- Front Porch
MERIDEN — Working by the old housing authority mantra, the Meriden Housing Authority’s prime goal would have been to build housing in downtown to go along with the city’s transit-oriented development efforts. In its biggest initiative since the 1950s, however, the MHA is looking to help revive the downtown by adding more than just housing in the near future.
“The theory is: don’t just build housing in a neighborhood, improve the entire neighborhood,” said MHA Director Robert Cappelletti.
Over the next three months, the MHA will be applying for funding for three different projects that could result in almost $100 million of development, much of which is in the city’s downtown. The city and state are already in the process of major changes in downtown that include a $13 million renovation of the Hub by turning it into a park with flooding storage, a multi-million project to bring in a new train station and improved rail service and costly traffic improvements.
The city’s goal in recent years has been to create a transit-oriented district, or an area that includes mixed-use residential and commercial development with residents relying on walking and public transportation.
Earlier this year, the zoning for the center of the city, an area around the train station, was changed to encourage development and reshape the downtown. Years ago it may have been unlikely that the MHA would have been working with the city to become one of those developers, but if funding is approved, the authority will likely be the first developer.
24 Colony St.
The housing authority is targeting 24 Colony St. as a priority for development. Mostly an empty lot, the property had been the site of the Wilcox building. Owned privately by Aharon and Jeffrey Shweky, the property is in the process of being taken by the state through eminent domain, according to Cappelletti.
Designs for a mixed-use development, being drafted by New Haven-based Newman Architects, call for a multi-story structure that stretches across the front of the 24 Colony St. property and the adjacent, city-owned parking lot. There would be 63 units, 90 percent of which would be designated as affordable, or workforce, housing. Affordable housing includes a mix of incomes. The remainder would be market-rate housing.
Relocating residents from the 140-unit Mills Memorial Apartments is part of the Colony Street project. Thirty percent of the units in the proposed Colony Street building would be reserved for Mills relocation, while the MHA plans to offer units in several other developments for the remaining 70 percent of residents relocating from Mills, a federal, low-income housing development. The MHA and city are exploring financial options to raze the five Mills buildings.
In addition to the housing, the first floor of the 65,000-square-foot Colony Street building would be reserved for retail and office space, Cappelletti said.
To the rear of the building would be a parking garage, built by the state Department of Transportation as part of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter railroad project. The garage plans call for 319 spaces, Cappelletti said, with the first level reserved for residents. Those commuting to the train station could walk across Colony Street to the open, city-owned lots, over the newly constructed bridge and onto the train platform. City officials have hopes of a private developer constructing a mixed-use building on the city lots.
“The purpose of that was to help revive downtown,” he said. “This (Colony Street) building will probably be the first building to go up in the new (transit district) zone...This is all very critical in the timeline in the development of the train coming through, which is scheduled for 2016.”
Funding the estimated $30 million to $40 million building will depend on the state. The MHA and city have been working with CHFA and the Department of Community Development to apply for the use of tax credits through CHFA’s Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. The program “provides incentives for developers to acquire, rehabilitate and/or build low- or mixed-income housing through the allocation of federal tax credits that may be sold to corporations or investor groups to raise equity for a project,” according to the state housing finance authority website.
The city has a Nov. 18 deadline with the Connecticut Housing and Financing Authority.
Just talking about the 24 Colony St. project gets MHA Board of Commissioners Chairman Cornelius J. Ivers excited.
“These projects have a good chance of changing the face of downtown,” Ivers said. “The Colony Street project won’t be the end all and be all, but it’s going to fill an empty space in downtown that has been there for a while and we will have something that looks nice.”
Ivers added that he knows the project is contingent on funding, but acknowledges the city and MHA have had a good working relationship with the state recently.
“I really think this project, the other projects, are all possible,” he said. “With the (transit district, the state) has talked about wanting to make Meriden a model for the rest of the state and maybe beyond Connecticut...Now it’s crunch time with applications due in November.”
143 W. Main St.
The housing authority hopes to use the same program, with the same deadline, for another big plan.
The MHA has targeted properties at 119 and 127 W. Main St. for a future four-story building, with the top two floors reserved for housing. Below would be office and commercial space, Cappelletti said, also with a total cost between $30 million and $40 million.
