A long-vacant lot in a quickly developing juncture of the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods may become the new home of senior citizens who now live at Edith Johnson Towers, under a plan that departs from New Haven’s market-rate housing trend.
Neighbors at a community meeting got to hear from developers chosen by the city to build 95 new affordable senior housing units there to replace the existing 95 units at the more than 50-year-old eight-story Johnson Towers at 114 Bristol St.
The city chose the Boston-based Beacon Corcoran SP Jennison (aka “BCJ”), which owns the Johnson Towers as well as the related 339-unit Monterey Place public-housing development in Dixwell, after requesting proposals from developers in August 2016 for the 2.3-acre site between Ashmun and Canal Streets.
Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, who runs city government’s neighborhood anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), said the site was originally planned for development as part of the Monterey Place remaking of the old Elm Haven projects. That never happened. The lot is near Science Park, Winchester Lofts, Ashmun Flats and the forthcoming development of the former 13- acre Olin Corp. factory site on Munson Street into nearly 400 apartments.
The city has tried over the years to develop the vacant property without any success. With new housing developments springing up all around the property, the city got nibbles from two other developers, including the Glendower Group, which is the development arm of the city’s housing authority. Neal-Sanjurjo said the old Edith Johnson building would revert city ownership; there are no plans yet for what to do with it once it is vacated.
Dara Kovel, president of Beacon Communities Development, told Edith Johnson residents and other Dixwell and Newhallville neighbors at Thursday night’s meeting, held at New Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ on Dixwell Avenue, that the project would be a one-for-one development of housing to replace the units at 114 Bristol St. Beacon has hired New Haven-based Newman Architects to handle the design work.
“We believe we can do that in a four-story building, with a sort of wood frame building on both sides,” Kovel said. “We’ve proposed a U-shaped building. We recognize that there are single family homes across the street and are trying to pull back some of the scale from the street there. There also will be parking in the back.”
Kovel said the city’s proposal asked that the development be mixed-use. So Beacon’s design calls for space on the first floor that could be used for a retail/commercial space, a childcare center or a health clinic. The first floor also will include other amenity space for residents such as a manager’s office, health services, and possibly a fitness center. Apartments will be on the three floors above the non-residential space, she said. But all of what will be on the first floor, and the layout of apartments above, remain to be decided.
“Right now this is just a design concept,” Kovel told neighbors. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do—work with the architect to refine this idea. A lot of work to do with Serena and Livable City to get the site ready for zoning and moving through that process.”
Kovel said that the project would also have to get a series of approvals from the city’s housing authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) so that the subsidies that help people who live in Edith Johnson afford their rent — paid with the help of the rental assistance demonstration (RAD) program — can be moved from the old site to the new one.
“We’ve had some preliminary conversations about doing that and have gotten generally positive responses that that will be possible,” she said. “We have several more steps to take in doing that.”
One neighbor pointed out that senior housing is one of the least intensive uses that the site could have and would provide the city a lot less tax revenue than an apartment building filled with market-rate renters. Why not put as much senior housing as possible on the site and provide more than 95 units given that Edith Johnson currently has a waitlist?
Pam Goodman, Beacon Communities CEO, said it was her understanding that the community didn’t want higher density. She also didn’t see a way to fund additional units that would also keep them affordable.
“We really were somewhat concerned about what the community wanted,” she said.
Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison said when the three proposals were presented to her — two of which would have added 200-300 market rate units in mixed-use developments — she advocated for the replacement of the new senior housing instead.
“To be honest with you, I got in the city’s way,” she said. “The city did want more tax money on that land, that’s what they wanted out of those three projects. Senior housing was the most sensible thing for that area.”
Some neighbors expressed heartburn over the fact that of the proposals submitted to the city, one had been chosen without their input. They also expressed frustration that they were unaware that a request for proposal had been released by the city that they knew nothing about.
“We’re being notified that the situation has already been decided,” one man said. “I’d rather for the residents to decide what goes on that property. The residents might have gotten together and bought that land.
“Anyone could have addressed the RFQ,” Morrison responded.
“Whatever an RFQ is,” the man retorted. “Nobody gave us a chance to do nothing.” (The city issues RFPs and RFQs —requests for proposals and requests for qualifications — to interested bidders.)
Morrison acknowledged that the decision to put the senior housing vacant lot had already been made by the city. Thursday’s meeting was an opportunity for neighbors and Edith Johnson residents to have influence over that plan.
A plan that Kovel and Goodman said would require many more meetings with neighbors. Kovel said in a best-case scenario, the project could break ground sometime in 2019.
“We don’t know when it will start is the short answer,” she said. “There are a lot of steps to go through. We have to meet with you guys some more, there’s a zoning process, we’re gathering our financing. In an ideal world, we’d start in 2019. But that’s if everything falls together perfectly.
Edith Johnson residents like Gladstone Pantin welcomed the news of a new home pointing out that the apartments are in need of costly repairs including the need to reconstruct the entrance and the need to repair water leaks throughout the building.
“We’re happy to live there,” he said. “The place is in dire need of repair. What we’re looking at is a sensible decision.”