MERIDEN — State housing and development advocates grilled city officials Wednesday over the political, financial and managerial challenges they faced during the 10-year process to redevelop downtown.
“How do you get a community that is willing to let this happen?” asked Joseph Migani, an architect with O’Riordan Migani Architects in Seymour.
Getting the public and the city to understand and embrace an economic development plan that incorporated flood control, affordable housing and speculative commercial space, required a collective commitment and partnerships, city officials said.
“Our former city manager (Lawrence Kendzior) was committed to flood (control) and the Mills Memorial Apartments removal,” city Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski said. “The community leaders then said ‘let’s do it.’”
The Connecticut Emerging Leaders Network, a subgroup of the Connecticut Housing Coalition, selected Meriden as one of its field trips to gather ideas for their own communities. They toured the Meriden Green, the Meriden Commons Phase I housing/commercial building and the Meriden Train Station, set to open in December, along with residental/commercial buildings at 24 Colony St. and 21 Colony St.
“With all that’s going on in Meriden, we thought we’d come and take a look,” said Brock Williams, steering committee member of the Emerging Leaders Network and a development manager for the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development. “There is huge redevelopment going on.”
Partnerships with numerous federal state and local agencies laid the groundwork for the next phase in the downtown revitalization. The city worked with the Meriden Housing Authority, the state Department of Transportation, the state Department of Housing, the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering.
“We were interested in three amenities in Meriden,” said Charlie Adams, a vice president for Pennrose Properties, the developer with the MHA on Meriden Commons. “The (increased) train, the new park, the housing authority tearing down its housing project.”
City leaders recognized that private investors were not going to put dollars into city projects unless flooding problems, traffic patterns, blighted properties, and new housing were addressed. It took a lot of property acquisitions and partnerships with the right developers, Burdelski said.
Low and affordable income housing offered the payouts the first developers needed to invest in the city. The next step is market rate and commercial tenants.
“If we can bring enough bodies we’ll start to see more commercial,” said Rick Ross, of Westmount Development Group, developer of 24 Colony St.
Group members had questions about the lack of a destination restaurant, incentives for property owners and marketing to stakeholders and residents who live outside of downtown.
A busy summer of events on the Meriden Green, transit connectivity and a couple of new restaurants could make downtown more of a destination, Burdelski said.
Town Planner Robert Seale explained the need to streamline some of the approval process to hasten the progress. He also explained the transportation needs to bring workers from Research Parkway and Westfield Meriden mall to the train station, as well as a possible CTfastrak stop downtown.
“It’s been a challenge,” Burdelski said. “From the first mile to the last mile.”
Migani, the Seymour architect, recalled building a senior housing project using tax credits that drew protests at the ground breaking. He was amazed at the city’s progress completing similar housing projects.
“This type of accomplishment comes along every three generations,” Migani said. “This is a testament to the community.”