Skepticism greets plan for senior complex in Portsmouth

Residents pepper Church Community Housing director with questions during informational hearing

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/15/21

PORTSMOUTH — Christian Belden barely got to take a breath last week while leading an informational session about his nonprofit’s plan to build an affordable housing complex and …

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Skepticism greets plan for senior complex in Portsmouth

Residents pepper Church Community Housing director with questions during informational hearing

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Christian Belden barely got to take a breath last week while leading an informational session about his nonprofit’s plan to build an affordable housing complex and senior center on Bristol Ferry Road.

During the two-hour meeting in the high school auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 9, the executive director of Church Community Housing (CCH) fielded question after question about the plan:

• Would the Portsmouth Senior Center be losing control over programming?

• How is the project being funded?

• Why can’t the town just fix the current senior center?

• If voters allow the plan to go forward, will CCH and the town be able to change it?

And so on.

The town has been seeking a longterm solution to maintaining a senior center ever since numerous fire code violations were discovered in the current building in the fall of 2019. The town corrected most of the violations, but the more expensive ones — such as a needed sprinkler system — have not yet been addressed. 

Currently, the main office and a few rooms are still allowed to operate, but the center can no longer be used as a place of assembly due to restrictions placed on it by the state fire marshal’s office. According to CGA Project Management, hired by the town to conduct an independent building analysis and study of the building, the total cost of improvements to bring the building back to minimal code standards would be about $5.77 million. 

CCH is proposing to construct a new one-story senior center just north of the current building, plus an attached three-story residential condominium building with anywhere from 50 to 54 affordable senior housing units. The plan would also accommodate parking for 76 spaces on the 5.27-acre site.

Any course of action would need voter approval at a special town-wide referendum Nov. 2 for the transfer of the “property interest.” The proposal will also require more public feedback from residents and final Town Council approval.

The plan calls for keeping the southern portion of the current senior center building — the original Anne Hutchinson School built in 1928  — but renovating and converting it into four to six market-rate, townhouse-style apartments which would help finance the entire project. “I don’t want to, and just won’t, demolish a historic four-room schoolhouse,” Mr. Belden said.

The northern portion of the senior center, which was added in 1951, is not as structurally sound, so it would be torn down to make room for the new building. “It has to be demolished; there’s no way to save it,” he said.

The baseball field behind the senior center would be moved further south to make room for the new building. CCH wanted to save the field “because the combination of children and seniors on one site is a great combination of populations,” Mr. Belden said.

Although members of the senior center have expressed concerns over losing control of programming once the project is completed, Mr. Belden assured residents who turned out last week that wouldn’t be the case. 

The plan calls for the town to purchase a condo unit for the senior center which would include spaces not typically built in senior housing developments such as a thrift shop, senior center staff offices, and a kitchen for senior center dinners. It would not be for living quarters. Community Development Block Grant funding may be available to help the town finance the purchase, Mr. Belden said.

Right next to the town condo unit would be additional senior amenities including a multi-purpose room, dining room, library, game room, bathrooms and reception area. 

Skeptics chime in

Not everyone was sold on the plan, however.

After looking at the renderings CCH had provided, local resident Carol DeCosta remarked, “I don’t feel that’s our senior center,” adding that most of the space set aside for senior amenities seems to belong to the housing unit.

Mr. Belden, however, said the Portsmouth Senior Center would manage programming for the entire space, which is about 8,000 square feet — slightly more than what the current center offers. “The scheduling is done by the senior center the same way it’s done now,” he said.

Cindy Koniecki, the senior center’s director and member of the town-appointed advisory board that’s working in partnership with CCH, assured she would manage a tight schedule and that all residents of the housing unit would receive a programming schedule. 

Helen Mathieu, a former state senator who’s also on the advisory board and chairs the senior center’s board of directors, vowed to sign up those seniors living in the housing units as new members.

Ms. DeCosta had one final question for Ms. Koniecki: “Do you truly feel that’s our center?”

