Seila Mosquera, Executive Director, NeighborWorks New Horizons
The Hillside Historic District is among Waterbury, Connecticut’s oldest neighborhoods, home to an impressive collection of diverse 19th
and early 20th
century architecture. But about 30 years ago, many residents began moving to the suburbs and homeowners became virtually non-existent in Hillside, which spiraled into decline.
The exodus of homeowners over the past three decades left a vacuum in Waterbury’s Hillside District, degrading its rich historic architecture and its social and economic health. The area is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and rises above the city’s central business district and The Green, one of New England’s most beautiful downtown parks. But about 30 years ago many residents began moving to the suburbs and homeowners have become virtually non-existent in Hillside. Plunging property values, negligent landlords and crime devastated the once-vibrant neighborhood. Crumbling streets and sidewalks discouraged foot traffic to the nearby businesses, stalling economic development and job creation.
In an effort to restore the neighborhood, NeighborWorks New Horizons (NWNH) joined forces in 2011 with the Harold Webster Smith Foundation, a local private nonprofit, to create the Waterbury Community Investment project. The public-private partnership brought together local residents, business owners, cultural institutions and legal professionals to rehabilitate and convert rental properties for owner-occupancy and revitalize the streetscape.
The program’s first endeavor was the Gaffney Place Housing Revitalization project, which included the rehabilitation of four circa 1880’s Queen Anne homes and the construction of one new home in the same style. Completed in 2014, the strikingly colorful homes preserve the neighborhood’s historic integrity while providing homebuyers with modern, energy efficient amenities. An innovative design creates a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape, where trees and planters improve the traffic flow. Period street lamps and buried utility wires enhance the neighborhood’s aesthetics, and a linear park connects the neighborhood to the downtown businesses.
The new homeowners establish stability and pave the way for new homebuyers and other stakeholders in the neighborhood. The pilot project also preserves historically significant structures and protects the integrity of the area and the larger Waterbury community. Improved streets and walkways ease residents’ access to the business district, which has enjoyed an increase in customers and clients, making it an attractive option for new businesses and investment.
The Gaffney Place homes are a stunning visual example of NWNH’s mission in Connecticut to offer quality affordable housing and promote economic growth through technical assistance, grants and training. The revitalization project serves as a blueprint for successful urban renewal founded on creating new homebuyer opportunities, preserving historic structures and repairing and beautifying the streets.
Now that the Gaffney Place project is completed, NWNH is looking to identify and create opportunities for development and community action in other Hillside neighborhood areas. This includes the revitalization of Linden Street, near Gaffney Place, where planning is underway for a mixed-income housing development. An abandoned, blighted office building will be demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment building with 30-55 units of quality, affordable housing.
Additionally, NWNH has recently become involved in establishing a YouthBuild chapter in Waterbury. The goal of the program is to develop a community-based alternative education program for at-risk youths. It also seeks to stabilize the neighborhood by advancing affordable housing, education, employment, leadership development and energy efficiency. Participants are offered both academic learning and occupational skills training to prepare them for careers. The youths will join in an NWNH home rehabilitation project on Central Avenue as part of their skills training. The newly renovated home will provide an affordable housing opportunity one block from Gaffney Place. Waterbury YouthBuild has collaborated with a number of stakeholders on the YouthBuild program, including the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board, Waterbury Adult Education, YMCA and the Waterbury Police Athletic League.
Gaffney Place was a success in large part because we recognized the potential of these historic but dilapidated homes to restore the neighborhood’s beauty and attract stable homeowners. Improving the streetscape not only enhanced the area’s aesthetics, it facilitated the residential-commercial link and boosted the local economy. Collaborating with residents, investors and businesses solidified the collective community’s commitment to long-lasting improvements and to future prospects.