Ponemah Mill stands tall as affordable housing solution
Norwich ― It’s a fair bet that anyone’s first mental image of affordable housing would not include a movie theater, game room, sauna and steam room, gym, billiards room, library and community center, along with outdoor grills and fire pits and a dog park.
And water views. It’s all in a setting overlooking the picturesque Shetucket River, with the waterfall from a working hydropower dam in view from the 10-foot-high windows of some apartments.
The Lofts at Ponemah Mills provides all those amenities and more ― in-unit washers and dryers, granite countertops and trash disposal service ― for hundreds of tenants in a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments.
The Lofts are in the transformed, gigantic, five-story former 19th century textile mill and 20th century high-end furniture maker in the historic Taftville mill village in Norwich.
The $111.1 million completed complex features 313 mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments, with seven three-bedroom units. Overall, 60% of the units are designated as affordable and 40% as market-rate units. Two units are reserved for the lowest income earners, 25% of the area median income.
As of mid-November, the complex was 98% occupied, said Sara Krukoff, property manager for Konover Residential Corp., the leasing and management firm at Ponemah.
“Every time I drive by, I’m so excited to see it,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who lobbied for state affordable housing financing and environmental cleanup grants for the renovations. “I’m thrilled by the towers. I love them. I’m so pleased to see a project like that happen in eastern Connecticut. And to see the full parking lot, I see all those people, who have jobs in the region.”
Osten raved about the apartments, with its modern appliances, granite countertops, the loft layouts, each one different from the next, the giant original windows, river views and the trash disposal chutes.
“The building is drop-dead gorgeous,” Osten said. “You wouldn’t think a mill building would have such character, but it does.”
Osten and several Norwich city leaders credited New Jersey-based developer, OneKey LLC, headed by Paula and Finbar O’Neill, for their vision, and especially their tenacity and over 15 years to see the project to completion.
A dream that evolved through economic reality
At the May 10, 2016 groundbreaking ceremony, Paula O’Neill, president and owner of OneKey, described love at first sight as she turned off Interstate 395 onto Route 97 and rounded the sweeping curve and saw the mill rising above the landscape.
“It was our dream when we first saw it,” O'Neill said. “Finally, our dream has come true. We love old, historic buildings, and the riverfront is beautiful.”
The O’Neills purchased the vacant mill under the name Norwich Riverbank LLC in 2007 with plans to convert it into apartments. A year later, financial institutions and the housing market crashed, plunging the country into the Great Recession.
State and city leaders worked for years to secure the public-private partnership touted repeatedly for the Ponemah project’s success.
“We have brought online a unique housing solution that pairs history with modern amenities,” Finbar O’Neill, director of operations for OneKey, said in a Jan. 15, 2018 announcement that the state had approved financing to complete the second half of the mill. “Every detail has been considered and we look forward to meeting the needs of every generation of residents.”
The $40 million phase 1 comprised 116 apartments in just half of the 775-foot-long front-facing portion of the north mill in the complex. That phase received $25 million in financing through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority; $7 million in federal and state historic tax credits, $1 million in federal low-income housing tax credits, and finally, a necessary $5 million bridge loan from the then-newly formed state Department of Housing.
Phase 2, which totaled $41 million and added 121 apartments to he northern front half of the giant building, received $8.6 million in construction financing from CHFA, $6.1 million from the state Department of Housing, $4.16 million in low-income housing tax credits, plus state and federal historic tax credits.
Phase 3 covered the rear wing and riverfront townhouse units totaled $29.9 milllion.
Louis Kaufman, general counsel for OneKey, who has been involved in the Ponemah project from the start, said none of it would have come together without the city agreeing to a 15-year phased-in property tax plan that proved to state leaders that the city supported the effort.
“The city’s contribution was the tax abatement, which changed over the years,” Kaufman said. “Without any one of these pieces of financing, we would not have been successful.”
The tax abatement gradually phases in the value of the mill improvements, while OneKey still pays taxes on the previous assessed building value. This year, OneKey will pay $265,840 in property taxes on eight properties associated with The Lofts at Ponemah Mills portion of the mill complex.
OneKey in 2008 purchased the second mill in the Ponemah complex along with a separate building in front of the mill that once housed mill offices. The company has started work on a $45 million planned renovation for 146 market rate units, 117 one-bedroom, and 29 two-bedroom apartments.
The project received an $797,000 state brownfields cleanup grant and again plans to use state and federal historic tax credits.
Phil Biondo, project development manager and consultant to OneKey, said the company opted for market rate units, rather than affordable units for the smaller mill, because market rate apartments continue to be in demand in the region. Rents have not yet been set.