The properties are situated across West Main Street from the Meriden YMCA, with the 119 W. Main St. parcel owned by the Y and 127 W. Main St. owned by Shalom Emlkies. Elmkies also owns the adjacent property, 143 W. Main St., which stands on the corner of West Main and Maple streets. A deal is already in place to purchase both parcels, Cappelletti said.
In order to improve the neighborhood, Cappelletti said it would be important to team up with existing agencies, like the Y, and others.
“We want to offer services and collaborations with community groups, churches, the local city and government,” he said. “We want to create something that the neighborhood will benefit from so that we’re not just improving the housing options, it’s improving entire neighborhood so it can sustain itself throughout and then everything is well integrated.”
City Council Majority Leader Brian Daniels had made the relocation of Mills residents a priority of his, chairing a committee that has applied for funding. Both projects, Daniels said, are ones he sees as beneficial for the city.
“I fully support it,” Daniels said. “It would be good to have some improvement to that (West Main Street) strip...If they can get these funded with state or federal money, I fully support that.”
As part of the commuter rail project, the Y will likely lose its recently acquired State Street building, the former Stone Insurance, where the Y has begun offering workout classes and a children’s activity center. Cappelletti said it would be possible to offer some of the classes at the new West Main Street development, as well as daycare, among other possibilities.
To the rear of the building, plans have been drawn up for a black box theater, a square building constructed into the hill and mostly underground. The theater would include a stage and 400 seats, which could be used for musical and theater events, political debates, school events, and other happenings in downtown.
There has already been interest from a private booking firm that oversees bookings for Madison Square Garden.
“This could really bring feet to the street of downtown,” Cappelletti said. “We will try to utilize state credits and film credits to build the building.”
“That would be a great asset,” Daniels added.
Some of the commercial space in the West Main Street facility could be some type of night life facility.
Both the West Main Street and Colony Street facilities would be energy efficient, using geothermal and solar energy.
The MHA is also investigating the use of fuel cells or a cogeneration station. The buildings are being designed by East-Haven based Landmark Architects.
Built in the 1960s, the 163-unit Yale Acres housing development is already described as workforce housing, Cappelletti said. The units are not in downtown, but Cappelletti said it is important to enhance any of its properties that the MHA can, which includes drastic energy improvements at Yale Acres.
The MHA has been using a $250,000 planning grant acquired from the state to look at enhancements. The first phase of Yale Acres is already completed. It included retrofitting a four-unit building in the complex to confirm operation and reliability of the energy-saving. It included new appliances, a roof of solar panels, special insulation, and other improvements. The units should be ready for occupancy by Oct. 1.
The long-term goal for Yale Acres is to make it generate as much power as it uses through sustainable energy sources. Geothermal energy is being explored, along with the other energy systems already in place at the redeveloped units.
“There will be better energy efficiency and lower utility costs; it’ll save about 20 percent in energy costs,” Cappelletti said. “With the geothermal energy there won’t be costs for oil, which is running residents $5,000 to $6,000 per year now. Instead, they will just be paying $30 to $40 for electricity per month.”
Similar to 143 W. Main St., Landmark Architects is in charge of the design plans.
Looking to continue the trend of enhancing the community and not just the units, there are also plans for a 28,000-square-foot community center that could house 4,000 to 6,000 people in the event of an emergency. The center would include two levels of daycares, a pool, gym, full kitchen, and office space. The building would be constructed on the Yale Acres site in an area to the north of Broadvale Road.
The MHA intends to apply for a similar tax credit program for the energy improvements, Cappelletti said. For the community center, funding has yet to be found, but there could be sources, Cappelletti said, including funding the state has announced for emergency shelters in the wake of super storm Sandy last year.
Cappelletti admitted the MHA’s plans are by far the most aggressive it has had since the construction of Yale Acres and Johnson Farms in the 1960s. He adds though that there may be no better time, as the state plans to fund $300 million in housing initiatives over a 10-year period. The city has been working closely with the state for the overall transit district plans and now the MHA is working the closest it has with the city, Cappelletti said, since the construction of Mills.
“It’s been difficult because we’re looking at it from the affordable housing perspective and the city is looking at it from the economic development perspective so we’re not always on the same page, but we’re working through that,” Cappelletti said. “We’re really hoping this gives Meriden the economic jump start that it needs.”
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