Plans for proposed senior complex in Portsmouth unveiled

Calls for building new senior center and more than 50 affordable senior housing units at virtually no cost to the town

By Jim McGaw
Posted 8/11/21

PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council got its first look Tuesday at Church Community Housing’s (CCH) proposed plans for a new senior citizens complex on Bristol Ferry Road.  

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Plans for proposed senior complex in Portsmouth unveiled

Calls for building new senior center and more than 50 affordable senior housing units at virtually no cost to the town


(Note: Following Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, we updated this story that originally appeared here last week.)

PORTSMOUTH — The Town Council got its first look Tuesday at Church Community Housing’s (CCH) proposed plans for a new senior citizens complex on Bristol Ferry Road.  

The council also heard a separate report on a cost estimate to simply repair the current building — about $5.77 million.

The CCH is proposing to construct a new one-story senior center just north of the current building, plus an attached three-story residential condominium building with 52 affordable senior housing units — 40 one-bedroom units and 12 two-bedroom units. The plan would also accommodate parking for 76 spaces on the 5.27-acre site.

The proposal also calls for keeping the southern portion of the current senior center building — built in 1928 and formerly used as the Anne Hutchinson School — but converting it into market-rate condos, said Christian Belden, executive director of CCH. The northern section, which was added in 1951, would be torn down to make room for the new building. Those townhouse-style condominiums would help alleviate the amount of fund-raising CCH would need to finance the project, he said.

The town has been seeking a longterm solution to maintaining a senior center ever since numerous fire code violations were discovered in the current building in the fall of 2019. The town corrected most of the violations, but the more expensive ones — such as a needed sprinkler system — have not yet been addressed. 

The state fire marshal’s office was originally set to order the building closed on June 30 of this year, but an agreement was worked out to allow the northern wing of the building — containing its office, thrift shop, library, craft room and game room — open but subject to certain conditions. The remaining portion of the building — including the larger assembly and dining rooms — remain closed as the center cannot be used as a place of assembly.

The council voted unanimously in February to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with CCH on the development and use of the senior center and Coggeshall School properties for a mix of affordable housing and a senior center. (The plan presented to the council Tuesday was for the Bristol Ferry Road site only, however.) A Senior Center Advisory Group — made up of two senior center representatives, two council members, the DPW director, town planner and three town residents — was formed in March to collaborate with CCH and rest of the development team on the proposal. 

Any course of action would still need voter approval at a town-wide referendum in November for the transfer of the property interest, as the town charter forbids entering into any longterm agreement on town property more than two acres in size, according to council member Keith Hamilton. The proposal will also require more public feedback from residents and final Town Council approval.

During an interview on Thursday, Town Administrator Richard Rainer, Jr. said CCH’s proposal wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything, other than the town agreeing to buy a condo unit for the senior center that would include spaces not typically built in senior housing developments such as: a thrift shop, senior center staff offices, and a kitchen for senior center dinners. It would not be for living quarters. The town would be eligible for funding toward the purchase price, Mr. Rainer said.

Comparing options, costs

The other option, favored by some residents who are opposed to CCH’s plan, is to renovate the current building so it’s safe and inhabitable again as a place of assembly. 

However, according to CGA Project Management, which the town hired to conduct an independent building analysis and study of the structure, the total project cost of those improvements would be more than $5.77 million. 

“That is just to bring this up to a building that is safe, healthy and meets the minimum code standards,” Andy DiGiammo of CGA told the council. “There’s much more that could done to the building, cosmetically, for improvements. You would not have a new, state-of-the-art building.”

Although some in town have argued that all the senior center building needs is a sprinkler system — CGA puts the cost of needed fire protection improvements alone at $637,058 — CGA representatives and Mr. Rainer said that’s unrealistic.

“Once you start, you have to keep going down that road,” Mr. Rainer said. “You can’t just put a sprinkler system in there. If you do that, that establishes a trigger point for the next thing.”

For example, Mr. DiGiammo said that in order to install a sprinkler system, work must first be done on the existing ceilings in both the 1928 and 1951 sections of the building, as well as miscellaneous carpentry and soffit work. “You do not just go in an install a sprinkler system,” he said.

Local resident Tom Grieb said the report just goes to show how badly the town has allowed the property to deteriorate over the years. He also questioned the timing of the CGA report and whether it was commissioned simply to bolster the need for CCH’s proposal.

Council President Kevin Aguiar said no predetermined decision was made. The building assessment and cost estimates from CGA were needed not only by council members but also by the senior center community, he said.

Mr. Rainer said the CCH proposal makes much more financial sense for the town, while also putting the property back on the tax rolls. It also addresses another crucial need in Portsmouth: more affordable senior housing.

“Senior citizens are getting priced out of Portsmouth,” he said, noting that the proposal to connect a new senior center to the housing unit “makes financing easier” for CCH.

Some residents have expressed concerns over the fate of the Little League baseball field behind the senior center, but it would remain in CCH’s current plan. However, in order to accommodate a new septic system, the field would have to be relocated to the south side of the property. 

Keeping center open?

Whatever the town decides to do with the property, one of the biggest concerns is whether the current senior center will be able to remain open until something new is built.

In its proposal, CCH says one of its goals is to prevent the “relocation and/or temporary closure” of the current senior center. Mr. Rainer said the town has hired a structural engineer to look at that building, and the hope is to not displace it until a new building is ready for occupancy.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep that open,” he said.

Added Mr. Belden, “The goal is to keep the existing senior center open until the new senior center is built.”

He said the new senior center would be about 8,000 square feet in area and would have enough space to accommodate the existing uses — such as meals, dancing, thrift shop, game room and library — in the current center. The first floor of the Anne Hutchinson building, where the center is now located, is about 7,769 square feet, he noted.

Mr. Rainer made a plea to members of the public — many of whom have taken to social media to denounce the plan — that they remain open-minded and learn more about the agreement between the town and CCH, which he said is not set in stone.

“We’ve heard all the chatter. We haven’t started any construction … please give us a little credit. We’re doing our homework,” he said.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.