Replacement plans panned after closure of Crystal Avenue high rises
New London — City officials and members of the New London Housing Authority went back and forth for decades about what to do with the Thames River Apartments.
In the 1990s, some were in favor of demolishing the high-rise apartments, citing increased false fire alarms, crime and what some called “squalor,” even though that proposal lacked financial support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Others considered such a move drastic and created a task force to instead improve life at the buildings. The task force eventually dissolved.
That same kind of indecisiveness stayed consistent to the buildings’ end. The three high-rise apartment buildings were demolished in early 2022 and all that remains on the spot where dozens of families lived is a vacant lot.
Redevelopment of the property, or relocation of its residents to a similar apartment complex, appeared to be within reach, but ultimately, it was not to be.
Slip and fall case led to class action lawsuit
In 2003, local personal injury attorney Robert I. Reardon Jr. met Nicole Majette, a young woman who had slipped on human waste in a hallway at the apartments. When Reardon visited her home, he said he found the conditions deplorable and felt compelled to do something more.
Reardon’s law firm started a lawsuit to get residents safe, habitable housing, attaining class-action status in 2007. Reardon, interviewed in the spring of 2022 as The Day began its investigation into the affordable housing crisis, said the protracted legal activity came at no cost to the residents, as he represented them pro bono and paid for things such as deposition fees.
Apart from representing the 280 residents of the class-action lawsuit, Reardon, who admittedly was uninitiated to the world of public housing, sought solutions as well.
Difference of opinions
Carabetta, a property management company based in Meriden, was the first option, Reardon said during an interview at his Hempstead Street law office. In 2011, the company was in the process of renovating the Briarcliff and Bates Wood properties, previously owned by the housing authority and now known as Progress Point and Pride Point. The company funded the project with private and public funds. Reardon asked them to come up with a plan to present to the housing authority for Crystal Avenue.
That same year, Carabetta presented a plan that included the rehabilitation and conversion of the C Building into elderly housing, creation of a river walk and family townhouses placed over the seven acres where the other buildings stood.
“We were fortunate that we could manage to do things for free. Carabetta never charged us,” Reardon said. “The city seemed to think everybody was in it for profit and really our experience had been the opposite.”
The housing authority regarded Carabetta’s plans as “too complicated and too expensive,” involving a lot of logistical issues.
Reardon said that during the legal proceedings, he also discussed alternative housing proposals with Jaime Bordenave, principal of the Washington, D.C.-based firm The Community Group International, who volunteered as an expert in housing financing and development.
By the time the class-action lawsuit neared trial in 2014, almost everyone listed as the defendants — members of the housing authority, city government and police department — no longer held their positions. The lead plaintiff, Cheryl Gregor, among others, no longer lived at the apartments.
Nonetheless, the institutions that Reardon claimed had caused the deplorable conditions on Crystal Avenue were still around, and the lawsuit sought to represent “all persons who have resided or will reside at the Thames River Apartments.”
The trial had barely began in August 2014 when the parties reached a stipulated-agreement. Superior Court Judge David M. Sheridan signed an agreement that provided a three year schedule to begin rehabilitation or redevelopment of the high-rise apartments.
According to the agreement, the development for the project was to begin by November 2017.
AHSC and Peabody Properties
In 2015, already behind schedule, the Housing Authority board of commissioners selected the Affordable Housing Services and Collaborative, a development company from Braintree, Mass., and their joint venture partner Peabody Properties, to redevelop the property.
Mike Mattos, CEO and president of the AHSC, said in a phone interview this summer that the company met with residents to inform them of possible redevelopment and held two focus groups, one with adults and another with kids, to see what they would like to stay the same or change about their home.
Mattos recalled the kids wanted a playground, gym, community garden, no elevators and more security cameras, among other things.
Later, Mattos said there was a lot of opposition locally to rebuilding the housing on the same location, especially as an election year brought in a new mayor.
Mayor Michael Passero was elected in November of 2015. Mattos said people from the new administration started talking and their feeling was they would rather see this site utilized for industrial or commercial use rather than housing.
Passero said during an interview this past June that people there were living in squalor. He said he always thought being able to relocate the families that were there was a good idea.
With that in mind, Mattos said AHSC started looking for an alternative site to build 124 family housing units in a city of 5.62 square miles.
Edgerton school site
“New London is a very dense city,” Mattos said. “Not a lot of open space to build 124 units, so we really started to look and evaluate several sites, and all of them had major site issues ... Then someone said to us, ’hey, the old Edgerton school property is going on auction.’”
The Edgerton Elementary School, a 3.3-acre site, had been vacant since it closed in 2009.
