Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Middletown's Wharfside Commons Gets Mixed Report Card

By JOSH KOVNER | Courant Staff Writer

July 15, 2008


Wharfside was this city's most anticipated housing development when it opened a year ago on Ferry Street in the North End, the poorest street in the poorest section of Middletown.

Now, Wharfside's 96 apartments are all rented, and the tenants, most of whom are working and earning $25,000 to $40,000 annually, have boosted employment and income along the blocks between the northern end of the city's wide, bustling Main Street and Route 9.

But the one-year report card is mixed, clouded by a recent assault and a nonfatal shooting involving people living or staying at Wharfside. Those incidents, and an impression that the complex had relaxed its tenant-screening policy, raised concerns about management and triggered an ultimatum from Mayor Sebastian Giuliano.

"This project was sold as the salvation of the North End," Giuliano said last week, after meeting with Wharfside's management to discuss whether past problems were making a comeback on Ferry Street. "Well, it better be the salvation. Anything less would have to be considered a failure."

The mayor and Police Chief Lynn Baldoni both said they felt better about day-to-day operations at the complex after the meeting, and accepted the assertions from regional manager Tracy Luttrell that prospective tenants are aggressively screened and that rules violations by residents aren't tolerated. Luttrell said there have been three evictions so far.

But expectations are high for Wharfside, the largest infusion of new housing and working adults in the North End since the neighborhood was the destination of choice for European immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. The mayor was born in the North End and went to elementary school a few yards away from where Wharfside now sits.

Wharfside opened at a time when politicians, social advocates and business leaders are lamenting the scarcity of affordable housing in Connecticut. Household incomes at Wharfside range from a minimum of about $9,000 for a single person to a maximum of $48,660 for a family of four — equal to 60 percent of the area's median income.

The cluster of four- and five-story brick buildings replaced blighted houses and now dominates the narrow, two-block street. The building on the east end of the complex has a view of the Connecticut River, beyond Route 9, a source of joy for tenant Dawn Brooks, a teacher at Cheshire High School who has lived at Wharfside since April.

A Middletown native, Brooks lived 33 years ago in one of the buildings replaced by Wharfside. She said she loves the fact that she's just around the corner from Main Street, and that she walks to the drugstore and even to the supermarket on Washington Street, a 25-minute trip. She said her apartment is of high quality and that management is responsive and accessible.

But the complex has had its critics from the start. Giuliano and the downtown business establishment believe the complex is too big and too dense, and they believe the city — through grants, a property tax break and a donation of land — gave too sweet a deal to the developer, the wealthy Richman Group of Greenwich. Richman owns and operates thousands of apartments across the country, including eight developments in Connecticut and New York. Most of the financing for the $22 million Wharfside complex was from housing tax credits, in which corporations invest in affordable housing developments in return for federal tax incentives.

Baldoni and the mayor agreed with the notion that the realities and perceptions of the "old Ferry Street" — crime and apathy — are hard to shake. Another challenge, said City Planner William Warner, is that Wharfside is still ringed by vacant multifamily houses. Nonprofit developers are waiting for public funding and bank financing to turn those properties into owner-occupied housing, but this crucial second step of the neighborhood's revitalization is taking longer than expected.

Still, said Warner, the developer "has the experience and resources to make this work. This is a major investment, even for them, and they can't let bad tenants chase away good tenants. It's reassuring that they've got a lot of tenants making 60 percent of the median and working at good jobs — so it comes down to property management." Izzi Greenberg agrees. The executive director of the North End Action Team said, "The naysayers expect Wharfside to fail, so it's up to management to prove it's a success, to go to public meetings and talk about what they're doing.

"I think Wharfside's residents have to push back a little, too," Greenberg said. "A lot of them have joined our NEAT meetings, and that's a sign they care about the community. And that makes me optimistic about the development."

Contact Josh Kovner at

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