Armstrong Court renovation gets approval after removing senior housing

George Yankowich, at right, and Christopher Bristol discuss the Armstrong Court renovation plan –Ken Borsuk

George Yankowich, at right, and Christopher Bristol discuss the Armstrong Court renovation plan –Ken Borsuk

A revised proposal to renovate Armstrong Court received a key approval from the Board of Selectmen last week and is on its way to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The selectmen unanimously approved the proposal at their Nov. 21 meeting, granting it municipal improvement (MI) status after changes were made to reflect neighbor concerns. A planned addition of senior housing at the complex is on hold for now, but the renovation and other new construction is moving forward. MI status is needed for any construction on town-owned property, and the selectmen’s approval means not only can the Housing Authority begin the town land use approval process but negotiations with the state on funding can also commence.

The project was initially brought forward in October under a broader plan to renovate the six existing multifamily buildings and build seven new buildings, including one dedicated entirely to 51 units of senior housing. However, that is where the complications began, because neighbors on Booth Place and Booth Court expressed concern over the impact the construction and extra traffic would have on the condition of streets they say are already run-down. A planned Nov. 6 vote on the MI status was postponed, and then at the Nov. 21 meeting, the Housing Authority formally withdrew the part of the plan regarding the senior housing so the rest of the renovation and construction could go forward.

The Armstrong Court complex, which is town-owned housing, has shown signs of age and use, and First Selectman Peter Tesei said his office was in full support of the renovation.

“This is a facility that the state, according to the records, has deemed to be an at-risk facility given its age and construction, so the town Housing Authority has come forth with a very sound plan to renovate and rebuild those residences and in the process add some additional buildings,” Mr. Tesei said. “I will say that I believe there has been unanimity from all the folks that I’ve talked to that they’d like to see Armstrong Court redeveloped. There’s no question about that. I think everyone recognizes that the buildings have had their useful life and it’s not reflective of what we want in the community.”

Housing Authority Board of Commissioners member George Yankowich outlined the revised proposal, which will now only see six new buildings. There are currently 144 family apartment units at the Armstrong Court complex, 12 of which are one-bedroom. Mr. Yankowich said the agency has found that one-bedroom units are “not especially conducive to a family atmosphere,” so those 12 units will be combined with 12 two-bedroom units to form three-bedroom units. That will reduce the number of available units to 132, but the six new buildings will have townhouse units in them and will bring the net number of units available in total at the complex to 150.

“We will be adding units and also enhancing the type of units we have on-site,” Mr. Yankowich said. “It’s a complete rehabilitation.”

Selectman Drew Marzullo asked what would happen to the people currently living in the apartments. Mr. Yankowich said as part of the application a relocation plan has to be developed and Housing Authority staff was looking at it unit by unit to see how to sequence it. The six buildings, which will have three townhouse units apiece in them, will be built first to free up units as work then proceeds to the smaller buildings in the complex, allowing people to move from their apartments to the townhouses and then back to their original homes as work continues building by building in a steady development process.

“So families with children, it’s not like they’re going to be placed from the west side to the east side of the town and disrupt all their schooling,” Mr. Marzullo said, and Mr. Yankowich agreed. He explained that the moving would mostly be internal within the complex but there would be some exceptions to that.

“We’ve got to figure out all the details,” Mr. Yankowich said. “We’re still working on that. … We will try to appropriately house as we cycle through. It’s a game of chess trying to shuffle 144 families around.”

Christopher Bristol, an attorney representing the Housing Authority, said it will now be able to apply for state financing. A state grant was approved last year to do the development work on the project that is ongoing. Mr. Yankowich said the process for state money here is “quite lengthy” and the goal is to have it completed in January.

But what happens to the plans for the senior housing is unknown. Dawn Fortunato spoke at the meeting representing the neighbors and noted that the language in the requirements for state financing of the project could well require that the senior housing be built. That would require the selectmen’s approval, and Ms. Fortunato said she wanted to make sure nothing was built there, claiming that it would have a severe environmental impact to build a new structure on the site previously selected off Booth Court.

“I don’t want to have to keep coming here for the same purpose,” Ms. Fortunato said. “Let me be clear, we’re all for low-income housing. I came from low-income housing and I wish they had done this earlier at [the Housing Authority-run senior housing complex] Wilbur Peck. We all deserve to live in a healthy environment.”

