|Joel Schiavone in New Haven magazine's first profile in 2007, on the Chaple Street that he layed the foundation for.|
By Joel Schiavone
2018 is turning out to be a lot like 1979. For anyone younger than 60 downtown New Haven was closed. The Taft, the Shubert, the College Music hall, virtually every restaurant except for Claire’s and Louis’s lunch were gone, retail stores except for J press a floundering Yale coop and a couple of odds and ends on Broadway were shuttered. Yale closed off access to its cm[us with locks, gates, large black metal panels on all its fences and left New Haven to die.
What’s this got to do with the busy exciting place still referred to as downtown? Nothing on the surface but lurking under the surface - lots of problems. The state of Connecticut is bankrupt, not legally but the walking dead. Fundamentally not working except to generate huge deficits every year. Structurally unsound and waiting for the undertaker. New Haven the city is not far behind with fewer and fewer employees, less and less money, an overwhelming failed financial structure and most importantly no sense from anyone that there is any problem.
The Mayor’s annual address talked about improving infrastructure, better schools and other impossible dreams without any suggestion about how to do any of this. Its Citizen neighborhoods such as Chapel West and The Downtown are cleaning streets, fighting crime, and encouraging neighborhood activities paid for with increased tax receipts for their special districts - a recognition that the city has no money and ability to do most anything for its citizens and their neighborhoods and they’ll have to do it themselves
Yale is embarked on its absurd quest to bring shopping back to New Haven subsidizing many of its retailers and restaurants to hide the reality that retail in the United States, never mind a tiny town such as New Haven is disappearing as fast as you can say Amazon. In several years when the Yale Corporation finally wakes up it will realize that the policies of Bruce Alexander the head of Yale’s New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development office are as misguided as those of former Mayor Richard lee. Repurposing downtown malls has proven to so far to be impossible.
Like the 1970s we are now completely adrift. Forgetting the growing political and budgetary Washington malaise, 40% of our operating budget in New Haven comes from the state of Connecticut. The state will do its best to push the financial pension mess back to the towns and municipalities meaning all of the outrageous pensions will go back to the cities in a desperate attempt to protect the pensions of the state employees. Cities which don’t have enough money to replace street lights will have to go bankrupt. A familiar process in the private sector and well understood: an unfamiliar process for government.
However it happens, through negotiation or bankruptcy, eventually all the excesses of the past 30 years will be wiped out and life will start over again. The era of the unsupportable government pensions, salaries and perquisites will be over. Police retirees will be selling their boats and vacation homes and learning to live like everyone else.
Ok argue about the details but it is certain that for the next 20-30 years this whole scenario will play out and completely change most of our lives. The bad news-without the presence of any effective government it will be virtually impossible to get anything done. The good news is the recognition that the private sector is the only group that can get anything done. Aside from enriching themselves it is hard to identify anything government accomplished for the past 30 years and lots of things they have negatively impacted.
Progress in a time and place a long time ago came from cooperation between the private sector, with the assistance of an effective Mayor such as Ben DeLieto and a devoted development team, all guided by a shared vision, albeit without a formal plan. Recreate a vibrant downtown – again a shared vision and obviously one that worked.
After the Delieto years Government and the private sector evaporated. In the vacuum Yale exercised its fierce self-interest and took over as much of the downtown as possible, Retail and apartments were now one of their overarching objectives as they purchased multiple buildings in downtown. But the vision sustained and is still continuing as new apartments and restaurants are appearing every month.
That raises the obvious question - What can we now collectively do to further New Haven’s prospects? The initial vision of creating a viable downtown has been achieved. What should New Haven do to continue to grow and progress? Equally important who is going to lead this charge into the future? Yale’s retail based strategy is not sustainable; our governments are no longer functioning. Can we put together a plan that allows New Haven to flourish without a functioning government, with Yale in control of much of our commerce with little or no commercial skills, and no major commercial entities – banks, utilities, large companies still extant?
Very discouraging. Maybe we should fold up our tents and follow the bill boards on 95 to Indiana, become a Hoosier, or a South Carolina Gamecock. But if we stay we can only succeed by following traditional planning techniques - make a list of our strengths and weaknesses, eliminate the weaknesses and build on our strengths. Simple in conception, most people will say impossible in execution.
First eliminating the weaknesses, solely controlled by our governments and the incredibly intractable politics of our city. Eliminating all the nonfunctioning government entities and there are many that are no longer functioning, is the only major obstacles to our future. Eliminating many of our city government’s major responsibilities will make our government much smaller. In addition the legacy costs and inertia of this upheaval will severely handicap any efforts by government to do anything at least for the next generation. We simply cannot put our future in the hands of any of our governments.
