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Framing the Future
Yale’s first master plan was masterfully simple. Conceived by the painter John Trumbull in 1792, the formula was to alternate 100-foot-long dormitory buildings like Connecticut Hall with towered assembly buildings like Yale’s first chapel, establishing a rhythm along College Street facing the Green. The result was the Old Brick Row, which served Yale well for a century.
It was a beautiful solution for a campus that could be contained within a single city block. But in the 200 intervening years, Yale has slowly expanded across New Haven, sometimes building its own buildings, sometimes buying existing ones for new uses, and the result is a 340-building campus that is at times knit so tightly with the surrounding city as to make them indistinguishable—and to make planning for Yale’s future needs infinitely more complicated than it was for Trumbull.
So complicated, in fact, that when the University decided it needed to take a large-scale look at its campus to accompany the extensive work being done on its individual buildings, the administration agreed that the rigidity of a conventional “master plan” would not do. Instead, the University and its consultants embarked on a three-year planning effort that has led to a “framework” for developing Yale’s campus over the next 20 years. Represented by a lushly produced 185-page book titled Yale University: A Framework for Campus Planning, the strategy suggests possible locations for future buildings, but deliberately does not offer specific prescriptions for what the buildings should look like or how they should be used. It identifies where connections need to be made between parts of the campus, but does not demonstrate just how the connections will be made. It pays unusual attention to Yale’s physical interaction with New Haven, identifying areas for joint projects without delineating those projects. And it calls for a new commitment to treating Yale’s open space with the same care and attention to detail as its buildings, but it only rarely puts forth specific schemes for the rehabilitation of such space.
Wary of creating an overly prescriptive scheme that could not change if the University’s needs went in an unanticipated direction, Yale wanted an overall approach that respected the existing campus and showed how it could be made better. “With a master plan, the first time you deviate from it, you cast doubt on its authority,” says university planner Pamela Delphenich, who worked closely on the project with its author, the New York architecture and planning firm Cooper Robertson & Partners.
That is just what happened with the last major plan for the University. In 1919, architect John Russell Pope presented the Corporation with an oversized folio titled University Architecture: Yale University General Plan for its Future Buildings.Pope, who would later design the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., not to mention Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium and Calhoun College, looked at Yale’s central campus and saw both problems and opportunities. The University’s stock of dour Victorian buildings looked dated and were becoming obsolete as Yale completed the transition from college to university. Also, Yale had recently acquired the large tract that would become known as Science Hill, and that area would need to be connected to rest of the campus as it was developed. Pope responded with a lovingly rendered vision of Collegiate Gothic buildings on long, straight streets and walks. It was a bold plan that organized Science Hill into a set of quadrangles and extended Hillhouse Avenue down to Wall Street, where it would intersect with a major open space that was the precursor of Cross Campus.
But only two years after Pope’s plan, the University hired James Gamble Rogers to devise a more practical short-range plan based on Pope’s grand ideas. While Rogers incorporated Pope’s idea for Cross Campus and for a Gothic template for new buildings, much of the plan was abandoned—most especially Pope’s strategy for bringing Science Hill into the campus fold.
Since then, Yale has been without a clearly articulated planning strategy for its entire campus. Instead, areas of the campus have been planned as the need for new buildings has arisen, but there has not been a comprehensive study of the entire campus and recommendations for its future development. (Even Pope’s plan covered only the central campus, not including the Medical Center or the athletic fields.)
Before commissioning the Cooper Robertson effort, the University worked with other consultants on a set of “area plans” covering several different sections of the campus (the arts area complex, the residential colleges, the medical school, and Science Hill) and three major buildings (Sterling Memorial Library, the Law School, and Payne Whitney Gymnasium). These plans addressed just the kinds of concerns not found in the Framework: the present and future space needs of departments and schools and how to meet them with new or renovated buildings, the optimum adjacencies for buildings with related functions. With those studies under way or completed, says President Richard Levin, “we recognized that now we had a pretty coherent idea of what we needed in the near term, and that now it was time to think about the campus as a whole.”
“The area plans were more inward looking,” says Joseph Mullinix, who directed the planning process as vice president for finance and administration before leaving last month for a position as vice president of the University of California system. “The Framework was intended to look not only at the campus as a whole but at how we could be better integrated with the community. And we were able to look at things on that level because we had already done the detail work in the area plans.”
