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As Coliseums Boom, New Haven Calls for a Wrecking Ball

Thu December 15, 2005 - Northeast Edition

NEW HAVEN, CT (AP) Look through the gaping frame of Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum from just the right angle and it looks like so many other construction projects in the country: an arena being built to resuscitate a once blighted downtown.

But the workers here are demolition crews, hired not to raise the coliseum but to raze it. After a series of carefully timed explosions, the gutted arena will tumble next month, a controversial and unlikely development strategy at a time when new convention centers and ballparks are being hailed as the savior of the American city.

New Haven officials said the coliseum offers a cautionary example about such development.

“It was an economic proposition that never worked,” said Mayor John DeStefano, who has been both praised and criticized as the driving force behind the demolition. “I’m not saying you never build these things, but you really ought to hold them up in an honest way and ask whether it really does add value.”

With more investment per capita here than anywhere else, Washington made New Haven the model for urban renewal in the 1960s. Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed and one in five residents was displaced to make way for a highway, a mall, parking garages and, finally, a sweeping modernistic coliseum of steel and concrete.

But like so much in the city that Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz called “the greatest success story in the history of the world” in 1964, the coliseum never lived up to its billing.

It opened in 1972 and hosted minor league hockey, wrestling matches, monster truck rallies and the circus. Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead visited. Van Halen and Pat Benatar filmed concert videos there.

But the coliseum never generated the kind of business officials expected. Instead of crowding restaurants and shops, visitors parked in the rooftop garage, saw a show and left.

Nearby businesses didn’t flourish, DeStefano said. They closed.

“One thing we now know is the arena-convention center model fails almost uniformly,” said Douglas W. Rae, a Yale School of Management professor and a former city official who wrote a book on New Haven development. “The bandwagon of construction of this kind all over the country works well for developers. It almost never works well for cities.”

Such criticism has not dampened arena enthusiasm. A Brookings Institution report in January found that, despite a languishing market, approximately $2.4 billion is spent on convention space annually and 44 centers were being built or planned.

“There’s certainly apprehension about whether this ultimately will be a success, but all the groups involved in the process are convinced this is a good decision for Wichita,” said Dave Unruh, chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Sedgwick County, KS, where land acquisition and demolition is to begin next month to make way for a $184-million arena.

Officials acknowledge it likely will lose money and they have $20 million reserved to cover deficits, said Ron Holt, assistant county manager. Holt said it will pay off if it sparks downtown business.

“There is a danger that it will kill everything around it, unless it’s located carefully,” said Dallas McGee, assistant development director in Lincoln, NE, where a $222-million arena, convention center and hotel are being considered. “That’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

In Hartford, officials are counting on a $1-billion convention center and retail project. DeStefano, who is running for governor, said Connecticut rushed to build something there and said the city’s future won’t be decided on the fate of that development.

Though it won’t be paid off until 2009, New Haven’s Coliseum closed in 2002. No longer an industrial city, it is known for theaters, biotechnology firms and nightlife. DeStefano has rejected proposals to reopen an arena from a bygone era.

Critics said DeStefano is replacing one poorly conceived plan with another, more expensive one. He is moving Gateway Community College and Long Wharf Theatre from the outskirts of town to the coliseum site, a $230-million project that includes business, retail and conference space.

Anstress Farwell, of the nonprofit Urban Design League, said the city is blindly following a plan that it made without considering alternatives, such as remodeling the coliseum to accommodate the theater and keeping the valuable parking spots.

Heywood Sanders, who wrote the Brookings Institution report and studied New Haven, agreed that coliseum offered a lesson that big projects frequently don’t deliver. But he questioned whether New Haven, like other cities, was learning.

“Failure doesn’t breed and generate a serious effort to understand what went wrong and consider alternative paths,” he said. “Failure breeds more public projects.”

DeStefano is confident the new plan will work. Sitting in a coffee shop up the street from the gutted coliseum, he gets visibly excited discussing it, drawing maps on scrap paper to explain a cohesive downtown of tomorrow.

The notion that a coliseum could ignite an economy is in the past. Every day, more metal and concrete are jackhammered away. Soon, the foundation will be shattered and the coliseum will collapse under its own weight and be swept away.

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