responsive to the public, rather than only responsible to the suburban political elite in Hartford, this plaza may have ended up looking very different.

    The stuff in the front of the Target store (bollards, chicane etc) may have been unheard of in the mid 1990s, but things like crosswalks, head-on collisions and traffic speeds were well known.

    In this case, the community had to weigh the benefits of a large grocer: and there was no question a supermarket was preferable to an empty lot, even if there wasn’t time or money to change the environment it would sit within. But that doesn’t let ConnDOT off the hook for failing to encourage and provide safe, attractive and equitable transportation links to the store.

    Although I am hopeful, I am not sure that ConnDOT’s attitudes have really changed all that much in the past 10 years. Based on reactions from hundreds of community folk, the City wanted to re-do the upper section of Whalley Avenue with traffic calming and bicycle lanes this past year, as per the city’s comprehensive plan, and the DOT shot down every single idea. See http://www.whalleyavenue.com/ for some background.

    Thank you for the helpful comments! And I agree with Art that this is ripe for a retrofit.

  • marcos

    Are there any examples of built environments created by “designers” which come close to achieving their stated goals, and, more importantly, that deliver the levels of livability and walkability which characterize those older neighborhoods such as the Mission in SF or Greenwich Village in NYC which evolved organically, absent any intentional zoning or planning?

    -marc

  • Thanks for this post. You make a great point – the densest neighborhoods too often have lousy streets and public spaces, dominated by cars. Dense cities are more sustainable than suburban sprawl, but for dense districts to be more livable we have to take back our streets.

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