MERIDEN — Demolition of the Mills Memorial Apartments is still on track for this spring.
Economic Development Director Juliet Burdelski said the required environmental study is completed and demolition plans are being reviewed by the state.
The city received federal funds last year to demolish the three high-rise and two low-rise buildings located on Cedar, Pratt and Mill Streets, all built in the 1960s. The property nearest Cedar Street was returned to the Meriden Housing Authority for construction of Meriden Commons I, a $25 million mixed income housing and commercial development. The city has secured $2 million in funding to demolish the five buildings.
Meriden Commons I is expected to open this April and construction on Meriden Commons II will begin soon after, Burdelski said.
Demolition of the public housing project was first proposed in the 1970s.
Even before it was built, the housing complex was controversial. Its planning was drawn out for a decade because of the intense public resistance, but it eventually opened in 1962.
Former Mayor Joseph J. Marinan Jr., who served from 1993 to 2002, was a strong proponent of closing the Mills, which first opened when he was a teen. Marinan created a Mills Study Committee, which eventually decided on demolition, and the Housing Authority approved the plan.
In June 2017, Mayor Kevin Scarpati ceremonially broke ground on Meriden Commons I, right next door to the MIlls, and said the occasion marked "another milestone in Meriden's history."
"For over 20 years we talked about the problems we've seen at the Mills projects and fortunately today marks day one of the redevelopment of that site," Scarpati said at the event this past summer.
The Mills was initially considered successful, with a full tenant roster and new, clean living spaces when it first opened. The complex held 140 apartments, in five buildings.
However, over the next six years the city’s economy declined, including the loss of jobs when Pratt & Whitney, the International Silver Co., and the New Departure Division of General Motors all closed.
With some, the Mills developed a reputation for crime, drugs and neglect. Many Mills tenants felt the reputation was unfair.
On August 28, 1979, hundreds of “kids” gathered at the complex in response to a report of police brutality. Police responded in riot gear, using tear gas and smoke bombs, while people threw rocks and bottles at the police cars.
When the City Council voted to demolish the Mills following the incident, the Housing Authority vetoed it.
In the 1990s, the Mills were considered a haven for several gangs, including the Latin Kings and Los Solidos. In 1997, the city’s community police officers “vowed” to increase presence in the housing complex.
The Record-Journal reported the police were investigating two homicides connected to a dispute between the gangs. Carlito “Lite” Brown, 21, was shot to death on Dec. 9 as he drove his car by Lewis Avenue and North Street and Edwin A. Ramos, 16, was found on March 25 in St. Stanislaus Cemetery shot once in the head.
In 1998, the police said Precinct One— which then included the Mills, the Hub, and Pratt and State streets— had the highest police call rate in the city. That August, police brass asked for money to add a roving community police officer to help cover the area around the Mills. Community policing responded to 761 calls between January and June, more than 230 more calls than any other district.
However, residents at the time were still opposed to closing the Mills. They cited steeper rents, less play space for children, and uncertain futures in new neighborhoods if they were forced to move. Many tenants also said they saw little evidence of gang violence anymore.
Ruben “Tony” Rodriguez, president of the Mills tenant association in 1998, said “there’s nothing bad about the Mills; I would say so myself. Anywhere you go, there’s a couple of bad apples.”
“They think the Mills is a piece of junk,” Rosy Agudo, 23, and a Mills resident told the Record-Journal in 1997. “I grew up in this community. The Mills has calmed down. I have seen people helping each other out.”
The same year, the Record-Journal profiled a mother of four, named Madeline Incarnacion, who was also happy living in the Mills. She said the complex gave her family a nice place to live and the city offered good schooling for her children.
Incarnacion’s apartment seemed in stark contrast to the stereotypes of the Mills, and even moreso considering the hallways right outside her warm, friendly, clean apartment.
In the high-rises, residents lived with cinder-block hallways scarred by graffiti and landings that would collect pools of water. The apartment buildings no longer had any kind of security system, so residents relied on their own metal doors for safety from outsiders.
Fellow resident Monique Porter, fought hard to keep the Mills open and joined Marinan’s Mills Study Committee in 1999.
Porter was a transplant from New York City, where she used to live in a Brooklyn high-rise and witnessed steady violence from her window. She finally moved after her then 7-year-old daughter was shot while walking down the street. The daughter survived, and she quickly moved her two children to Connecticut, ending up in Meriden.
Porter had avoided moving into the Mills at all costs, giving into the “propaganda,” as she called it, that surrounded the housing complex.
When Porter’s niece moved to the Mills, Porter eventually visited, saw the stereotypes were wrong, and moved in with her family. Instead of being dirty and dangerous, she found it clean and safe, with plenty of children and a real sense of community, she said in 1999.
One question consistently emerged throughout the discussion: Is the Mills a stepping stone for people struggling through tough times, or a permanent home for the city's poorest residents? Federal lawmakers in 1937 conceived of public housing as the former, but times changed. So the committee had to figure out where the hundreds of displaced people would go if the Mills were demolished.
“What are we going to do for those people who truly need affordable housing? There has to be an alternative,” a committee member said in 1999. “There are better uses, but not through the displacement of people who truly need this type of housing.”