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    Housing Solutions Lab
    Saturday, March 02, 2024
     

    Ponemah Mill residents enjoy modern amenities in historic mill setting

     
     
    Resident Megan Davis looks for books Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in the entry hall of the library in The Lofts at Ponemah Mills in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Debbie Kievits, left, a tenant of The Lofts at Ponemah Mills in Norwich, watches the kids Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2023, while they build a structure with plastic cups during her after-school program at Ponemah. Kievits is the director of Bully Busters. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Joanne Ozga sits in her apartment Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, working on her tablet brushing up on her Spanish. Ozga was the first tenant of The Lofts at Ponemah Mills in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Tenant Megan Davis looks for books Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in the library of The Lofts at Ponemah Mills in Norwich. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Norwich ― Therese Trassi remembers bringing lunch every day to her father when he and his five brothers worked in the giant Ponemah Mill in the mid-20th century.

    Those days, whole families worked in the textile mill along the Shetucket River and lived in the adjacent Taftville village, which was dominated by Ponemah Mill, a cotton mill, for decades.

    So, when Trassi, 81, a retired teacher, was ready to sell her house in Lebanon and downsize to an apartment, it felt like she was coming home to be one of the first tenants in the newly renovated Ponemah Mill No. 1, now The Lofts at Ponemah Mill.

    “I grew up in Taftville,” Trassi said.

    New Jersey-based developer OneKey LLC completed the $40.1 million first phase of renovations of half the enormous five-story building in the summer of 2018, with the first tenants moving in that September, Trassi among them.

    As the apartments filled up, and the $41 million second and $29.9 million third phases were completed, Ponemah Mill took on a new identity as a thriving neighborhood, with new friendships formed, clubs, activities and a culture where residents of varying backgrounds, professions and income levels meet and mingle.

    “This is an eclectic ethnic melting pot,” said Glen Hansen, 61, formerly of Glastonbury. Hansen moved to Ponemah in September 2022.

    Resident Paula Bell, 71, who teaches American sign language at Connecticut College and Connecticut Community College at Three Rivers, has lived in a second-story corner apartment for four years. She sold her house on the Norwichtown Green after her husband died.

    When the Ponemah first phase opened, Bell went for a tour and asked to be put on a list for the second phase. She fell in love with her unit as soon as she glimpsed the view of the Shetucket River from one of the 10-foot-high windows, and the 12-foot ceilings. Her corner bedroom has views of the river from both windows.

    But it’s the people that make Ponemah a home, Bell said. Residents on her wing have formed a phone texting tree to alert one another of both good and bad news, from invitations for kids to come trick-or-treating to a call for spices needed for a recipe to potential security issues. She is in a group of tenants who play Mahjong in the community room and a book club that meets in a neighbor’s apartment.

    Ponemah residents also have their own Facebook group.

    “One of the things for me I absolutely love, from the first time I moved in, it’s a neighborhood,” Bell said. “There’s all sorts of educational levels. There’s people who teach at colleges and then there are people who just have a high school diplomas, and it’s OK, because it’s a neighborhood.”

    The Lofts at Ponemah has 313 apartments, 60% affordable housing units, with rents based on tenants’ incomes, and 40% market-rate apartments. All tenants have access to a wide variety of amenities. Each apartment has its own washer and dryer. Rent includes garbage disposal, cold water and sewer. Tenants pay for electricity, electric heat and hot water.

    The affordable units at Ponemah range from $380 to $1,133 per month for one-bedroom units and $443 to $1,347 for two-bedroom units. Market rate apartments are $1,450 to $1,600 and two-bedroom units are $1,750 to $2,200, said Sara Krukoff, property manager for Konover Residential Corp., which operates the leasing and property management services.

    Rent includes trash disposal, cold water and sewer service and all common area amenities. There is a pet fee, waived for affordable housing tenants, Krukoff said.

    The complex contains a community room, outdoor grills and fire pits, a new billiards room, game room, movie theater, gym, sauna and steam room and library. Pets abound in the building, from dogs and cats to turtles, hamsters and other critters, and there’s a dog park in a wooded area along the Shetucket River at the north end of the property.

    “I meet a new dog every day,” Trassi said. She had an elderly dog when she moved to Ponemah, but he died. Her cat lived to be 19 before passing. Now, she “adopts” neighbors’ dogs, greeting them and becoming friends with their owners.

