Greater City Providence

Watch and Learn? New Haven’s Renaissance, Reviewed


An absolute must read article for anyone who cares about rebuilding our cities can be found in this month’s Yale Alumni Magazine. The balanced piece reviews the birth, agonizing death, and then the recent rebirth of an urban New Haven, CT. While we all often focus deservedly on Providence’s downtown renaissance, many here don’t realize that a comparable downtown rebirth that has certainly happened faster and perhaps more successfully has taken place 90 minutes South on I95. I was a student in New Haven during some of its darkest days in the early to mid-90’s, and I’m always utterly shocked by how different it feels every time I go back.

One day, an urban planning student will be able to build an entire thesis comparing and contrasting Providence’s and New Haven’s urban revitalizations as, on the surface, the two cities’ efforts could not have been more different. We focused on creating dramatic public spaces (Waterplace Park, Capitol Center) populated by skyline altering hotels, luxury condos, and businesses, perhaps at the expense of having created some empty, sterile streetscapes. NH’s did the exact opposite, with a laser-like focus on downtown residential and streetscape development. While their skyline hasn’t changed in 30 years, they instead focused on enhancing their city’s walkability and on creating warm, accessible, and vibrant neighborhoods chocked full of hip new retail, restaurants (120+ downtown!), affordable housing, and urban amenities, all supercharged by Yale’s revolutionary program to pay its employees to live in the city. We built a successful downtown mall, NH closed their failing one and refashioned it into apartments and a community college. We upgraded our aging downtown sports arena, while NH tore their’s down. We (RISD excepted) have had our large institutions play peripheral roles in our largely government driven renaissance, while NH’s wouldn’t have happened without Yale’s overwhelming and enthusiastic leadership. We resisted focusing and branding different neighborhoods of our city, while NH has embraced that approach…

Even in the downturn, 6,000 new non-student residents (and growing) are living in downtown New Haven and this quote from their Mayor is one I think we would envy:

“[New Haven] will confront something I don’t think we would have imagined confronting 15 years ago: that the central business district is basically filled.” That prospect has city planners looking for new building sites…

it’s a great read that has to give hope to all urbanists. The article is here.

Bret Ancowitz


  • I am not as sure that the takeaway message is that New Haven did it right and Providence did it wrong so much as New Haven was better positioned to take advantage of it’s turnaround. We may have spent the 1990s replacing the industrial wasteland around downtown with dramatic spaces while New Haven attracted retail and residents, but don’t overlook that New Haven pioneered the Dramatic Spaces version of urban renewal and wasted vast sums of money prettifying their downtown. It was a misguided effort but as a result they had areas of infrastructure that was done right and could attract growth to the downtown, infrastructure that Providence was missing until recently.
    With that in mind I would agree that the results of developing Waterplace have been disappointing, but pulling out the rail and opening the riverfront were certainly steps in the right direction, and should be an anchor for future growth.

  • I don’t think there is a right or wrong way for urban renewal. Each city has its own unique issues to overcome.

    One of the benefits New Haven has is that Yale is very predominately downtown and helped out quite a bit. Brown is off on the East Side of Providence and doing their own thing. It almost seems, at times, that Brown and the city have very different visions of what the city should be, and as a result, they get pitted against each other (the whole taxing college students thing doesn’t help).

    The problem I see in Providence that didn’t seem to happen in New Haven is that people just can’t agree and can’t make good compromises. There are too many “all or nothing” and we end up with parking lots.

  • I don’t think either place did it necessarily right or wrong… Both cities are light years ahead of where they were 20 years ago. The interesting thing is how *differently* they did it and how “What’s Next” for each city might be behaving more like the other…

    Providence, after huge infrastructure and building projects, may now need to do a New Haven-style “Stage II” by actually filling its neighborhoods in realistic, small-scale, ways with more people, places, and amenities. New Haven’s streetscapes are filled with interesting shops and restaurants sporting contemporary signage and facades that wouldn’t be out of place in any large city in the US, but are of an attractiveness, cleanliness, and cohesiveness that is rare in ours.

    New Haven, after it’s focus on residential neighborhood and retail development, may now need some larger scale, Providence-style infrastructure projects to redefine the orientation of some of its neighborhoods and to keep its momentum rolling.

    Where I think New Haven has a huge advantage is in Yale’s “guiding hand” involvement. There’s a commitment, patience, and consistency in planning and implementation (by, granted, a major landowner) that’s really absent here in Providence. Think of the the way that Cornish has approached Westminster St, but by an organization with 10,000 times the resources and on a city-wide basis…

  • In a way though, it was all much easier for New Haven. Lets not forget that New Haven has the distinct advantage of being connected very cheaply to New York via rail. In a way it was inevitable that it would be repopulated by New York commuters (of which there are many in New Haven). Those same commuters are 90% of the reason that Connecticut is rolling in money to begin with, and the reason that real estate values went through the roof in Philadelphia too. Also, Yale is a massive school. It takes up a much greater portion of New Haven than Brown and RISD take of Providence. It always has, and furthermore downtown New Haven is built specifically around Yale, whereas the colleges in Providence sort of exist on the margins. Had Yale been more proportional in size to New Haven, I suspect we would be looking at a very different city right now, for the same reason that if Brown didn’t exist, we would be looking at a very different Thayer Street.

  • Good review. Both cities have strong transportation infrastructure, and should be able to capitalize on that despite the challenges that lie ahead.

    The commenters are correct that NH has the distinct advantage of being a part of the most dynamic metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere.

  • In the Western Hemisphere? I don’t know – I’d say Sao Paulo’s 22 million people give New York a run for its money.

  • Sao Paolo is certainly a dynamic and exciting metro area, but the UN GDP measures put it at $225 billion (close to Seoul, Miami, Atlanta, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires), whereas New York clocks in at over $1.1 trillion.

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