Podcast: Roundtable Discussion On Ansonia’s New Downtown Plans
by STAFF | Apr 17, 2017 5:38 pm
Posted to: Ansonia, Navel Gazing: The Valley Indy Podcast
Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti’s administration announced a new location for the city’s police department earlier this month with a concerted effort to publicize the change of plans.
The new plan calls for the outdated and overcrowded police station at 2 Elm St. to be moved to 65 Main St., a former Farrel Corp. office building.
The city had been planning to build a new police department on Olson Drive, having secured permission from voters to borrow up to $12 million for the project.
City Hall issued a press release on the changes that asked and answered its own questions. It is posted at the bottom of the article.
But some questions not answered included:
1. In the runup to the police department vote, didn’t the city basically say the police station had to go on Olson Drive because the project was being developed hand-in-hand with federal housing units scheduled to be redeveloped there?
2. Since this is the second time Ansonia asked residents to borrow money for Olson Drive, only to change the plans after the vote — can voters trust the City Hall when it comes to topics of future referenda?
3. What happens to the plans to put new, federally subsidized housing on Olson Drive, as mandated by a legal agreement?
4. How did the city not realize in advance of the public vote that the land on Olson Drive wasn’t suitable for a police department?
Those questions are asked and answered in the latest episode of “Navel Gazing,” the Valley Indy podcast.
Click the play button at the top of the page to listen.
A public hearing on the new plans is scheduled for May 2, 7 p.m. at City Hall.
During the podcast, John Marini, Sheila O’Malley and Kevin Hale talk said the new plan will allow the city to build a less expensive police department in less time.
They also talk about what happened behind the scenes that led the city to look at Main Street instead of Olson Drive as a new location for the police department.
The officials point out the wording of the referendum mentioned Olson Drive, but left open the possiblity the police department could go elsewhere.
Marini is the city’s lawyer, O’Malley is the economic development director, and Hale is the chief of police.
A Plan In Progress
The main reason behind the change of plans is because officials realized building the police station on Olson Drive may take longer than they had anticipated.
The mayor said the change in plans is a matter of timing, and promised to have the new police station at 65 Main St. much sooner than it could be built on Olson Drive.
“A new police station at Olson Drive was probably three to five years down the road because of all the problems with DEEP and with HUD,” Mayor David Cassetti said. “It wasn’t going to happen right away. We need something to happen right away. This I can assure you, probably by the end of the year we’ll have our new police station in place.”
The city’s housing authority has promised for years to build 54 units of affordable housing on the site to replace more than 160 apartments that have been bulldozed during the last few years.
But restrictions from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection regarding construction in a floodplain — Olson Drive is next to the Naugatuck River — have thrown the housing authority’s redevelopment plans into question.
Housing can’t be built in a floodplain without a waiver from DEEP.
Even though the police station could theoretically be built there, O’Malley said, the city didn’t want to move forward with that project until the plans for housing on the property were finalized, since they wanted to be sure of the “footprint” of land to be used for the police station.
The Valley Indy sent a Freedom of Information Request to DEEP April 5 seeking all correspondence between it, the City of Ansonia, and the Ansonia Housing Authority in the past two years.
DEEP released the documents April 11.
They show that a DEEP engineer had warned the city as early as September 2014 that the plans for housing on the property may run into problems.
“Having the residential portion below the 500 year (floodplain) does not meet state standards,” the engineer, Jeff Caiola, wrote to another engineer working on the plans.
Caiola repeated that opinion in another email in December 2015 — a year before the referendum question was put to voters — after being asked whether DEEP could grant a waiver allowing the housing authority to move forward.
“As it stands, I don’t see the Department approving an exemption for this project,” Caiola wrote.
Nevertheless, officials were hopeful they could get a waiver from DEEP to allow the project to move forward until a few months ago.
Meanwhile, 65 Main St. changed hands in a foreclosure, and its new owner approached the city offering to make a deal.
Marini said the city was obligated to “get value for taxpayers’ money” by changing the location of the new police station.
Why Didn’t You Mention That Before?
But before last year’s referendum — which passed by a vote of 4,086 to 2,388 — voters were told repeatedly of the importance of building a police station on Olson Drive, and officials tied those plans to the housing the federal government insists go there.
In a speech months after he first took office, Mayor Cassetti read off the names people who had died violently over the years at the housing complex, vowing to erect “a pillar of law and authority” there in response.
During a “Mayor’s Night Out” event Oct. 3, Marini, the city’s corporation counsel, said federal housing officials had been pursuing a “one-to-one replacement” of the 160 or so apartments that were being demolished.
Until, he said, Cassetti and other city officials made a deal with the feds to lower the number of replacement houses.
“They would allow the city to reduce the number of units on the site in the event that the city constructed its own public station, a new security station, on the site as well,” Marini said a month before the police department referendum. “This is an opportunity, an opportunity to upgrade the existing police department and at the same time reduce the (housing) density and achieve a new public use for Olson Drive.”
Other officials used the argument, too.
“There was an agreement with HUD to locate a public safety facility at this site in order to decrease the (housing) density at this location,” O’Malley said last summer during a meeting of a subcommittee created to look over the plans for a new police station.
In a guest column published Sept. 14, 2016, Seventh Ward Alderman Frank DeLibero warned voters that “failure to proceed with the station at Olson Drive may impact the amount of public housing placed back on the site.”
The mayor and others also repeatedly blasted the Democratic administration of his predecessor for asking voters to approve borrowing $330,000 with a view to buying the Olson Drive property, which the Republicans said was never for sale.
Two current members of the city’s Democratic Town Committee said Cassetti’s administration isn’t being straight with voters.
“I wonder how many folks would have voted yes for the $12 million in the referendum,” David Knapp, the chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, said. “I think most people who voted for the referendum thought the new police station was going to be at Olson Drive.”
“We were told it was essential to locate the police building there in order to get HUD to agree to a reduced number of housing units to replace what has been torn down,” Tarek Raslan, another member of the Democratic Town Committee, said.
Don’t they have a point?
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Marini said, pointing out that the language in the referendum question allowed for an alternative location. “If we understood there could be other locations, maybe we could’ve played up the possibility of alternatives more.”
He said if the 65 Main St. plans fall through, the police station could be built on Olson Drive after all.
“No one is saying that the Olson Drive alternative ended up being impossible,” Marini said. “A better alternative came along.”
Click the play button on the video at the top of this story for a complete question-and-answer session with Marini, O’Malley and Chief Hale.
City officials said out that leftover office space not used by the police department at 65 Main St. could be used as a new space for the city’s senior center and/or other city departments.