    Becoming part of Taftville

    As Ponemah tenants settled in, interactions with the adjacent village that once housed the mill workers, ancillary operations and services have increased.

    Longtime Norwich youth advocate Debbie Kievits, 63, moved to Ponemah four years ago, when she no longer wanted the hassle and expense of maintaining her mobile home. Kievits and other tenants praised the Ponemah maintenance staff for prompt responses to any problems or issues, even if it’s just asking how to work the new digital washing machine.

    Youth Collective

    Kievits, volunteer director of the Norwich Bully Busters youth program, saw opportunities to help the new complex thrive as its own community and to forge relations with Taftville neighborhoods. She received permission from complex management to offer an after-school children’s program in the community room, including kids who live in the Ponemah apartments and the surrounding neighborhood.

    The Youth Collective meets from 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays. About 10 to 15 youths, mostly elementary and middle school children, greeted Kievits, who had games set up and activities planned, on a Wednesday in November. The participants made English muffin pizza. As the treats were baking, the older youths raced to the billiards room to play pool and younger children played games in the community room.

    Ethan Johnson, 13, said his family has lived at Ponemah for a year and said living there is “very good.” He saw a sign in the elevator for the Youth Collective and joined.

    Nathan Weller, 11, lives nearby on South A Street and learned about the program from a friend.

    “I tell everyone about it,” he said.

    Kievits said she is grateful that management allowed her to expand the program to the neighborhood, as it encourages the children to interact with their neighbors. The group recently put together about 60 “kindness bags,” filled with shampoo, hygiene products, hand warmers, hats and gloves. The bags were donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Place soup kitchen, United Community and Family Services and Reliance Health.

    The Youth Collective members next will make flower centerpieces in mugs to bring to local nursing home residents.

    Prior to Thanksgiving, Kievits solicited donations through the Ponemah Facebook group to collect donations for three Thanksgiving dinners, from frozen turkeys to desserts, which were presented to three Ponemah families struggling financially.

    Bell said she spread the word among Ponemah residents last year when Connecticut Community College at Three Rivers desperately needed to stock its food pantry, and residents came through with generous donations.

    When there was a fire in one apartment last January, and 23 residents were temporarily displaced by water damage from the sprinkler system, Kievits and other tenants raced to help. Kievits entertained the children in the community room.

    “A lot of residents came and said, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” Kievits said.

    An imperfect community

    With hundreds of residents living in the complex, some tenants said problems have emerged. Not all of the many dog owners clean up after their animals, resident Paula Bell said. Cigarette butts litter the ground in places off limits to smoking.

    Bell and tenant Glen Hansen both complained that while entrance doors are locked for security, many tenants hold the door open for people behind them, or open doors for strangers without verifying if the person lives in the complex.

    Hansen also said tenants should take better care of the group amenities, including the game room and the new billiards equipment. He and Bell said they are outspoken in voicing their concerns to lease management, Konover Residential Corp., to improve vigilance for the complex and to screen tenants and make sure they understand the rules.

    “There’s cameras everywhere,” Hansen said. He added that the maintenance staff are very responsive to problems.

    Ponemah residents also hope for improved connections with the local community. The complex sits on busy Norwich Avenue-Route 97, and the main mill entrance is directly across from the intersection with Providence Street-Route 169.

    There is no signal light or stop sign on Route 97, and just one crosswalk in front of the mill main entrance, heading toward the businesses across the street, Wequonnoc Elementary School and the village playground. There is no crosswalk at the northern end of the mill, across from a childcare center run by Thames Valley Council for Community Action.

    “When I moved here, it’s a little bit of a culture shock,” Ponemah resident Tamara Jones, 62, said. “I lived in New London. You can walk anywhere in New London.”

    But Jones was thrilled to leave her New London apartment, which had poor maintenance and rising rent, to move to Ponemah four years ago. Jones has a Section 8 federal housing subsidy voucher that helps her pay rent on a fixed income.

    “I love the beauty of the old historic building,” Jones said. “When they redid this, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What I went through was so traumatizing. I am Section 8. I am so thrilled to live here.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

    Editor’s note: Housing Solutions Lab intern Terell Wright contributed to this story.

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