Stop and Go

Stop and Go

Downtown New Haven is known for its walkability, but it’s not considered particularly drivable.

One decades-old effort to accommodate downtown drivers is now often closed to them: the curved, subterranean tube known as the Pitkin Tunnel. With one entrance on Elm Street below the former New Haven Savings Bank building and the other on State Street under 360 State, it passes beneath City Hall, the Bank of America Financial Center, the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building and the Richard C. Lee Courthouse.

Its name descends from a mostly forgotten but apparently historic road that once connected Orange and State: Pitkin Street. According to Doris B. Townshend’s The Streets of New Haven (1984), Pitkin Street, named for the family that held it, was “for a long time the oldest privately owned street in America.” After converting to a public way, it was later minimized to Pitkin Alley. Then it disappeared altogether as a drivable route, becoming what we know today as Pitkin Plaza.

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Finished in the early 1980s at the tail end of New Haven’s urban renewal era, one of Pitkin Tunnel’s intended benefits was to make up for the loss of Pitkin Street. But it was also part of a bigger plan—one that leveled much of City Hall, leaving only its facade, and almost destroyed the old post office, now the Lee Courthouse, which was saved by a hair.

Built by the Public Building Services division of the General Services Administration, other goals behind the tunnel are laid out in the GSA’s 1974 environmental impact report for the construction of the Giaimo Building: “An underground tunnel will be constructed to provide access to all parking, loading and unloading facilities of the various developments in the Government Center Area. This will be a public right-of-way.”

In our current anxious age, it seems strange that a federal agency would proudly share real estate with the public. It’s possible it was an accommodation made to soften the other impacts of the construction plan, which included closing the length of Court Street that once connected the New Haven Green to Orange.

Today, both the Elm and State Street openings look like parking garage entryways, and for good reason: the outer thirds of the tunnel connect to parking spaces for the buildings they undergird. But the tunnel is also quite hidden, with no explicit signage indicating its underlying nature as a public avenue. Shadowy and foreboding, framed with hulking concrete, it’d probably give you a twinge of anxiety even if there weren’t guard stations emblazoned with “Security: U.S. Marshal Service” inside both entrances.

The booths are there because the tunnel lies beneath New Haven’s administrative heart—and because, after the terrorist attack in New York on September 11th, 2001, what had been a thoroughly public thoroughfare suddenly seemed shockingly vulnerable. For government and citizens alike, it was all too easy to imagine an explosive damaging one of the city’s most vital areas.

Potential weak spots all around the city and state were identified—like Groton’s submarine base, New Haven’s coastal petroleum routes and, of course, Pitkin. City, state and federal officials pointed to the tunnel as the perfect place for a terrorist attack—a fear that would subside, then emerge again at each raising of the terror level, prompting intermittent closures. In 2006, anticipating a terrorism trial in New Haven, the city secured about a million dollars in federal funds to install security equipment and those marshal-staffed guard booths, plus “heavy-duty vehicle barriers capable of stopping a semi-truck,” as one report put it. Several times, it was proposed that the tunnel should simply be closed.

But fears faded somewhat, and the permanent shuttering never happened. The tunnel was however closed to the driving public on weekends and from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day. Then, in 2009, the New Haven Board of Alders resolved to further limit regular drivers’ access to Pitkin, closing the passage—that is, raising up the car barriers, which are electronically controlled and can be lowered with the swipe of a privileged keycard—from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week. That leaves five hours each weekday, 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., when the public is permitted to take their cars all the way through it—and even during those times, guards may refuse anyone entrance “due to homeland security needs.”

Despite limited access, Pitkin Tunnel isn’t exactly quiet, with delivery and sanitation trucks, government vehicles, workers, residents and other visitors driving in and out. The area below the heart of New Haven isn’t as bustling as the surface, of course, but it has its own beat, and you can be a part of it even without a car. A congenial marshal, who was manning the Elm Street guard booth, told us the public is allowed to walk through “anytime.”

But if the idea of walking through a long, concrete tunnel without real sidewalks doesn’t sound so appealing, you can always try your luck from the comfort of your car—and by “always,” of course, we mean weekdays, from 6 to 9 and 4 to 6.

Pitkin Tunnel
Elm St (west of Church) to State St (north of Chapel), New Haven (map)
Full Access: Mon-Fri 6-9am & 4-6pm

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims. This lightly updated story was originally published on May 5, 2017.

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