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IN PROGRESS: Newport Heights

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Transforming Tonomy

Rundown housing project is being rebuilt, but advocates worry the poor will be displaced

BY RICHARD SALIT

Journal Staff Writer - Sunday, February 15, 2004

NEWPORT -- Some call it a ghetto -- a sobering contrast to Newport's renowned Gilded Age mansions and opulent seaside homes. Out of sight to most visitors, Tonomy Hill's dead-end streets and faded and featureless apartment buildings have long provided last-resort housing for the area's poor.

Now, because of one of the nation's most remarkable experiments in affordable housing, Tonomy Hill is coming down. Even its name will vanish. Beginning to rise from its debris is the $70-million Newport Heights.

Open space is growing. Housing density is being reduced from 498 to 425 units. Buildings featuring gabled roofs, bay windows, shingle siding and covered porches are blending into the surrounding neighborhoods. And families from different economic backgrounds are living next to each other -- in subsidized apartments, market-rate rentals and, eventually, privately owned houses.

It's the new wave in revitalizing public housing projects, financed in large part by a revolutionary 10-year-old program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But in Newport, as elsewhere in the country, the hope it is inspiring in some is causing consternation and fear in others.

While moderate and market-rate units are being added, an estimated 173 of the most deeply subsidized apartments at Tonomy will be lost. The reduction in these apartments has been met with cries that the project discriminates against minorities and the poor. Asata Msalii-Tigrai, director of the housing advocacy group Project Basic, calls it "ethnic cleansing" and has threatened a lawsuit.

The state, coping with a shortage of affordable housing, is demanding that the Housing Authority of Newport replace each of the subsidized units, even if that means turning to surrounding towns for help. But these suburban communities have historically resisted affordable housing, unlike Newport, which is about to eclipse Woonsocket as the affordable-housing capital of Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation won't release the financing it has pledged until it sees a definitive replacement plan. Without it, the project will grind to a halt. Meanwhile, the $20-million HUD grant could be in jeopardy if Newport Heights isn't completed on time.

"It's a very difficult problem," said Daniel W. Marvelle Jr., the city housing authority's executive director.

TONOMY HILL, which overlooks Narragansett Bay and Naval Station Newport, shouldn't even be standing today. The residences, which some liken to barracks, went up during World War II as temporary quarters for Navy personnel.

Tonomy, however, won a second life as a public housing project. It underwent several modernizations as it grew older and more permanent. For the area's poor, Tonomy provided cheap housing in the increasingly popular and expensive City by the Sea.

But as a new century dawned, Tonomy's apartments were aging, crime and drug problems persisted and vacancies were becoming hard to fill. Newport officials agreed something had to be done. But government grants for affordable housing had grown scarce.

One program held out hope. Even its name suggested as much -- Hope VI. Launched by HUD in 1993, Hope VI sought to rebuild distressed public housing projects by transforming them into neighborhoods. That meant scaling back housing density, welcoming tenants with a variety of incomes and relying on private firms to build and manage the new developments. In addition, money was targeted for education, job training and social services for residents.

Across the country, blighted public housing came tumbling down, including infamous high rises in Chicago's Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor projects. To date, Hope VI has spent $2 billion leveling 63,000 units and rebuilding 51,600. Another $3 billion has been awarded, but not yet spent.

"The vision was basically to tear down some of the worst public housing projects in the United States that were badly built, not very well designed and had very dense concentrations of poor people, which is generally a recipe for disaster," said Bruce Katz, who was chief of staff at HUD when Hope VI began and is now director of the Brooking Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "This is one of the most successful inner-city revitalization programs in the past 30 to 40 years."

Newport, however, could be among the last Hope VI projects. HUD, which had received $574 million for Hope VI two years ago, requested no money for this year and next year. Congress restored $149 million this year, but the fate of the program for next year is unknown.

AS NEWPORT began applying for Hope VI grants about five years ago, Rhode Island was struggling with a severe shortage of affordable housing. Some called it a crisis. In 2001, four ministers were arrested while protesting then-Gov. Lincoln Almond's temporary freeze on affordable housing spending.

So when Newport asked RIHMFC to finance Newport Heights, the agency demanded the replacement of every one of the low-income units.

"The competition for our funding is fierce," said spokesman Chris Barnett. "When we make a decision to invest in a proposal, it defies logic that we would invest in one that calls for less affordable housing."

Newport officials agreed to the mandate. But they still chafed at the burden.

