September 24, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN And JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writers
In July 2004, public housing officials in Hartford were prepared to select a developer to rebuild two aging housing projects in Hartford's northwestern corner. The conditions at Westbrook Village and Bowles Park were worsening and it was time to tear them down and build anew.
But the new chairman of the housing authority, Angel Arce, persuaded his colleagues on the board to put an abrupt halt to the process.
According to minutes of authority meetings at the time and interviews with several officials, the reason lay in a state planning document examining the future of the two housing developments. John D. Wardlaw, then the executive director of the authority, saw adoption of the document as crucial to getting state support for revitalizing the projects. But Arce believed the document was flawed and outdated.
While Arce points to a stale plan, recently ousted Executive Director Lancelot Gordon Jr. tells a different story for why the process was interrupted: The plan wasn't flawed, Gordon says. The authority was.
Gordon, 58, was Wardlaw's successor. The authority commissioners fired him in August, after he was in the job less than a year, over allegations that he failed to follow the authority's procurement policy in connection with nearly $11,000 in financial transactions.
But Gordon claims in a lawsuit that he was fired because he was trying to uncover entrenched corruption at the agency. Among several allegations, Gordon claimed in the lawsuit that Arce invited him to a July 2004 meeting with Meriden developer Salvatore Carabetta at the Olympia Diner in Newington. Gordon says Arce used the diner meeting to try to get him to steer the $300 million project at Westbrook Village and Bowles Park to Carabetta. Gordon claims he refused. Arce has denied Gordon's allegations. Carabetta has not responded to several calls.
Regardless of which story is closer to the truth - the plan was flawed or the process was tainted - the internal fighting and the authority's failure to move forward paints a picture of internal confusion and dissent at an agency now torn by allegations of bid-rigging and corruption.
At the time of the alleged diner meeting, the authority's board was in transition. The agency would soon lose Wardlaw, its leader for more than 25 years. His eventual successor - Gordon - had been at the authority for barely two months. Arce had just been named board chairman; Courtney Anderson, now the chairman, had just joined the board.
The stories may differ, but the result is clear: In July 2004 the board voted to scrap the bidding process and start again. It would take a year just to prepare the 14-page document seeking prospective developers for the project, and another year to pick the winner.
Meanwhile, residents at the two projects have learned to live in apartments with peeling lead paint, caving-in ceilings and infestations of rats, mice and cockroaches.
"There was a lot of things that needed to be corrected, and we just didn't have the resources to do it," Wardlaw said last week. "It's a whole list of things that resulted in the bottom line being that those two areas had been neglected."
Westbrook Village and Bowles Park are two post-war, state-financed public housing developments set on roughly 140 acres just west of Hartford's Blue Hills neighborhood. As the state funding dried up and the buildings decayed, planners and dreamers saw the properties as one of the city's last great development opportunities. They abut the University of Hartford and are on, or near, major city arteries. They boast natural water features, rest in one of the city's strongholds of homeownership, and have the potential to fill a major void between the city and its northwestern suburbs.
In 1999, the state paid for a study to lay out different scenarios to rebuild Westbrook Village and Bowles Park. It eventually endorsed "Scenario 7" of that study as its blueprint.
Scenario 7 called for a mix of owned and rental housing to attract both poor and middle-class residents, along with commercial development. More broadly, it was part of a grand plan to deconcentrate poverty and remake failed public housing.
Official minutes, interviews and documents show no sign that Arce's reason for abandoning the process had to do with a clandestine meeting over cups of coffee. Instead, he questioned whether the study - which had been created with little or no community input - was still relevant.
Minutes from a June 2004 board meeting show that Arce was in fact interested in the project's potential developers, and in one developer specifically: Apollo Holdings Co. Arce said he had heard, "for some reason," that the company was known by a different name.
According to Gordon's federal lawsuit, Gordon mentioned Apollo to Arce at the Olympia Diner in July 2004. He said he told Arce and Carabetta that Apollo appeared to be the front-runner to win the Westbrook Village and Bowles Park project.
Then, at the board's July meeting, the commission threw out the bids at Arce's urging. A month later it threw out Scenario 7, too, and Arce called for a new plan to be drafted from scratch with "heavy tenant participation from both developments."
Only one man fought him publicly: Wardlaw.
Wardlaw shared the vision others had about Westbrook Village and Bowles Park, he said. He wanted them to be rebuilt much as federal housing projects in the city had been recast during his tenure.
But the project would go nowhere without money, he said, and the only money the authority had seen in years for the project was linked to Scenario 7. Federally financed housing developments in the city got more money from their governmental parent than did such state projects as Westbrook Village and Bowles Park. So to dump a plan for the two projects that was backed by the state made no sense, Wardlaw said.
"If you look at the way those people were living, and the work that needed to be done out there," it made sense to pursue Scenario 7, he said.
In the end, though, Wardlaw lost the argument. The board chose to scrap Scenario 7 and begin again. "The board made a decision, and I had no problems with that," he said.
Arce has declined to discuss the matter at the advice of his attorney, but he wasn't alone in his thinking.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez said that between 2002 and 2004 he went to several large meetings hosted by the housing authority with state, city, and community stakeholders on the project. The topic was often whether or not to keep Scenario 7.
"People were uncomfortable with proceeding with the process that didn't have buy-in from all the stakeholders," Perez said. "The process was stopped in order to start a new process, a process where more people could engage. That was a legitimate concern."
Asked whether he thought Gordon's allegations that the process was corrupt could have been true, Perez said he preferred to hold his answer until the city's investigation was complete. "There might have been 100 other reasons that other people acted, but I thought [getting more tenant input] was a legitimate reason."
Far From A Plan
Now, two years later, the authority has chosen a developer - the Corcoran Jennison Company of Massachusetts. Residents, community leaders, and housing authority figures have praised the process for its transparency.
The selection was the result of a bidding process that began in December 2005 and was shepherded through by a committee made of up of authority, community, and resident leaders who eventually made their recommendation to the board.
"In my way of looking at it, it has been a very thoughtful and well-planned planning process," said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford, whose staff sat on the committee. "It seemed to me they were being extremely open with the people on the committee and giving them a chance to reach their own conclusions."
The Corcoran Jennison Co. says it will now begin negotiations with the authority to knock down the 770 units of housing in 159 buildings at Westbrook Village and Bowles Park and replace them with mixed-income housing and commercial development.
Issues still cloud the future. No public money is committed to the project. The city, the state, and the federal government are in the middle of their investigations into Gordon's allegations. Plus, new details about a 2002 memorandum of understanding that seemingly gives Carabetta dibs on several city housing developments - including Westbrook Village and Bowles Park - have brought the relationships between developers and the authority under new scrutiny.
Finally, any development of this magnitude is a years-long affair.
"This is far from having a plan," Perez said. "The plan has to be developed, funded and implemented, and we're in a three- to five-year timetable here."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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