From a short list of three architecture and planning firms, the officers selected Cooper Robertson, a group with a long history of urban design work both in cities and on college campuses. The firm’s principals, Alexander Cooper '58, ‘62MArch and Jaquelin Robertson '55, ‘61MArch, were among the early proponents of a return to traditional urban design principles. Cooper’s Battery Park City project in Lower Manhattan is among the most celebrated examples of what has been called postmodern urbanism. “It was very important to look at the campus in the context of the city,” says Robert Dincecco, the associate director of University planning, “and Cooper Robertson had the best understanding of the interaction of the campus with the city.”
Cooper says the project was like nothing he had done before. “Every other campus we’ve worked on—Duke, UCLA, Chicago, Trinity—was prep school for this one,” he says. What distinguished the Yale plan from the others was in part the intense involvement of the President and the officers (Cooper met with all seven officers every six weeks for three years) but also the complicated relationship between Yale and New Haven.
Cooper’s analysis raised the seemingly obvious but seldom articulated point that Yale’s campus is unusually long and narrow in plan, especially compared to other colleges, which tend to grow outward from a center. From the Medical Center to the University-owned apartments on Prospect Street, Yale’s campus is two miles long and a half mile wide. It borders on eight separate neighborhoods in New Haven, and there is no point on the campus that is more than one block away from the campus edge. The map shows in physical terms what administrators have been fond of saying in the last few years: that Yale and New Haven are “inextricably linked.”
Recognition of this fact meant that Yale couldn’t plan its own future without including the city. As a result, Cooper and Yale officials met regularly with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and with the city’s planning director, Karyn Gilvarg '75MArch, during the planning process, comparing notes on their respective goals and looking for ways they could work together. “This report indicates a major change in the relationship between Yale and the city,” says Levin. “We involved the city at every step.”
From the discussions, a paradox about Yale’s role in the city emerged.While Cooper, looking at the campus as a planner and a former Yale student, described Yale as “the most urban and the most open university in the country,” the Mayor said that to New Haven residents, Yale’s courtyards feel fortresslike and inaccessible. Cooper came away feeling that Yale needed to “soften its edges and make them more porous,” while still maintaining a sense of community within Yale.
The University’s wish to reach out to New Haven was hardly unalloyed altruism. Since Yale’s beginnings, town and gown have clashed—sometimes bitterly—over land-use issues, and in recent years, preservationists have questioned Yale’s stewardship of its historic buildings. Opposition to Yale’s initiatives has occasionally resulted in animosity and litigation, making it harder for the University to build.
Besides the University officers and planners and city officials, Cooper interviewed 45 key people at Yale in the first eight months of the plan, to hear what they wanted from the study. Then, after Cooper Robertson and nine consultant firms completed an analysis of the existing campus, they produced a set of recommendations for new buildings, open space, and campus systems.
The analysis and recommendations are presented in the Framework document, a square softcover volume filled with photographs, drawings, and text. The book breaks the Yale campus into seven “planning precincts,” each with its own distinctive character and its own needs: the Upper Prospect precinct, which includes the Divinity School and other properties north of Edwards Street; Science Hill; Hillhouse Avenue; Broadway/Tower Parkway; the Core, which includes the rest of the central campus; the Medical Center; and the Athletic Fields.
Some of the plan’s most exciting recommendations for change come in the area of landscape and open space planning. Now that the University’s buildings are finally getting attention after years of “deferred maintenance,” the administration—with help from Cooper and the plan’s landscape consultant, Laurie Olin of the Olin Partnership—has begun to see the enormous benefit that can come from a more deliberate approach to landscaping.
The project that opened everyone’s eyes was the renovation of the Old Campus two years ago. “That was a utilities project for which they had to dig up most of the quad,” says Dincecco, “and the plan at first was just to put it back the way it was.” Instead, Yale seized the opportunity and hired Olin and New Haven architect Kenneth Boroson to produce a landscaping plan. The bluestone walks were replaced or rerouted, and benches, foundation plantings, and Belgian block paving were added to enhance the quad.
“The renovation of the Old Campus gave palpable evidence that the smallest gestures could make the biggest difference,” says Cooper. “Landscape work doesn’t cost much, and you get enormous bang for the buck.”
