Scrap the existing plan. The neighborhood doesn’t want NeighborWorks New Horizons, or affordable housing.
Fifty residents of southern Hamden delivered that message Monday night at a public meeting about the future of a blighted property located at 560 Newhall St., home to Hamden’s long deserted and decaying middle school.
The community forum led by Hamden Acting Town Planner Erik Johnson. It was held both in-person at the Keefe Community Center and over Zoom.
The goal was to receive residents’ input prior to a vote scheduled for Oct. 18 at the Legislative Council. The Council will decide whether or not to move forward with a site blueprint drafted by NeighborWorks New Horizons, aka Mutual Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer with which Hamden signed a contract with back in 2015 to redevelop the property.
Those who showed up to the event were largely there to critique the premise of the conversation itself, echoing concerns named by district Council membre Justin Farmer throughout the last two months of council meetings regarding the middle school.
The controversial saga goes as such: Hamden signed a contract with Mutual Housing six years ago with the understanding that they’d implement their plan — which included building roughly 90 apartments that would be 80 percent affordable and 20 percent market rate, as well as a community center — before July 22, 2021.
An unexpectedly lengthy remediation process (read about that here and here) stalled the project. The council granted the nonprofit an extension to redevelop their site plan in accordance with new environmental constraints discovered through the remediation. Read about that current site plan here, which remained largely unchanged even after the soil inspection. It involves building 87 apartments on site, demolishing the old gymnasium and building a small “community facility” that would be operated by Mutual Housing, and using the unbuildable extra acreage behind the old middle school for athletic fields.
To date the project has not gotten off the ground.
Neighbors at Monday night’s meeting argued that Mutual Housing’s proposal would inadvertently harm those living around the property. They argued the Council and nonprofit had failed to properly reach out to long-time residents at an appropriate place and time, both this summer and six years ago. If the council and developers had successfully facilitated community conversation, the audience said, they’d know that few people wants affordable housing on the site.
With only two weeks before the vote on whether to renew the contract, many residents at the event expressed a belief that the property’s pathway had already been determined and that the public forum was a mere formality.
“If the decision’s already been made to develop housing on that site, why are we here?” asked Yvonne Jones, founder and CEO of an educational enrichment nonprofit called Destined to Succeed.
Johnson disagreed. He said he saw the Council as having three options when it votes in two weeks:
• To end the contract with Mutual Housing and go out to bid with a new developer, effectively starting the process from scratch.
• To approve Mutual Housing’s plan and continue on to finalize specifics.
• To highlight terms of the agreement that might require significant modifications and instruct Johnson to continue negotiations with Mutual before moving forward with the plan.
The options boil down to: compromise or begin again.
At first, neighbors at Monday night’s Keefe meeting called any level of compromise out of the question. Affordable housing, the residents said, doesn’t beoong in a historical wetland that experiences regular flooding and on a property already prone to traffic jams.
Plus, the crowd asked, how might placing more affordable housing into an overdeveloped, low-income part of the town further disparities between the and wealthier districts?
“It’ll destabilize the area even further,” said Velma George, New Haven’s homelessness coordinator and a Hamden resident. “Come on, we’ve been disenfranchised for many years.
Newhall Street is on the southern end of town. Its surrounding neighborhood is composed primarily of Black and brown people.
Johnson encouraged the crowd to think more carefully about their stance, pointing out that the apartments will be aimed at individuals with incomes between $30,000 and $70,000.
“You’re basically just filling the space with people with the same income,” he said.
“Sometimes they’re the same people that look just like us,” he added, motioning towards himself.
The audience raised their voices in response to that statement.
“It’s about homeownership,” Yvonne Jones countered. “At the end of the day, my property value is going to decrease!”
OK, Johnson said. So what would be the alternative to affordable housing?
“A grocery store,” Jones suggested. Senior housing, others said. Gloria Faber pushed for single-family homes.
Keith Butler of Newberry Street asked, “Why not a little medical center or something?”
“This was an environmental disaster six years ago,” Johnson reminded the crowd. “This property probably has a negative value today … It should not be thought about as an opportunity.”
Johnson suggested that the town wouldn’t be able to sell the property, but also probably couldn’t afford to fund building anything itself on site. “The goal is ultimately for it not to be a blighted site.”
NeighborWorks President and CEO Tom Cruess joined the meeting on Zoom. Mutual Housing said they might consider lowering the total number of apartments, that they plan to perform traffic and flooding studies during site development, and that it was to be determined whether or not they would charge a fee for space rentals by local nonprofits within the potential gymnasium-turned-community center.
Cruess said he would be interested in forming an advisory board with community members to make sure established Hamden nonprofits could use the space.
“We build these projects and then operate them — we don’t sell them. So we want to be good neighbors. We truly want to build something that services and improves your community,” Hoffman insisted.
Attendees said that they do not trust the developers to be the good neighbors. George said water management has been promised by the town in the past in similar situations, such as during the remediation of the nearby Villano Park — but nothing came of it. Hamden youth center founders Yvonne Jones and Melissa Atterberry-Jones expressed concern that Mutual Housing would invite their separate partner nonprofits into the new “community facility,” rather than supporting the extant programs that make up the town.
“We should just scrap the whole thing and start over,” Jones suggested with a sigh towards the conclusion of the meeting. Disgruntled “yeahs” echoed in agreement throughout the room.
Council member Dominique Baez pointed out that council members Kristin Dolan and Athena Gary were participating via Zoom, though all four members were double booked with a Legislative Council meeting at 7 pm, which was only the midpoint of the 6 pm forum.
“All your voices are important, but I cannot speak for the other council members,” said Council member Dominique Baez said. The public has two more opportunities to voice their concerns and push council members to represent their stance: At an Economic Development Commission meeting on Oct. 12, and when the Council is scheduled to vote on Oct. 18.