MERIDEN — With commercial tenants in place and a waiting list for residential units, the mixed-use, mixed-income Meriden Commons at 161 State St. has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic as a success story city officials would like to replicate throughout downtown.
The first phase of the Commons was inaugurated by developer Pennrose Properties in 2018 as part of Meriden’s transit-oriented district. The city’s Economic Development Director Joseph Feest explained the approach uses residential space upstairs to help support the commercial space downstairs.
Five years later, Feest applauded the success of the commercial tenants of the Commons, but said there was still space to grow to make the rest of the downtown more walkable.
“The transit district worked for what we wanted it to do,” Feest said. “We still need to bring more people into our downtown and we need to encourage more businesses to open up on the first floors of these buildings.”
For instance, the renovated 24 Colony St. two blocks away has struggled to lure a commercial tenant in their renovated first floor space. Most recently, the airy space became G53 ALT, a streetside rotating exhibit from Gallery 53 that highlights the work of local artists.
However, Feest added there were five other buildings in the process of undergoing renovations downtown and hoped more businesses would move into the first floors of those buildings. First floor: Bringing in businesses
Ellen Parks has been renting a space on the first floor of the Commons for her business, Dynamic Hair Salon & Beauty Supply, for the past three years. She moved from a couple different locations downtown and appreciated the newer, cleaner location to sell hair products, wigs, braided hair products and natural hair.
After some bad experiences with previous landlords, she also highlighted how attentive the building management is to keeping the property in good repair.
“I never had that before. I’ve been in business for 15 years and 99% of the stuff, I have to fix myself. If water comes down and messes up my TV or this or that, the landlord would be like, ‘Oh, well, you got insurance.’ [Pennrose] will come and fix the leak.”
The day-to-day maintenance of the Commons falls to Property Manager Eva Concepcion and her team. She has been working for Pennrose for five years and has been the manager of the Commons for two.
During her tenure, she has overseen tenants moving out, tenants moving in, the tail end of the pandemic and even a live birth in her office.
“We wear a lot of hats. We're friends, social workers, everything all in one,” she said. “I manage a maintenance team of three and also an assistant manager. So between the five of us, we handle a little bit of everything.”
The location of the Commons was really important for Lenroy Neysmith, owner of the Apex Vision Fitness gym on the first floor. He was looking at spaces to open his gym and wanted to build one in his native Meriden.
Neysmith highlighted how safe the area feels for his customers. As a personal trainer, Neysmith sees about 30 clients on a weekly basis. Apex has been open for three years and Neysmith said it was rewarding to have his own business despite all the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
“I’m trying to give people what they were missing because all the gyms were closed down. People that would normally make an active lifestyle had to stay at home now and didn’t have a way to train,” he said. “So it was very fun, giving people what they were missing.”Second floor: Creating affordable housing
The Commons were built on what used to be 144 units of public housing at the Meriden Mills Memorial Apartments on Mill Street. To replace them, the Record-Journal previously reported that about 60 units were built at nearby 24 Colony St., with the remainder spread between the Commons and a separate development at 11 Crown St.
The Commons tries to be an active part of the community by providing access to resources, organizing back-to-school drives and even sponsoring one of the Twilight Tunes concerts at the Meriden Green.
Many of the tenants like their apartments, so the Commons has a fairly low turnover rate, Concepcion explained. Many of the tenants who arrived when the Commons first opened have stayed on for several years. Nevertheless, she manages a monthslong waiting list and vetting process whenever there is a vacancy.
“In Meriden in general, we are in a great area. We have a train locally, the Meriden Green, a supermarket is in walking distance. I feel like we’re just going to get bigger and bigger, more successful,” she said.
Pennrose Properties regional Vice President Charlie Adams explained that the units at the Commons range from unrestricted market-rate units to units designated as affordable. He added that 60 of the units were designated at different tiers of affordability based on the Area Median Income because of a tax credit from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. In addition, 26 of the units are funded through Section 8 Project-Based Vouchers as a way to replace the Mills housing that was demolished.
“We created a safe place that anybody could live here. We have people in various units, even within the ones that we can call affordable with the tax credits,” he said.
Within the unrestricted, market-rate units, a one-bedroom at the Commons costs between $1,300-$1,500 a month and the two-bedroom apartments cost between $1,400-$1,850 a month.
As housing prices rise statewide, partly because of municipal zoning regulations on development, the amount of affordable housing in Meriden stands out in comparison to neighboring towns.
About 17% of the city’s housing were designated as affordable in 2021, according to the most recent data aggregated by CT Mirror. In neighboring Cheshire and Wallingford, only 4% was considered affordable housing.
To build the $54 million Commons, Pennrose partnered with the Meriden Housing Authority, its development arm Maynard Road Corp., and the Cloud Company to finance the Commons through a package of low-income housing tax credits and state and private developer funding.
“The relationship we have with the city has been really great,” Adams said. “If something happens in the neighborhood, the mayor will call me to say, hey, just give me a heads up something happened here and, you know, we do the same. We try to be a part of the neighborhood and the community.”
Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.