Mattos said Peabody thought it was a great location for affordable housing. Located right off Colman Street, a main artery of the city, the site at 120 Cedar Grove Ave. is close to public transportation, shops and employment opportunities and is within walking distance to the city’s high school and middle school.
The AHSC acquired the land for $600,000, and in a rush borrowed $150,000 from the housing authority to purchase it. The company paid the money back once it got a pre-development loan, said Mattos. The developers also ended up doing some “land assembly,” acquiring three adjacent parcels prior to applying for permits. By this point, Mattos said they had already spent close to $1 million.
“At that time, the housing authority was our partner; we had everyone’s support,” Mattos said. “So we said, ʽLet’s do it. This’ll work.ʻ ”
Lack of funding
But it didn’t work.
In May 2022, the AHSC sold the Edgerton site it had envisioned would house some, if not all, of the former residents of the Thames River Apartments.
The site, including the three adjacent parcels, was sold for $100,000.
Although the company faced major permitting challenges and vocal neighborhood opponents, Mattos said the biggest challenge was getting funding.
In 2017, following a zone change rejection, an appeal and an agreement to allow residential use at the site, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved the site plan for a scaled-back version of the project, with a total of 72 units.
The developers then tried for three consecutive years to get low-income tax credits from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. The process of getting funding is point-driven and highly competitive. Each time AHSC applied, Mattos said they fell short of receiving enough “points” based on different categories.
Mattos said the developers lost seven points right off the bat because the project is located in New London, a city with 22% of its housing deemed affordable. He said the point system doesn’t take into account the size and age of the housing stock.
Before applying in 2019, Mattos knew it would be the last attempt to get the project funded. By this point, too much money had gone into pre-development costs, quarterly taxes and the annual maintenance on the existing buildings.
The company by then had amended their plan from 72 units down to 51 to reduce some of the overall construction costs and make it more appealing to CHFA.
When, for the third time, they didn’t score high enough, Mattos made an unsuccessful appeal to CHFA.
“One of the things we found when doing our research, 89% of housing in New London was constructed before 1980 and 53% was constructed before 1940,” Mattos said. He added there was a minimal amount of new units constructed since 2000 within the city.
He said only 3.2% of the housing stock was built in the last 18 years prior to 2019.
Mattos said they also found that 31% of renters in New London were considered living in overcrowded conditions and there was a need for larger units not available.
“We’re providing three, four bedrooms. That’s what the families at Thames River Apartments needed. We were trying to make larger family units, not one- to two-bedroom, to give families more options but they don’t even consider that in their point system,“ he said.
It didn’t help that the housing authority had no longer prioritized the project.
Mattos said the momentum changed after the executive director that he originally worked with, Sue Shontell, left the authority in November 2016 and the board was replaced with mostly new members — all appointed by Passero.
Mattos got the impression they didn’t want to wait two to three years for the development. They wanted to move residents sooner because the conditions on Crystal Avenue were horrible, he said.
“Even though the housing authority had selected us to work with them, we felt like we lost our leverage in terms of going after the state resources,” Mattos said.
In 2017, the New London Housing Authority, alongside the city, applied for a demolition disposition to the U.S. Department of Urban Development to close and demolish the Thames River Apartments and receive tenant protection vouchers to relocate.
A housing authority document from Oct. 2, 2017 shows HUD’s approval justified the demolition because of the apartment’s location and “issues with the boiler system that the Housing Authority does not have adequate resources to address.” The estimated rehabilitation cost for the entire complex was $28,617,256.
Betsy Gibson, chairperson of the authority at the time, said in an interview at The Day offices in May that the authority never made rehabbing or relocating the apartments a priority.
“I didn’t think that kids should be living under a bridge next to a landfill. It was not an ideal place for families,” Gibson said. “It separated them from the rest of New London... Most people wanted out of there for a better quality of life for children.”
She said the housing authority wasn’t heavily involved in the Edgerton plans.
Commission member Kathleen Mitchell voted against the demolition. She was a proponent of rehabbing the buildings rather than tearing them down.
In an May interview at her home, Mitchell said the wealthier people in town think they know better about what needs to be done for low-income people.
“They didn’t want to move,” she said about the residents.
By mid-2018, those living at the Thames River Apartments had left and moved into private housing with their Section 8 vouchers, never to return again.
“I have mixed thoughts, feelings,” Mattos said. “At the end of the day, I think the project would’ve been a great project for the city and for CHFA. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to get the financing. Everything else, locally, not disappointed. I feel like New London is a great city and a lot of great people there.”
He said, “I wished the outcome would’ve been different, and we would’ve gotten the points.”
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