"That's a huge number for a town like this," said Marvelle.

About 16.8 percent of the city's housing stock is already deemed affordable by the state in its latest official survey. Preliminary estimates indicate that figure will soon rise to just shy of 17 percent, putting Newport ahead of Woonsocket, Barnett said.

But many of the communities around Newport -- and all but a few across the state -- are way below the state's target goal of 10 percent per community. The figures are 2.47 percent for Portsmouth, 3.3 percent for Tiverton, 3.72 percent for Jamestown and .05 percent for Little Compton.

"When all is said and done, we may not be able to accommodate all units in Newport, but we aren't in the position of forcing other communities to 'step up to the plate' . . . even though the state has acknowledged some communities have failed to meet even bare statutory minimums," City Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano wrote in a letter to RIHMFC.

HOUSING ADVOCATES don't think Newport should be let off the hook.

"Although the replacement housing will be difficult, I think they can do it and will do it if they are required to," said Robert Sabel, a lawyer representing the Newport Residents Council, Tonomy's tenants group. "If all they are required to do is do their best, it won't happen."

Sabel said that only a couple of families in all of Tonomy have household incomes that exceed $25,000, with most earning substantially less than $20,000. They pay 30 percent of their income for housing under the federal Section 8 program. But many units at Newport Heights won't be subsidized to the same degree or even at all. The rent for "moderate-income" and "market-rate" units will range from $922 to $1,125 for a three-bedroom apartment.

"That's the point I am making when I say they are not affordable," Sabel said.

Msalii-Tigrai, of Project Basic, based in Providence, said her organization estimates that 62 percent of the residents of Tonomy Hill are members of minorities. The housing authority maintains the figure is substantially lower.

"The harm is going to be toward minorities," Msalii-Tigrai said. City officials, she said, are not adequately "taking responsibility in terms of locating sites [for affordable housing] in predominantly white towns."

In a letter to RIHMFC, Msalii-Tigrai urged that "not only should the Rhode Island Housing reject tax credits for . . . Newport Heights, it should cease all financial support to this ethnic cleansing project."

Msalii-Tigrai echoes concerns heard around the country about Hope VI, which some critics have derisively dubbed "No Hope VI" and "Hopeless VI." She cites the program as another example of "the federal government trying to move farther and farther away from doing housing assistance. . . . We have to save what we have, given that we are in a housing crisis in Rhode Island."

TENSIONS among the city, RIHMFC and Project Basic could come to a head or be resolved on Thursday. That's when RIHMFC's Board of Commissioners meets for a possible vote on financing for Newport Heights.

Newport Heights will be built in five phases over several years, with the private houses planned for the final phase. Trinity Financial Inc., of Boston, has nearly finished the first phase -- razing 64 apartments and rebuilding 81. The first tenants began moving in two weeks ago. The second phase, too, will replace more units than are razed.

RIHMFC, however, won't release money for the second phase until the housing authority details plans to replace the deeply subsidized apartments that will be lost in later phases.

A flurry of negotiations has taken place in recent weeks between Newport officials and RIHMFC representatives.

At issue is where the 173 replacement units would be located and how many must be planned immediately, Marvelle said. In one scenario, Newport could consider sites up to 15 miles away, or 30 minutes by bus, Barnett said. That would include communities as far as Little Compton and Narragansett. It's unclear how these towns might react.

"We would like to help them," said Middletown Town Administrator Gerald Kempen. "We do want to get more affordable housing in Middletown."

One possible source of replacement housing, local officials say, could be the many apartments in Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth that the U.S. Navy is on the verge of privatizing. Hundreds are slated for demolition.

RIHMFC Executive Director Richard S. Godfrey has pledged to assist Newport "every step of the way."

NEWPORT HEIGHTS' first tenants -- selected by Maloney Properties, the private company managing the development -- clearly were thrilled when they entered their new homes earlier this month.

They had moved from drab Tonomy Hill to the row of bright red, green, blue and yellow apartment buildings that sit across Maple Avenue from a new Head Start preschool program and the future Newport campus of the Community College of Rhode Island.

A single mother of two daughters looked out her living room window at the view of the Bay and the mothballed aircraft carriers Saratoga and Forrestal. She opened doors to reveal spacious closets, marveled at the abundance of overhead lights and gawked at the new Whirlpool dishwasher and oven. Everything seemed bigger, brighter and better.

Moreover, she said, she was happy to be moving even farther away from what remains of Tonomy Hill.

"I love it here," she said.