The plan suggests similar attention to the University’s signature open spaces. Some of them, including the courtyards in Berkeley and Branford Colleges and Sterling Memorial Library, are already being upgraded in conjunction with renovations there. This summer, Hillhouse Avenue (see page 40) will be the site of a project by landscape architects Towers/Golde that seeks to restore some of the spirit of the street during its residential heyday.
But the plan also seeks to develop some open spaces, particularly in the Upper Prospect area—that currently seem underutilized or even unknown: the Farnam Memorial Gardens at Prospect and Edwards, the grounds of the Davies Mansion, the Marsh Botanical Gardens, even the backyards of the University-owned properties on Prospect and Mansfield Streets, where the plan suggests reviving a “small quasi-marsh” on the site.
High on everyone’s landscape priority list—most notably the President's—is Science Hill, where at least four new buildings will rise in the next few years. The Hill, a 40-acre estate given to Yale in 1905, was an unusual opportunity for Yale to shape a new campus, but what emerged by the 1960s was a jumble of large buildings, loading docks, and parking lots, with scarcely any inviting outdoor space. “Science Hill is one of the sorriest areas on campus,” says Mullinix. “But by following this plan, 20 years from now, we’ll have not only more buildings there, but more green space.” (It’s the parking lots that will get the boot.)
Another important component of the plan is its identification of two areas that need to be developed in order to better link the campus together. Looking at a map that indicates Yale-owned properties—like the one on page 33—one can immediately see those areas: first, the three blocks that separate the central campus from the Medical Center, and second, the area north of the Grove Street Cemetery, which is a major barrier between the west side of the campus and Science Hill. The plan calls for joint Yale–New Haven planning projects in both of these areas.
One strategy for dealing with the barrier posed by the cemetery, of course, would be to go through it, but the cemetery’s board of proprietors would have to approve cutting a new entrance in the high brownstone wall and allowing pedestrian traffic through the landmark space, which now closes at night. Yale is instead focusing on making it easier and safer to go around it to Science Hill and Prospect Street. This has become increasingly important since the construction of Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges in the 1960s and, most recently, the “swing dorm” on Tower Parkway.
The area to the north and west of the cemetery includes a vacant lot that abuts a New Haven public housing project that is currently undergoing renovations. Yale and the City are already talking about developing a Wooster Square-sized park on the site for the use of town and gown alike. There would also be enough room on the site to include a police substation and community meeting rooms. Such facilities, the planners believe, would create enough 24-hour activity to make the area safe and comfortable for students and nearby residents. “The idea is to have active and positive uses for both Yale and the neighborhood in this area,” says Delphenich.
To further the connection around the cemetery, the planners propose a new street that would connect Lock Street to Mansfield and continue as a pedestrian path to Hillhouse. On either side of the new street, they have identified two parcels (now occupied by the social sciences library, Donaldson Commons, and 124 Prospect Street) as sites for new buildings to further populate the area—perhaps the pair of new residential colleges that have long been discussed but that are not on the immediate horizon.
Unlike the days when any appearance of Yale expanding further into the city was sure to provoke a fight with the city, the Mayor has been supportive of Yale’s involvement in the area bordering the Dixwell neighborhood. It was DeStefano, in fact, who suggested a joint project in the area. Recalls Cooper: “The Mayor looked at the map and said that if you look at Yale as a clock, and if you observe that everywhere Yale goes, it improves the surrounding area, then what’s missing is the area from 9 to 12—the Dixwell neighborhood.”
The ideas for strengthening the connection to the Medical Center are less developed, but the University’s main objective is to reinforce York and College Streets as pedestrian connections to the School of Medicine and the Hospital. Right now, the uninviting streetscape and the crossing over the Oak Street Connector make the Medical Center seem much farther from campus than it is. The plan suggests that Yale and the city work together on promoting arts-related, medical, retail, and restaurant uses along the two streets.
The plan also encourages Yale to develop the area around the School of Nursing (the former Lee High School in the Church Street South area) so as to connect the Medical Center to the railroad station. With the Church Street South housing complex across from the station slated for redevelopment, it is conceivable that in time, Yale and the city could develop a comfortable, pedestrian-friendly path from the station to the Medical Center and on to the campus, ending the station’s seeming isolation from downtown and the campus.
