Company envisions rehab of troubled New London high-rises
New London — Plans to rehab rather than demolish three Crystal Avenue high-rises have resurfaced even as the efforts of the city and New London Housing Authority remain focused on finding new homes for the 124 families there.
The plans were developed by Carabetta Companies in 2011 at a time when the Housing Authority was battling a class-action lawsuit from 124 families seeking better living conditions at the federally subsidized Thames River Apartments.
The plans call for a rehabilitation of the existing structures, conversion of at least one structure into elderly housing, retooling of apartment layouts, a river walk and construction of a series of townhouse-style buildings throughout the property.
Reached by phone this week, both company owner Joe Carabetta and William Stetson, senior vice president of management operations, said the company, based on the fact the buildings are structurally sound, still is interested in further developing plans and discussing ideas to finance such a project.
“Personally I think the existing plan that the Housing Authority has been moving forward with has run into some very serious roadblocks in terms of zoning,” Stetson said. “It really requires the power to stop and take a deep breath and figure out what they want to accomplish given they can’t get what they thought they could."
The plans are likely to fall on deaf ears at the moment.
The Housing Authority has a contract and partnership with two Massachusetts companies, Peabody Properties and Affordable Housing and Services Collaborative. The companies already have purchased the former Edgerton School property and developed plans for a 124-unit, $40 million replacement housing complex. The plans have stalled, however, as the result of a zoning snag.
Still, the Housing Authority’s ultimate goal is to demolish the high-rises, which have been in some ways a source of embarrassment for the city as residents there continue to complain of poor living conditions: rodent infestations, crime, a general lack of maintenance and even a lack of hot water.
Housing Authority board of commissioners Chairwoman Betsy Gibson said that under advice of legal counsel, the commission’s partnership with Peabody bars discussion about Carabetta.
Gibson reiterated her contention that the Housing Authority believes the Thames River residents are better off moving, one of the reasons the city is pursuing permission from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide vouchers to the residents, and an application for a demolition disposition. It’s an effort separate from the partnership with Peabody.
“For myself, for anybody to say the residents should stay under the bridge and near the garbage dump is insensitive to the needs our citizens. There’s something wrong," she said. "The priority of the commission is demolition disposition and to move the residents out of there.”
Attorney Robert Reardon, who represented the Crystal Avenue tenants in the decadelong class-action suit and continues to nudge the city toward a resolution, recalls that Carabetta actually had approached him with the plans sometime in 2011 or 2012.
He said the Carabetta plans were even taken up during a mediation session prior to a 2014 court-stipulated agreement that ended the lawsuit and required the Housing Authority to rehab the buildings or find new homes for the tenants.
“As I recall, everybody recognized it was going to be too complicated and too expensive,” Reardon said. “I don’t know that anything has changed. I think everyone agrees, including the City Council, that the current location of the Thames River Apartments is one of the poorest locations to house human beings in the city of New London. It’s an industrial area.”
Reardon said the former members of the Housing Authority, under Executive Director Sue Shontell, did not seem to take the Carabetta plans seriously because of logistical issues involved with shifting residents around during construction and the fact that the land near the high-rises is unbuildable because of flood-plain issues.
Stetson, during a recent interview, did not address the flood-plain issue, but argued that Carabetta has land available to house tenants during the rehab process. One of the ideas would be to vacate one high-rise at a time.
The court-stipulated agreement required the Housing Authority to find a partner to rehab the existing structures or find new homes. Stetson confirmed the Carabetta plans were submitted during the request for proposal process that led to the authority’s partnership with Peabody. Joe Carabetta, however, argues they never got a fair consideration by Shontell. Shontell was not available to comment on those allegations.
Reardon said he was not directly involved in the request for proposals process with the Housing Authority and has supported Peabody’s plan but was open to any idea that could accomplish what the suit requested.
The Carabetta plans have resurfaced with the help of City Councilor John Satti, who said that while he agrees the families at Thames River Apartment need new homes, he is not sold on the idea they need to be moved elsewhere.
Satti introduced the Carabetta plans to members of the Housing Authority board of commissioners and to the City Council.
Stetson said Carabetta has a track record in New London, having successfully funded a nearly $60 million rehab of about 300 housing units formerly managed by the Housing Authority: Bates Woods, now known as Pride Point, and Briarcliff, renamed Progress Point.
Stetson said as a result of the rehab of Bates Woods and Briarcliff, the city is collecting $440,000 more a year in real estate taxes. Carabetta also provided the Housing Authority with about $2.4 million to help it dig out of financial trouble at the time. The Housing Authority still is due about $240,000 from Carabetta in deferred development fees.
“It is going to take a lot of courage to resolve the Thames River issue, no question about it,” Stetson said. “It’s going to take a lot of thought and outside-the-box thinking to come up with a solution.”
Reardon has said the city already is in default of the 2014 court-stipulated agreement and on March 6 issued an April 1 deadline for the city to propose a revised timeline for terms of the agreement. He said further litigation might be on the horizon.