Mr. Yankowich said he would check with Housing Authority Director Anthony Johnson on the requirements of the language. Meanwhile, the selectmen said they were hearing neighborhood voices on issues.

“I think this board fully understands the concerns of the Booth Place residents,” Mr. Marzullo said. “I think we couldn’t have supported the MI as it had been presented prior to today because of the various reasons like traffic and vegetation.”

Mr. Tesei recently walked through the Booth Place neighborhood at the behest of residents to observe conditions and said that, irrespective of the construction, there were issues he saw that had to be addressed. These include maintenance of the right-of-way, vegetation management and parking signage. Mr. Tesei said he would like to see community groups work with the town on a day in the spring to clean the area up and “intensify cleanup there with a little sweat equity.”

A concern about the project remains the possibility that there is contaminated soil, given the area’s close proximity to the town dump at Holly Hill. The potential cost of remediating soil has been a large concern in town ever since the MISA construction at Greenwich High School led to the discovery of contaminated fill used decades earlier, causing the project to be delayed for remediation and the town to be stuck with a huge bill. Ms. Fortunato said the neighbors wanted to see the results, and the selectmen also pressed on that.

“It’s at the lab, and we’re expecting it to come back,” Mr. Yankowich said. “I spoke to the selectmen a few days ago, and the labs are backed up. We have the structural soil report, which we submitted to the town immediately, and we’re still waiting for the lab to deliver the other report.”

Mr. Yankowich said the Housing Authority was not intending to build in the area that could be contaminated, but Ms. Fortunato said the concern went beyond that.

“We have five residents on the street with cancer, so we have every right to know,” Ms. Fortunato said, but Mr. Tesei said he believed that was a separate issue, and while he didn’t want to ignore it he felt it was not connected to the approval for the renovations.

Mr. Bristol said all issues would be addressed, noting that this was hardly the last approval the project would need from the town.

“When we go through the Planning and Zoning process, all these developments are thoroughly vetted by the town’s Department of Public Works,” Mr. Bristol said. “This isn’t an operation in a vacuum. There will be public hearings.”

Both Mr. Marzullo and Selectman David Theis said they felt there was a growing need for senior housing in town, a point the Housing Authority also made when it originally presented the project and Mr. Yankowich stressed again at last week’s meeting. And Mr. Marzullo said that if having units near or on Booth Place wasn’t going to work, there had to be alternatives, and not necessarily clusters of houses.

“If not there, where?” Mr. Marzullo said. “I think that’s what we’re faced with.”

Mr. Marzullo said that every time the selectmen were presented with projects like this of more than two or three homes, there were going to be people objecting to it, putting the board back into the same position. Mr. Marzullo said he believed those concerns were valid . Mr. Tesei said this reminded him of what had just been done by the Housing Authority on Strickland Road in Cos Cob where several units were added to the town stock, just not in a large complex.

“You’re not only redeveloping it, you’re repurposing it,” Mr. Tesei said. “You’re taking residential units that exist and acquiring them, renovating them and setting in place a rent scale that is suitable for people who are on moderate incomes. That’s a very good model. Driving down Strickland Road, you don’t know that that’s ‘affordable housing.’ You just know it’s housing. It blends in with the community, and I think realistically based upon our zoning and based upon the fact that the whole concept of supported housing focuses on transit-oriented development, we’re not going to put people in places they can’t get to mass transportation from.”

Mr. Yankowich said that when developing senior housing it had to be done specifically with seniors in mind, meaning handicapped accessibility, elevators and other features, like generators, storm shelters and making it easy for social workers and for the Transportation Association of Greenwich (TAG) to get there. While there are instances of housing units scattered around town, he said for seniors it had to be done differently, in larger facilities.

Mr. Tesei and his colleagues thanked the Housing Authority commissioners who came out to the meeting and all those who have worked on this. Mr. Tesei noted the years Mr. Yankowich had committed as a volunteer to the project and others.

“I know we’re not always the easiest people to deal with, because we challenge the premise by doing our jobs, but we thank you for what you do,” Mr. Tesei said.

Mr. Theis added, “You guys are doing a great job with a difficult task.”

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