Beyond these large-scale connective ideas, the planners also looked at the campus with an eye toward where new buildings could go. “The perception was that the campus is completely built out,” says Cooper. “But we identified almost 70 sites—half for buildings and half for open space—which to the administration was a revelation.” Many of the sites are currently occupied by surface parking lots, which the planners consider an “interim use.” Others have buildings on them that are deemed expendable.
The most notable of these sites is across College Street from Cross Campus, a tract now occupied by a parking lot and 451 College Street, a former fraternity house that for years has housed University offices. “451 is one of the most valuable sites on campus,” says Delphenich, because of its proximity to the campus’s core. Developing the site would also afford the opportunity to create a more suitable terminus for Cross Campus. While 451 is currently being renovated as near-term office space, the long-term plan is for it to be demolished.
The other most prominent building site is the large parking lot below Science Hill on Whitney Avenue, where a molecular biology building is already on the boards as part of the Science Hill plan. The Framework suggests that two good-sized buildings and a new quadrangle could replace the current sea of asphalt, improving the University’s Whitney Avenue face. Helen Hadley Hall and the Health Services building are also seen as nearing the end of their useful life.
But even if parking lots are an “interim use,” those cars will have to go somewhere when lots are replaced by buildings. In a parking study conducted as part of the plan, it was found that by building two new parking garages—one on Temple Street behind the 451 College site and one on Lake Place—Yale could develop some of its current surface lots and still meet all its parking needs. “With two new garages,” says Cooper, “we could park every car within a five-minute walk of its driver’s destination.”
The plan also looks at other campus systems, including pedestrian and bicycle circulation, trash and other services, signage, and vehicular circulation—the part of the Framework that is potentially most controversial in its ramifications for New Haven. One of the observations of postmodern urban planners is that since World War II, the streets of America’s cities have been reconfigured increasingly for the convenience of automobiles, at the expense of pedestrians and vibrant street life. “Traffic engineers are accustomed to dealing with traffic hydraulically,” says Cooper, “as a simple matter of flow.”
The more enlightened response, Cooper says, is to widen sidewalks, narrow streets and intersections, and return multi-lane one-way streets to two-way traffic. The idea is called “traffic calming,” and the objective is to slow cars down. The idea was used in New Haven in the 1995 street renovations on Broadway and Tower Parkway, making those streets less daunting for pedestrians. The Framework proposes such a strategy for the intersection in front of Woolsey Hall, a crucial pedestrian connection where crossing is now difficult. More important, it calls for returning almost all the streets in downtown New Haven to two-way traffic. The city is not philosophically opposed to the idea, having taken steps in that direction already: College Street along the Green was recently made two-way. But the city’s Karyn Gilvarg has reservations. “It sounds great,” she says, “but there are a couple of problems. First, not everybody who uses downtown is a pedestrian. While I don’t have an interest in letting people speed through downtown, one of the reasons this downtown is as successful as it is is that people can get in and out. Also, there would be a substantial cost to the city, $80,000 to $100,000 per intersection for signals alone.” Nevertheless, the city has agreed to convert the entire length of York Street to two-way traffic in the near future, and others may follow.
But there is no disputing another of the Framework’s conclusions about campus systems: Yale’s signage is “confusing, inconsistent, and hardly enhances Yale’s architecture or reputation. Instead, to visitors, the system makes Yale seem unwelcoming and inaccessible.” The plan’s signage consultant, graphic designers 212 Associates of New York, propose a new, coordinated system of signs that help people find their way across campus and identify individual buildings. A pilot signage project will go up on the Old Campus later this year.
Now that the process of creating the Framework is finished, how will Yale ensure that it doesn’t suffer the fate of the “master plans” they sought to avoid making? Both Cooper and University officials are confident that the plan’s recommendations will be adopted, in part because the officers and the University planners feel it represents their ideas, not those imposed by an outside entity. “Alex [Cooper] displayed a lot of leadership—there are ideas that he sold to us—but by and large, the Framework is a consensus,” says Levin. Similarly, says Mullinix, “People don’t think of this plan as mine, or Pam's. The officers own it.” Besides, the plan’s longevity may be assured by its inherent conservatism—it contains none of the radical, large-scale moves that typified New Haven’s major planning mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s. “The plan doesn’t impose,” says Cooper. “It accepts. And most of all, it makes connections.”
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