From The Providence Journal

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Dimeo and CWC Build Newport Heights Phase II

November 2004

NewportHgts001.jpg

NewportHgts002.jpg

Newport Hieghts Framing in Progress 1-05Newport, RI - Dimeo Construction Company and CWC Builders, a joint venture, are currently building Phase II of the Newport Heights housing redevelopment in Newport, RI after having completed Phase I in May of 2004. Trinity Financial, Inc. is the owner of this 230,000 s.f. project designed by ICON Architecture. This is a private development done in conjunction with Rhode Island Housing, HUD, and Newport Housing Authority. The $34.2 million housing project, formerly known as Tonomy Hill, is being rebuilt as privately owned housing units with more modern features. Dimeo & CWC are acting as the construction manager under a GMP delivery method. Newport Heights Aerial Phase I, Click to Enlarge

The first phase of the project involved the demolition of 17 vacant buildings at the northwest corner of the development followed by new construction of modern homes. Before demolition could begin on the wood framed, multi-storied buildings asbestos abatement had to be performed. Phase I included a total of 30 buildings with 81 units located on 4 acres of land. The homes encompass a mix of 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-bedroom units that are being rented to families of varying income levels. New roadways, parking lots and underground utilities were also constructed to support the new buildings.

Phase II, currently in construction and about 20% complete, involves the demolition of 31 existing buildings, asbestos abatement, and extensive site work, including further construction of new public roadways. Construction will include 30 new low-rise buildings with a total of 87 living units and one new, mid-rise building with a total of 60 living units.

Dimeo

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Personally, I think this was a missed opportunity to do something much more innovative and on a much grander scale while wasting far less land. They could have done higher structures and brought them closer together. If these weren't spaced out so much then they could have fit more houses and still had land left for one larger (and nicer) public green space in between. I think it was a nice attempt but they definitely came up short of what they could have accomplished on this. It's just another block of houses. Wow.

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Yes, it is an extreme reaction to the failure of the project tower block which was such a failed mode for public/affordable housing. Running to the far extreme of suburbanism is not necessarily what is needed. Though these houses look nice, look more dense than the typical suburban tract, and I assume are close enough to downtown Newport to allow residents to use public transit.

It has sidewalks, it has onstreet parking, it's not a collection of cul de sacs... It could be much worse. It looks like it fits well with the buildings under the trees next to it. They seem to have got a good number of people into a small space, though they could have got more. I think it will look nice and be an attractive area when it matures.

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I know much about this project. I was part of a civic organization in Tiverton that backed this proposal. The site used to be a oil storage facility - there were dozens of oil tanks there, and when the facility was closed and the tanks were razed, what was left was a horrible brownfield. It took 10 years to clean the soil.

The views from the condos/townhouses are spectacular; on a clear day you can see all the way across the bay to Warwick, and due to the west-facing view, sunsets over the water are captivating! The tops of "Bank Row" are visible, too. The units are fetching close to $1 million a unit. Right now this project is approx 50% finished.

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What is not shown in the arial shot of this project is the new CCRI Newport campus:

https://www.ccri.edu/newport/newport1.shtml

The building is actgually quite beautiful - I drive by it every to/from work. It is shingled, with lots of gables. A far cry from the concrete monstrosity CCRI has in Warwick!

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speaking of that "concrete monstrosity CCRI has in Warwick!" that I attend ;),... someone who has a good quality camera (not me) can get some amazing shots of foliage on the top floor hallways facing north and south. This rain is sucking.. but later on this week, it should be a good shot. It'd be nice to post in that foliage thread.

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It's funny, one of my urban planning books has the Newport Heights redevelopment in it as this amazing urban redevelopment, and the renderings look nothing like what is described here. That book needs a little update...

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It's funny, one of my urban planning books has the Newport Heights redevelopment in it as this amazing urban redevelopment, and the renderings look nothing like what is described here. That book needs a little update...

Recchia- you understand that Newport Heights and this "Villages on the Bay" thing are totally different projects, right?

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Recchia- you understand that Newport Heights and this "Villages on the Bay" thing are totally different projects, right?

oh yeah, I know. Newport Heights is the redevelopment at the beginning of the thread, to which I was referring to when I mentioned the book. Looks like they really missed the ball on that one, the renderings in the book were much better and denser.

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Recchia- you understand that Newport Heights and this "Villages on the Bay" thing are totally different projects, right?

I also realized that when I posted this link, but I didn't want to start another Newport thread.

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