Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti told about 100 city residents Thursday that he wants to erect a “pillar of law and authority” on the site of a federally subsidized housing complex on Olson Drive.
Beginning his remarks at a public forum to announce his vision for the site by naming victims of killings at the housing complex over the years, Cassetti said his his plan could “transform the stigma of Olson Drive into a beacon of security and hope for our entire city, (and) uproot a legacy of crime and violence and sow the seeds of a stronger and safer Ansonia.”
To that end, Cassetti unveiled conceptual plans to build a new police headquarters and fire department building on the property, along with at least 48 units of affordable housing and an as-yet unknown number of market-rate apartments.
During Thursday’s public forum, Cassetti and other officials emphasized that the plans were the “beginning of a long dialog” regarding the future of the site, and that there’s plenty of heavy lifting in the future to transform the vision into a reality.
While not discussing even rough figures for the cost of the project if it goes forward, officials estimated that a groundbreaking for the redevelopment of Olson Drive is at least two years away.
Cassetti said he will soon appoint an advisory committee — comprised of residents, members of the police and fire departments, and the housing authority — to begin studying the feasibility of the plans.
The mayor said he was guided by three principles in coming up with the proposal — “security, community, and economic development.”
Click the play button above to see a portion of Cassetti’s remarks Thursday.
The components of the proposal include:
- A mix of affordable and market-rate housing, with the specific number of units undetermined at this point,
- A new police department,
- A new fire department facility, possibly a multi-bay firehouse, regional training facility, and/or communications center,
- A “municipal community center” — though architectural renderings unveiled Thursday do not include any buildings marked as such,
- And a small amount of retail space.
Article continues after renderings showing the mayor’s proposal.
“The ultimate goal is to create a small, village-type atmosphere that will foster economic development from within and also supply customers to our businesses on Main Street,” Cassetti said, repeating that the plans were “by no means a final design.”
“A formidable police presence in the heart of our downtown will be an absolute game-changer,” Cassetti said, by putting cops close to areas of the city “disproportionately impacted by crime” and providing more security to downtown.
While not discussing what the redevelopment would cost, the mayor ballparked the new police/fire facility alone at about $4.5 million.
Cassetti said the timeline of the project would depend on whether the city can obtain funding for it.
“It is my intention not to burden the Ansonia taxpayers, but rather to rely on private, state, and federal funding wherever possible,” he said. “The pacing of this project will depend greatly on the availability of funds.”
Later during the forum, John Marini, the city’s corporation counsel, held out the possibility that the city could resort to issuing bonds to help pay for the project as a last resort — though if the city goes that route, a referendum on the funding would have to take place.
Cassetti was followed at the forum by Troy White, the executive director of the Ansonia Housing Authority.
He, too, stressed the draft nature of the plans unveiled Thursday, and that the housing component of the plan would be a departure from years past.
“The public policies of the 70s, 80s, 90s for affordable housing have failed us,” he said. “You all don’t have to go far to see that.”
“I’m here tonight to tell all of you that is not what the housing authority is seeking to put back on Olson Drive,” he said. “We are not putting barracks back on Olson Drive, we’re dramatically looking to reduce the number of units, have green space, and have it affordable for citizens that live within the city.”
While the city is legally obligated to put at least 48 units of affordable housing on the site as a partial replacement of the 105 units already demolished, officials said they are still negotiating with state and federal housing officials regarding the fate of the 60 units still standing.
While no HUD officials were at the forum, Marini said after the meeting the city is confident an agreement will be reached with HUD that would allow for the demolition of the remaining buildings in the complex by next summer, though specific details have yet to be worked out.
Article continues after video showing part of White’s remarks.
Ansonia Police Chief Kevin Hale said the department needs a new headquarters, and putting it on Olson Drive makes sense.
“I think the police officers in this town more than anybody have seen the crises and tragedy and hardship over the years, probably as much as anybody outside of the residents” of the complex, he said.
“A change is in order, a change is long overdue,” the chief said.
With respect to the new police station, Hale said a centrally located police department would be beneficial to the community.
“I think this makes perfect sense all the way around,” he said, noting the department’s home for the past 34 years was built in 1894 and doesn’t give cops much space.
Article continues after video of Hale’s remarks.
Residents asked questions about the project for nearly an hour after the plans were unveiled.
For example, one resident wondered — why build a police and fire station in a flood plain?
The Flood of 1955 put the Olson Drive area underwater. What if that happens again?
Officials said they’d look to produce a feasibility study to look into such issues as the to-be-appointed committee sinks its teeth into the details of the proposal.
The “wait and see” answers became a theme as the forum went on, with officials emphasizing the proposal was in its very early stages.
For instance, David Knapp, a former Alderman from the city’s Seventh Ward, wondered whether a community center needed to be built when the city has invested time and money in revamping the armory on State Street.
“What happens to the YMCA, which is a couple blocks away? What happens to the Boys & Girls Club, a couple blocks away in the other direction?” he said. “Do we need a community center, to have four community centers within what, two, three blocks of each other?”
“It becomes a cost-benefit analysis,” Sheila O’Malley, the city’s economic development director, replied. “You have to determine: do these old, antiquated buildings, is it going to be cheaper to renovate or is it going to be cheaper to build new? That’s a question for a feasibility study.”
The forum was marked by the absence of any questions from current residents of the housing complex.
Naomi “Miss Ruthie” Wallace, a former resident of the complex and the longtime director of an after school program in the former Tinney Community Center on the site that closed in 2012, implored officials to seek out input from residents of the complex.
She also pointed out that not everyone can afford programs at the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.
“What has been proposed sounds beautiful, it sounds really great. But you’ve got to know the people there, you’ve got to know the people that have moved from Olson Drive, because things were promised to them,” she said. “Talk to the people, that everyday person that walks up and down the street.”
Fire Department Concerns
Several firefighters also attended the forum and expressed worries that Cassetti wanted to consolidate some or all of the city’s five venerable firehouses into a central location.
They warned doing so might hurt the “esprit de corps” of the organization.
Cassetti responded that while his initial concept for the site could have included consolidating three firehouses, he’s abandoned the idea.
He said, repeatedly, he does not want to close any firehouses.
“Listen, I am a big fan of the fire department, probably more than any previous predecessor of mine,” Cassetti said. “Believe me when I tell you, I’m not going to close any fire departments, I am not.”
“I don’t plan on closing anything,” the mayor went on. “I want to enhance it. You guys should welcome this.”
Ansonia Fire Department Chief Joseph Kingston suggested the new fire building could combine a training facility and house special equipment that there currently isn’t space for around the city’s five firehouses.
“The role of the fire service has changed” over the years, Kingston said. “We do a phenomenal job at what we do, but we have to look to expand our capabilities.”
“We’re going to modernize to bring us to the 21st century so that we can get the proper storage of the equipment that we have and to acquire the equipment that we need to help expand our capabilities for the citizens of the city,” Kingston said.
A video of Kingston’s remarks is below.