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Christopher Zajac Record-Journal
The Mills Apartments in Meriden, Nov. 22, 2013. The MHA received a $500,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. | Christopher Zajac / Record-Journal

Housing authority secures key grant to determine Mills future

MERIDEN — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday that the Meriden Housing Authority has received a $500,000 planning grant for the demolition and redevelopment of Mills Memorial Apartments.

On its third submission to HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program, the MHA, which partnered with the city on the application, was successful in earning a grant that could help redevelop the Mills low income housing units and the neighborhood in the downtown area. There are a total of 140 units at Mills, spread across five buildings, including two high-rises.

“This is very exciting for us,” said MHA Director Robert Cappelletti. “In general, this is for the redevelopment of the Mills, but it’s really not just the Mills, it’s for the entire neighborhood ... Hopefully this can bring economic and community development to the area that we have identified.”

The Choice Neighborhoods grant, formerly known as Hope VI, required applicants to “propose a plan for the revitalization of a severely distressed public and or HUD-assisted multifamily housing project located in a distressed neighborhood into a viable, mixed-income community,” according to HUD’s website.

Working with the city, the targeted area covers much of downtown and some areas within a half-mile of Mills. In the application, the city and MHA highlighted other projects in downtown such as the Hub redevelopment, the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line and new transit station, and flood control improvements. Because of the status of those projects, City Councilor Brian Daniels said he was optimistic about the application, but kept his fingers crossed.

“After the first application, we were told the projects were not sufficiently shovel ready at that time, so even though there was a lot of great stuff that was going to happen in Meriden, we were not at the point where we were going to be awarded a planning grant,” said Daniels, who chaired a city and MHA partnership committee that led to the submitted applications. “With this application (submitted in May), we knew everything was shovel ready.”

Daniels said he’s excited that within the next two years many of the projects will have come to fruition, and the city and MHA will likely be applying for the implementation Choice Neighborhoods grant that could be worth up to $20 million.

“Receiving this is really a monumental event in the history of Meriden with respect to the demolition of the Mills in downtown and the transformation of downtown,” Daniels said. “When it comes down to it, this will lead to economic development market rate and affordable housing, private investment, and flood control - all things that everybody in town has been waiting for for decades.”

Early talks about razing Mills were met with heavy opposition from tenants, among others. There were financial concerns and the redevelopment fell by the wayside for years. Cappelletti called the housing “obsolete and distressed in nature.” The project summary released by HUD states that Mills “demonstrates severe structural and design deficiencies that require redevelopment.” The neighborhood, it adds, “demonstrates severe distress with long-term housing vacancy and violent crime rates significantly higher than the overall city of Meriden.” Close to 45 percent of households are at or below the poverty level in the listed neighborhood.

City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior said he was “very pleased” with the awarding of the grant and is proud of the city and MHA’s joint venture.

“We’re moving forward with providing mixed income and overall better housing,” he said. “New housing on that site is very important and part of the overall city plan. This will make other parts of the plan for downtown... more successful.”

Kendzior noted that out of 52 applications, only nine other communities in the country were awarded the Choice Neighborhood grant, which can also be given to owners of private housing. Of the nine, Meriden was the second smallest of the municipalities in terms of population to receive funding, though Meriden received $100,000 more than the smallest, New Bern, N.C. Other cities that will see funding include Denver, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The Choice Neighborhoods program was tailored to also help some of the smaller communities like Meriden, said Barbara Fields, the regional administrator of HUD in the New England area.

“Meriden was up against very, very stiff competition,” Fields said. “Changes were made so that smaller communities could score competitively and here’s the proof with Meriden getting this award.”

Fields, who said she has plans to visit Meriden in the near future, said HUD has had a strong interest in the city because of its housing and transit-oriented plans. She noted that Norwalk is the only other municipality in the state to win a similar grant.

The MHA’s housing plans include a partnership with Westmount Development Group for the replacement and relocation of 24 Mills units. By federal law, any demolition of public housing requires that new units be constructed. The partnership has applied for tax credit funding with the Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority to help construct a 63-unit, mixed-use building on Colony Street. Financial commitments from state departments would also help fund the project, as well as a new parking garage to the rear of the property.

If the tax credits are awarded, two of the low-rise buildings could be razed in the near future.

Cappelletti said once the MHA receives paperwork from HUD, the city, MHA and community partners can begin a 12- to 18-month process of planning the redevelopment of the area. The plan will likely include razing Mills and rebuilding some mixed-income housing on the site and others in the area, including the former Factory H site. The city and MHA has also been working closely with planning coordinator Wallace, Roberts and Todd LLC, Meriden Children’s First, Maynard Road, Meriden Economic Development Corp., devlopment firm Penrose Properties, the Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce, the Community Health Center, University of Connecticut, and the Center for Advanced Technology, in addition to residents.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan praised the nine communities that won the planning grant awards in a statement.

“Through this investment, HUD is providing the resources for local leaders to transform neighborhoods into thriving communities where families will choose to live,” Donovan said.

“The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative represents the next generation in a movement toward revitalizing entire neighborhoods by providing critically needed funding to support locally driven economic development solutions in these areas. I look forward to working with these cities and communities as they work to build stronger neighborhoods for all.” 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ

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