. We have to pursue our futures through our own handefforts- Collective private efforts, individual initiatives. Fortunately in most cases there are positive solutions offered by the private sector, if we can get government out of the way. Anyone except for government employees should find this idea embracing
This idea has been gestating for many years, brought into focus by one of my favorite escapades. While running for Mayor I was approached by an environmental group who asked if I could remove a railroad bridge which had fallen into the West River many years before. It restricted personal navigation in and out of the Sound and inland to the salt marshes and the upper expanses of the West River valley
Originally I was flattered thinking that they had divined some sense of my enormous capabilities; I sadly learned that I was the latest in a long list of people who’d been approached. federal –President, congressmen, senators, Army corps of engineers, EPA, another 15 to 20 agencies State - governor and so on, city - mayor and so on, every state agency and elected official. A total of over 100 groups contacted, flowery letters of response with statements that this was not their responsibility.
The task was so modest that I decided to just do it. Above all don’t let any of the 100+ people and entities on the list know what we were planning to do as they are all very good at stopping things. One week later a friend of mine brought his bulldozer, a small boat and a long cable to the river front. Within 15 minutes he had secured the cable to the bridge and the bulldozer, wrested it from the bottom of the river and deposited it on the river’s banks. A local scrap dealer came along, cut it into useable pieces and hauled it away before lunch. Cost -0- as the sale of the scrap steel offset the cost of the bulldozer.
Wow the repercussions. DEP sent me a stern letter saying I would have to replace the invasive plants I damaged. I asked where I could buy these pants and never heard from them again
Aside from a comic interlude the purpose of the story is important - to dramatize the total futility of every level of government. No one had the discretion or the inclination to do anything. And probably 100 pages of rules and regulations supported their decision. Multiply this by 100,000 state federal and local employees in the state – the potential for getting nothing done boggles.
But as a reminder of the theme of this monologue this is the good news. The governments and our elected representatives have made such a mess that that the public is finally fed up. Change is not only possible but essential. With our government in total disarray we have the opportunity to get things done in a much shorter period of time at a much cheaper price.
What follows is a plan with a list of projects maybe revolutions that will propel New Haven back to the forefront of American cities. It is based on a list of New Haven strengths but primarily based on eliminating destructive city programs and policies... Motivated citizens must force these changes; government cannot and will not embrace any changes. Despite the government’s intransigence these changes will eventually take place. But without significant urgency the current structures will remain in place for too long a time and New Haven will as usual be the last municipality to implement them. After 30 years of turmoil we will find ourselves still at the bottom of every list as more agile states and cities will have moved more quickly and one again left us in the dust.
C’mon New Haven we can do this. Its change or perish.
Strategic planning 101 – Following traditional planning techniques, accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives. Either do these ourselves or let the world dictate our future and dissolve into irrelevance.
- Public schools - Our publicly run schools are a disaster. Convert every public school to a public charter school. They have decisively won the battle with test scores 2-3 times those of the city run public schools. Anyone espousing underperforming city-run public schools is condemning thousands of children to a lifetime of desperation.
- Parks - Our magnificent public parks are terribly managed and underutilized- Privatize the parks department.
- Waterfront – Many miles of water front, really who knows New Haven is a waterfront city. Invigorate the waterfront commission. Gradually take back our waterfront.
- Traffic in downtown – convert from a 1950s business grid to a neighborhood/village traffic pattern. Calm traffic in favor of pedestrians and bikes. Utilize hospital zoning
- Finance Board - New Haven is the only city in Connecticut that does not have a finance board or committee. Every city needs one. Independently constituted. Don’t let the politicians tell us how were doing
- Development –New Haven has a terrible reputation as a difficult if not impossible place to do development. Too many cooks with their own recipe with no one in charge.
- Medical center –another opportunity. Copy efforts of Cleveland for example. Need Yale’ s initiative
- Plays – from long wharf, Yale rep to a large number of school and community theatres, all operating independently. No coordinated programing, marketing or ticketing
- Restaurants –nightlife - a class of our own. Joint promotion.
- Arts and Ideas Festival. Struggling. Needs a total remake before it disappears
- Yale alumni housing. Pursued by every other university. Needs Yale cooperation
- Yale events-centralized ticketing for all Yale events. Yale initiative
Create a commission to oversee the possible bankruptcy of the city. In the last analysis this may be the only possible solution to our problems.
Hey what would happen if we did only 2 or 3 of these things? No need to spend a lot of money. Most of these can be done by private citizens
Our overarching thought, inspired by Yascha Mounk in this month’s Atlantic. We need to recover the loyalty of our New Haven citizens by curbing the power of our elected officials and their political parties. To do this we need to build a new set of political institutions that are more responsive to the views and interests of ordinary people The preceding plan will do this. yhey rel;lnH ,