“Yes,” the director replied.

Mary Ellen Martin is a member of Friends of the Portsmouth Center, a nonprofit that proposed raising about $400,000 to install sprinklers in the current center to keep it open. The town rejected the offer, saying it couldn’t relinquish control over a town-owned building. Ms. Martin objected to the referendum question.

 “I don’t feel comfortable voting on transferring ownership of town property,” she said.

Mr. Belden, while agreeing the wording of the question is vague and that he expects extra language to be inserted on the ballot, said CCH would not be taking over ownership of the property. Approving the question only allows the town to enter into a formal agreement with CCH for the expressed purpose of creating senior housing and building a new senior center. That allows the nonprofit to apply for funding to build the complex, he said.

“What we’re proposing is not going to cost the taxpayers anything,” Mr. Belden said.

Another resident, Tom Grieb, shared some history with Mr. Belden as a way of explaining why some residents were suspicious of the agreement between the town and CCH. 

“The people have been burned before,” Mr. Grieb said, referring to the wind turbine that started spinning near the high school in 2009 after voters approved a $3 million loan to build it. The turbine broke down after only three years, and the town was stuck with $1.4 million in debt until a different developer covered that amount as part of a deal to replace the turbine with a bigger one. However, neighbors still complain about noise and shadow flicker, Mr. Grieb said.

There aren’t enough specific details about the agreement for voters to made an informed decision, he said. The referendum question, if approved, could conceivably allow CCH to build far fewer affordable housing units than what it has proposed. 

Lawrence Silvia, another resident, agreed. “I just want to make sure what I’m voting for,” he said, adding that he’s also concerned about CCH changing its plans after getting voter approval.

Mr. Belden replied that even if voters approve the referendum, CCH will need to make another presentation to local residents and go to the Town Council for approval. The public can also comment when the application is reviewed by the planning and zoning boards, he said.

“There’s no way something is going to be built before you’re aware of it. If you look at the rest of our developments, we haven’t done any bait and switches,” he said, adding the nonprofit wouldn’t have been able to stay in business for 52 years “if we lied to people.”

‘I am speechless’

After hearing comments from residents, Town Planner Gary Crosby, a big proponent of CCH’s plan, chimed in on Zoom.

“I am speechless,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I think this is a magnificent proposal and we would be braindead to not go forward with it.”

Earlier in the evening, Mr. Crosby made his own case for the new senior complex. One of the biggest selling points, he said, is that it would provide Portsmouth with badly needed affordable housing units. The Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, enacted in 1991, calls for at least 10 percent of the housing supply in Rhode Island municipalities to be classified as affordable. Only six out of 39 communities met that threshold as of 2020, according to the HousingWorks RI FactBook.

“We’re currently at 2.8 percent, which is kind of like — I don’t want to say shameful — but it’s something we absolutely need to be improving on, and the Comprehensive Community Plan says we shall improve upon,” Mr. Crosby said, noting the town has added only one low- to moderate-income housing development in the past decade. 

With 50 to 54 new affordable housing units in the proposed senior complex, the town’s affordable housing threshold would increase to 3.4 percent. “This would be a significant step forward,” he said.

The planner also said he’s a big advocate for keeping the senior center at the current site since it’s located on a major public bus route. “There are places in Portsmouth that do not have easy access to the transit lines, but this place does,” he said.

Ms. Mathieu concluded the meeting by acknowledging she’s had a change of heart about the future of the senior center. Once determined to stay in the original building, she now considers CCH’s plan “an option that we need to seriously consider” because of the poor condition of the 1951 extension.

She has confidence that Ms. Koniecki and her staff will be able to manage the common area, and said she’s excited about the prospect of “50 new members.”

Unfortunately, neither she or Ms. Koniecki will be able to vote on the referendum since they don’t reside in Portsmouth, Ms. Mathieu said. 

“The decision is yours,” she said.

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