These units will have original brick interior walls, tall windows, refurbished original steel and wooden columns and exposed beams. OneKey hopes to bring a restaurant to the former mill office building in front.
The second mill might share common amenities with the adjacent north mill, Brione said, as details have not yet been worked out. A river view walking trail is planned for the rear.
Ponemah has always meant superlatives
Norwich city Historian Dale Plummer said throughout its history, the name Ponemah has always meant high quality. When it was built by industrialist Edward Taft in 1865-70, Ponemah was the largest cotton manufacturing plant in the world, with a reputation for quality products to match.
As the textile industry waned, Helikon Furniture Co. moved into the 370,000-square-foot north mill in 1959. In its executive catalog, with a cover picturing a bronze color-embossed etching of the mill, Helikon boasted it manufactured “superior quality executive furniture.” On the second and third floor, a second furniture company, International Contract Furnishing, imported high-end designer furniture for wealthy customers.
“This is a major, major, major building,” Plummer said. “Ponemah was all superlatives as a mill. It’s products, even in the 20th century, when they made fine furniture there, it was the best. It says a lot for the workers. It’s just incredible.”
Plummer said the building would not be suitable for modern industrial use, and much-needed housing was the best way to preserve it.
“To have it saved, and put to that use, for residential use, it’s perfect,” Plummer said. “And the views. Wow!”
For former Norwich City Planner Kathy Warzecha, the effort to save Ponemah and other vacant Norwich mills started decades earlier. Norwich obtained a state Historic Preservation Office grant to commission a mill reuse study that resulted in the 1992 Mill Enhancement Plan, printed on 11-by-17 glossy paper.
The four-page section on Ponemah features building dimensions, historic photos and closeups of the mill’s ornate architecture. The plan envisioned either offices and commercial space or housing for Ponemah. A hand-drawn illustration of the rear courtyard does not differ much from the 2022 final product.
“It does really make you feel good to see your plans come to fruition,” said Warzecha, now a member of the city planning commission. “It was such a struggle to get that whole program off the ground, and to see how it was so successful is rewarding.”
Ponemah took bumpy path to completion
The 15-year ride to completion hasn’t been smooth, with delays caused by the Great Recession, financing efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic and even a few fires.
Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks grew up in the village and later worked for International Furnishing in Ponemah. He became fire chief in 2008, just as OneKey was starting work.
“Within the first month, they had a fire in the building that burned roughly a 30-foot hole in the first floor,” Jencks said.
A contractor had been cutting out the old steampipe heating system and did not use proper safety techniques for “hot work,” a term used for work with welding or flame cutting tools. The contractor was fired, Jencks said, “and they started from scratch.”
Throughout the project, Jencks and city fire marshals have toured the mill weekly to review construction, fire safety measures and plan fire response. Jencks credited then city Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato and Fire Marshal Mark Gilot for their diligence in ensuring fire safety precautions were followed.
OneKey agreed to install temporary water standpipes to provide quick access to water for firefighting. Crews noted where piles of raw materials, such as wood and roofing materials, were stored during construction.
Firefighters trained repeatedly at the mill as the project progressed, Jencks said. Another small fire occurred during hot work, and workers used fire extinguishers to put out a small roof fire, Jencks said. At one point, an outdoor turbine malfunctioned in the hydropower facility, owned by First Light Power Resources and sent smoke into the building.
The first fire in the occupied apartment complex occurred last January, when a tenant’s lounge chair caught fire as he slept. Fire crews were greeted with “a wall of smoke” as they evacuated the tenant safely, Jencks said. Sprinklers activated and extinguished the fire but caused water damage that temporarily displaced 23 residents.
“The sprinkler system worked exactly as it was supposed to,” Jencks said.
On projects in New York not connected to Ponemah, OneKey and Finbar O’Neill twice faced criminal allegations, including a guilty plea in May and a three-month prison sentence for violations of federal health and safety regulations that led to the death of a worker.
But Norwich city leaders said OneKey, and O’Neill specifically, have been “stellar” in their attention to work safety and building and fire codes. The company has responded readily to correct issues.
Fire Chief Jencks said the company has agreed to all fire safety requests made by city fire officials, including measures beyond requirements.
“Finbar and the crew have been very receptive to everything that has been required. The building’s got its own fire pump. It’s probably one of the safest buildings in Norwich,” Jencks said.
“It’s refreshing to see it,” Jencks continued. “Buildings like that often are met with demolition, abandonment, fire. To see it turn into what it is now is absolutely amazing.”
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