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Portsmouth moves forward with housing group pact on senior center

MOU approved; members may be without their own building for 3-5 years


PORTSMOUTH — After nearly two hours of debate Monday night, the Town Council voted unanimously to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Church Community Housing on the development and use of the former Ann Hutchinson School and Coggeshall School properties for a mix of affordable housing and a senior center. 

Town Administrator Richard Rainer, who’s been working for over a year on a solution for the nonprofit center’s troubles after the state fire marshal, in January 2020, reported numerous and expensive safety upgrades that were needed, stressed the MOU “does not obligate the town into any longterm agreement.” 

The agreement was needed to allow CCH to pursue funding for engineering and architectural studies to develop a master plan at the town-owned properties, Mr. Rainer said. Any definitive plans — if in fact CCH chooses to go forward with them — would have to come back to the council for a final decision, and public comment will be encouraged, he said. If a longterm deal were struck, CCH would lease the property from the town for $1 a year — similar to the agreement the town now has with the senior center, which is not part of local government but receives annual civic support approved by the council.

There’s been a lot of misinformation spread on social media about the town’s intentions regarding the senior center, the administrator said. “The reality is, I’ve been working on a solution to a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said, noting that not only would the pact with CCH address the town’s shortage of affordable housing, but any new construction would be placed on the tax rolls. The current building has reached the point where the cost to repair and maintain it has exceeded its value, he said.

The original MOU presented by Mr. Rainer can be read here, although there were two amendments approved Monday: Language proposed by council member Keith Hamilton stipulates there will be an “emphasis on senior housing” (as opposed to “mixed-income” or “mixed-age” housing) and that the agreement will end on Dec. 31, 2025. 

“I would be hoping in less than two years, somebody’s putting a shovel in the ground. We can’t have our seniors commuting to Middletown for five years,” said Mr. Hamilton.

He was referring to a cold, hard fact regarding the expected closure June 30 of the senior center’s current home for the past 40 years in the Anne Hutchinson building on Bristol Ferry Road: If local seniors want a place to get tax help, take part in a line dance, pick up a low-cost lunch or enjoy any other services and activities they’re afforded now, they’ll have to travel to the Middletown Senior Center on Green End Avenue.

For how long is tough to say. When pressed, CCH Executive Director Christian Belden said it could be anywhere from three to five years before a new senior center is ready, and that a schematic plan will take about a year. However, the timeline depends on numerous factors outside CCH’s control such as available funding, the project’s scope and what the property can handle, the town’s needs, the opinions of an advisory committee of stakeholders that will be formed, and more, he said.

“We are absolutely looking at this as a partnership with the town,” said Mr. Belden. While it’s too early to know how many units of affordable housing would be included in the project, he said CCH was “not looking to develop family housing and senior housing in the same building.” Senior housing, however, is the most difficult type to get funding for, he said.

“We’re not going to be proposing any high-rises or anything that’s out of keeping with Portsmouth and the community,” Mr. Belden said, adding it’s possible that the project could involve a rehab of the existing senior center building. 

Residents speak against MOU

Several residents took the council to task for considering the MOU, with some saying CCH was interested more in providing low-income housing than a senior center, and that the town should invest in renovating the existing building. A few residents also said Portsmouth’s senior citizens should not have to commute to Middletown for the next several years.

Cathleen Sheils pointed out the dangerous traffic conditions of East and West Main roads, which seniors would need to traverse in order to get to Middletown’s center, while Bristol Ferry Road is comparatively safe. Shutting down the local senior center for several years will also mean “losing all our momentum,” said Ms. Sheils, who urged the council to seek temporary locations in town while proposals are being developed. The town should fund the capital improvements needed to bring the senior center up to code, she said.

“I think our seniors deserve this,” Ms. Sheils said, adding she believes the MOU “is a cover to kick the can down the road.” Being without their own senior center for possibly five years or more “is problematic” for local citizens, she said.

Council President Kevin Aguiar, responding to one of her points, said there are no existing facilities in town that meet the criteria of what is needed by the senior center.

Mary Ellen Martin said the MOU was overly broad, and that it should be made clear there will still be public input before anything is built. “Once that MOU is signed, it is open to many proposals,” she said.

Mr. Aguiar responded there would be “an open process” in working toward the proposals. “Nothing could happen without a vote from the Town Council,” he said.

Another resident, Rosemary Davidson, criticized the town for not doing something sooner to improve the Anne Hutchinson and Coggeshall buildings. 

“The town has been very, very lapse in maintaining these buildings. The senior center, for as long as I can remember, and I’m 77, has been a topic of discussion for renovations, improvements, and maintenance every year going back to when we were at those town meetings standing up with a microphone,” said Ms. Davidson, referring to the financial town meetings that were abolished here in 1983.

She pointed out the irony of local residents having to use a neighboring senior center that was also once an old school, but which has been renovated and maintained. “Look around at all the old buildings that have been restored. Portsmouth just likes to tear down,” she said.

Ms. Davidson implored the council to renovate the existing senior center, and consider upstairs apartments for elderly residents. She also said the Little League field behind the senior center should remain. (Mr. Hamilton said if the development were to happen, the current thinking is to keep the fields behind Coggeshall School, but to “sacrifice” the field behind the senior center.)

“Think long and hard before you give up this acreage. You know what an acre of land is going for in Portsmouth?” Ms. Davidson asked the council. “We will own the land, but I just feel if you renovated the senior center and make it livable and nice for them, that would be a good solution.”

Local resident Tom Grieb said he agreed with Mr. Rainer that there’s a lot of misinformation going around about the proposal, but the town is guilty of that as well.

“However you look at this deal, this is not a no-cost-to-the-town deal,” said Mr. Grieb, noting that many families with children could be living in the proposed affordable housing units. “Families do require town services. If those families have students, it could mean another 150 in our schools,” he said, adding that it costs the town about $16,000 to educate one student annually. 

Mr. Grieb also expressed concerns over cost overruns similar to what happened with the new police station. If that happens, the town will be asked to share in the costs, or the proposal will have to be cut back, he said.

Separating the two?

Both Mr. Grieb and his wife, Nancy, agreed with comments made by council member Daniela Abbott, who said the housing element and a senior center should be separate proposals, with the latter also being incorporated into a community center to serve the entire town.

“I don’t see any scenario we pursue with Church Community Housing that is a suitable replacement for a senior center,” Ms. Abbott said. “I believe we need a multi-purpose, multi-function community center that can address the needs of our seniors appropriately and also address the needs” of other community groups.

Ms. Abbott said while she was “hesitant” to support the MOU, she did so because “it could lead to good things.”

Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa said the MOU presents “an opportunity for us to explore options that frankly cannot wait for separate discussions.”

Council member J. Mark Ryan said he was also fully supportive of exploring a solution with CCH. According to a facilities assessment report prepared for the town by Jacobs Engineering, the cost of rehabbing the senior center and Coggeshall buildings would exceed $10 million, he pointed out. The MOU could lead to solving that problem, as well as helping the town meet state mandates on providing affordable housing, Dr. Ryan said.

Council member Michael Buddemeyer agreed. Although the language in the MOU needs to be tightened, the town needs to start somewhere, he said. If it’s true the town has allowed its old buildings to deteriorate, as some have charged, rejecting the MOU would be “furthering the pattern of neglect by not doing something,” he said.

Mr. Hamilton assured residents that the council does indeed care about its senior citizens, as well as the town’s old buildings.

“We have not neglected that building and we have not neglected our seniors,” he said. “There’s been a lot of money and effort put into that building. Could it have been done better? Sure.”

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