Selectmen to vote on ‘new face’ for Armstrong Court

Editor’s Note: Late Wednesday, after deadline for this week’s edition of the Post, this item was withdrawn from the Board of Selectmen’s agenda for today. It is expected to be discussed at a later meeting.

The Board of Selectmen is poised to vote this morning on a plan designed to renovate and revitalize the Armstrong Court public housing complex in Greenwich.

Under the current plan, the six existing multi-family apartment buildings, which contain a total of 144 units, will be substantially renovated, including work on all the apartments, and seven new buildings will be constructed. One of those buildings will have 51 units dedicated completely to senior housing. New parking areas are also set to be added and the entire project is expected to take three to four years to complete.

“This is a project that we’re all very, very excited to get behind,” Sam Romeo, chairman of the Greenwich Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, told the selectmen. “The opportunity has arisen, with some state funding, to take some real big initiative to Armstrong Court, which I believe was built in 1954. It really needs to receive an upgrade. … We’re excited for the town of Greenwich and for the residents that live in public housing.”

A full presentation on the project was heard at the board’s Oct. 24 meeting, but in keeping with past practice, the selectmen will hold off on the actual vote until the next meeting in order to get more public comment first. Today’s meeting is set for 10 a.m. in the Town Hall Meeting Room.

While the Housing Authority, given the federal and state money used for its projects, largely operates independently of town government, the selectmen’s approval is needed for a municipal improvement (MI) status, which is needed for all projects on town property. Once that is granted, the Housing Authority will be able to bring the plans to the Planning and Zoning Commission and start the town land use approval process. However, it was stressed that this step would be just the beginning and that there is a very long process ahead. The actual cost of the project is unknown right now, but work is ongoing with the state on that and Mr. Romeo called it a “really intense application process” to get that state funding.

George Yankowich, a member of the Board of Commissioners, told the selectmen that there was a relatively short time frame to get things moving because of the state funding involved. He said the goal is to go before the zoning commission “in the next few months” and to have a financial application ready by January. Mr. Yankowich said the project would be done in three phases, with the first one involving the construction of the six new three-unit buildings along Hamilton Avenue as part of the complex.

“The purpose of doing this as the first phase is to create some flexible space, because our ambitious project is actually to gut and repurpose the units that we have now,” Mr. Yankowich said. “These would be two-story two- and three-bedroom units, some of them with basements and others just with crawl spaces, and the purpose of those is to create 18 units so we can move people out of the older units into them while we’re gutting them. This will truly be a gut to upgrade the kitchens, the bathrooms and the interior of the units. We’ll be upgrading the electrical and adding sprinklers.”

Mr. Yankowich said the project would also address a particular pet peeve of his — the catwalks in the existing complex. He called this “one of the ugliest parts of the building,” and said that as part of the renovation, a new “skin” would be put on the buildings, providing for additional stairwells. He compared this to improvements already made at the town housing complex at Quarry Knoll.

“We’re trying to create a better face on the Housing Authority,” Mr. Yankowich said. “Most people look at Armstrong Court as our face.”

But this would be only phase one of the project. Phase two would involve going from building to building, moving people out, gutting the buildings, doing the exterior, adding a new roofline and then moving on to the next building after that. The people would then be moved into the previous building, and so forth, as the process continued. Mr. Yankowich acknowledged this meant that everyone with an apartment now in Armstrong Court would be moving to a new apartment.

“Our relocation plan is valid, we think, as long as we can build the 18 units at the front end,” Mr. Yankowich said.

Ultimately, 12 one-bedroom apartments in the current complex would be repurposed and combined with 12 existing two-bedroom units to create 12 three-bedroom units instead. That means that when all construction is complete, the 144 existing units would go down to 132 but there would be the 18 townhouses and the 51 units of senior housing.

Mr. Romeo said the Housing Authority has met with Armstrong Court residents about the project and that “they’re very excited about what we’re proposing.” One controversial aspect that Mr. Yankowich acknowledged is that an access point to the renovated complex would be off Booth Place, where residents already feel the street is “substandard,” and that construction traffic as well as future traffic into and out of Armstrong Court could have a negative effect.

First Selectman Peter Tesei agreed that this could end up being a “hurdle” for the project, but overall, he said, “I think conceptually the proposal is an excellent one and I applaud the Housing Authority for taking the lead in obtaining the funding and moving forward.” He also agreed with Mr. Yankowich that Armstrong Court represented the face of public housing in Greenwich and since so much had changed in that regard it was time for the complex to change, too.

Selectman Drew Marzullo called the project “an important step in demystifying affordable housing in Greenwich.” He said it was important for people to know affordable housing existed throughout town and wasn’t just in clusters and that people needed to have a different conception of public housing in town. Mr. Romeo agreed and said there would also be a more concerted public relations effort to look at the changes along the way.

“We’ve come a long way, and this is going to speak for itself when it’s accomplished,” Mr. Romeo said. “I think it’s going to put a whole new face on the town of Greenwich and throughout the state of Connecticut to say, ‘Hey look at Greenwich.’”

As part of that changing face, Mr. Tesei wondered if it was appropriate to consider changing the name of Armstrong Court, as had happened at private housing complexes in town. However, Mr. Romeo said the subject had already been broached to residents there and they were strongly in favor of retaining the name.

“It’s going to be a new Armstrong Court and they’re quite comfortable with keeping it,” Mr. Romeo said. “They’ve been here for many, many years and a lot of their kids have grown up at Armstrong Court. They’re proud of it. There’s no reason we couldn’t change the name if they decided at a later date to do it, but they were quite happy with being called Armstrong Court.”

Selectman David Theis said he was happy to hear that the residents were expressing support for the renovations, especially with the need for senior housing growing.

“I think you have demographics on your side,” Mr. Theis said. “The aging population is going to be increasing the demand here for years to come, and people want to stay in their communities. This is another way to accommodate them, and I applaud you guys for the work you’ve been doing, certainly over the last few years. We’ve gotten some new leadership here and it’s been a really nice thing to see.”

An area of concern raised by the selectmen is the potential condition of the soil in the area where the construction will happen. Mr. Tesei noted they would be “excavating in a very sensitive area” close to where the dump is, and he worried about contaminated soil, a problem very fresh in the minds of the town after the high costs to remediate contaminated soil at Greenwich High School. Mr. Tesei called this the “issue du jour” in town and asked what preliminary work would be done to determine if this would be an issue and what could be done to fix it. Mr. Yankowich said consultants have been hired and that structural and environmental testing is under way at several locations at the site where fill might have been used.

Mr. Yankowich called this “fairly extensive sampling” and said results would be back by the time the project came before the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“We will go the extra mile here,” Mr. Romeo said.

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