Monday, May 19, 2008

Congress Avenue apartments get new life

‘3 Sisters’ buildings renovated for condos seen as step to bringing back neighborhood
By Ed Stannard
Register Metro Editor
— Just as the old “Three Sisters” apartment buildings on Congress Avenue have been transformed into shiny condos, ready for new owners, that stretch of Congress Avenue could be headed for a brighter future.
It may be a gamble, but those who are betting on the Three Sisters to become filled with families with mortgages and neighborhood pride believe the odds are worth taking.
“Three Sisters” is the moniker for the brick apartments at 625-629 Congress Ave., originally slated for demolition as part of the controversial Prince-Welch Annex school replacement.
The three buildings that later became a center of neighborhood crime have been redeveloped into 12 condominiums, with hardwood floors, air-conditioning and two-story ceilings.
“This is a success story,” said Derick Morgan, project manager for the Livable City Initiative, New Haven’s anti-blight agency, which has overseen the Three Sisters’ renovation and marketing. “I’m thinking these buildings could be an anchor development for this neighborhood.”
The streets are still rough in this section of the Hill neighborhood, badly hit by racial strife in the 1960s and the blight, crime and drug use that followed, but recent years have seen some bright spots. The John C. Daniels School, next door to the Three Sisters, opened last fall. The new Courtland Wilson Branch Library is a block away.
Alderwoman Jacqueline James, D-3, grew up in the neighborhood and remembers the Three Sisters as apartments. “I remember when I was a little girl, one of my best friends lived in this building right here,” she said, pointing to one of the side-by-side buildings.
On a tour of the condos, James was impressed. “This is unbelievable! It really, really is. I’m truly amazed.” The open living room, white walls and huge arched windows in the front units give the condos a feeling of light and space.
James had advocated using the Sisters as a community center, but acknowledged that the school, the library and the nearby police substation offer meeting places for young people.
She still feels the area’s quality of life needs to be addressed, though. James said she also wants to talk with other city officials about bringing in more small businesses, such as nail salons and barbershops, to join the grocery store across the street.
“You’re investing a lot of money in these properties, but we want to maintain the values in light of what is happening with the taxes and the crime,” James said.
James said she was concerned that the prices are too high. They range from $180,000 for a handicapped-accessible ranch to $239,000 for a four-bedroom townhouse. Deanna Williamson of H. Pearce Co., sales agent for the city, said she’ll be keeping an eye on that.
“I’m going to monitor and see how things go the rest of the month,” she said. Williamson has sold a lot of city-built housing, but most of that has been new construction, so she can’t predict how fast the condos will sell.
“This is a new venture for me,” she said. “I’ve never done renovated condos in this venue, in this market.”
Half of the 12 units have been classified as “affordable,” meaning buyers will be eligible for a number of grants and zero- or low-interest loans. The affordable units must be owner-occupied, while the others can be bought as investments.
“There are a number of different programs that would significantly reduce the cost to them,” said Morgan of LCI.
There is other money available too, including Yale’s first-time home-buying program.
John Cuozzo, co-owner of Press/Cuozzo Realtors, said he hadn’t seen the Three Sisters project but thought the prices were reasonable given the size of the units, which top off at 2,000 square feet for a four-bedroom unit.
“They’re certainly offering a lot of square footage for the money,” he said.
“If there was any aspect of the real estate market that has strength it’s the city of New Haven,” Cuozzo said. While downtown is most popular, he said, “there are other parts of New Haven that are also benefiting from the gentrification of these neighborhoods.”
He said a key to rundown areas turning around is for “pioneers” to buy homes and live in them rather than renting them out. That happened in Wooster Square and along the Quinnipiac River, he said.
Another thing going for the Three Sisters, he said, is their size. “To be able to get three- and four-bedroom condominiums is unique in itself,” he said.
Sam Foster, who lives just up the street and was once an LCI employee himself, said he’s been watching the work proceed and likes what he’s heard about the quality. “They’ve done a fantastic job over there, and they’ve taken their time doing it.”
Foster said he’s seen the neighborhood improve since he moved in 12 years ago, largely because renters have been replaced by homeowners. “If you look around the city, in comparison to other neighborhoods, crime as a whole is down,” he said.
Ed Stannard can be reached at or 789-5743.

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