Tower Transformation: Extensive Renovations Coming To Public Housing Complex

This article originally appeared in The Meadville Tribune. To view the original article, click here

The door, one among many on the sixth floor of Holland Towers, seems like nothing special at first glance. Opening it, however, reveals a glimpse into the future — a future that officials at Meadville’s seven-story public housing complex say will transform the building and positively impact the seniors and disabled people who live there for decades to come.

“I’m excited that this is going to make it much more livable,” said Tom Youngblood, a board member of the Meadville Housing Authority, the agency that manages Holland Towers on Market Street. “The building has been there since 1971 and though through the years we’ve done minor things here and minor things over there, there’s never been a real update. As you can see just walking through, it’s grown pretty tired through the years.”

A walk-through of the building Wednesday showed the signs of fatigue that Youngblood referred to, but also led to the door of unit 605, where signs of rejuvenation were evident. The vacant studio apartment is being used as a model to show tenants a preview of what to expect after the completion of a multimillion-dollar makeover set to begin this summer.

“This renovation should carry the apartments for another 20 years,” said Vanessa Rockovich, the authority’s executive director, as she led a tour of several vacant apartments to offer a “before” and “after” view.

The most noticeable difference — and one that provoked some concerns among tenants — is the plan to convert the building’s studio apartments into one-bedroom units by constructing a wall between the living space and the bedroom area.

While a wall is being added, a large column-like closet space that stood close to the middle of the studio space is being removed. There will still be storage space, but it will be along an interior wall. Far from reducing the available space, removing the closet makes for a significantly larger bedroom area.

The extensive list of upgrades includes more than just adding a wall to the building’s 99 studio units.

Planned improvements range from primarily cosmetic to functional to infrastructure-related. Each unit will get a fresh paint job and new flooring, for instance. Going up with the new walls will be ductless mini split units to provide heating and air conditioning. There will also be new windows and sliding glass doors, improved lighting, shower stalls with molded seating to replace aged bathtubs. The bathrooms, in fact, will be entirely gutted, Rockovich said, with vanities replacing the wall-mounted sinks.

The improvements extend beyond individual units as well, extending to the building’s plumbing, electrical, fire alarm and ventilation systems. Among the many details are tiny things, like the addition of a heat lamp in the bathrooms, and small but significant additions, such as an electrical outlet in each unit that is connected to the building’s backup generator — particularly useful for tenants who rely on oxygen systems or other medical devices. Wall-mounted emergency alert systems that require residents to be able to reach and pull the device’s cord will be replaced by overhead HALO smart sensors that detect smoke and certain types of sound.

“They can just basically call for help and it will be tied into an emergency center so that help can then come to them,” Rockovich said. “They don’t have to worry about getting next to the cord and pulling the bell.”

For Youngblood, the improvements related to accessibility were especially important.

“Those have been needed for a long time,” he said.

Current unit layouts don’t always allow space to easily maneuver wheelchairs, he added.

The renovation includes plans to combine 24 existing units into 12 new accessible units. The building will drop from 132 units to 120, but Youngblood said the larger spaces for handicapped residents were badly needed.

While the outcome of the renovations is appealing, getting there won’t be easy: It involves moving each tenant from one unit to another vacant unit in a different part of the building as each vertical stack of apartments comes under construction. As tenants have moved out over past months, their vacated apartments have been held vacant in order to have enough empty apartments to move tenants into when it’s time to start construction.

The costs of packing and moving each apartment, and of transferring services such as phone and cable, will be borne by the authority, but even so residents are concerned about being displaced from the units they’re used to, according to Jon Ketcham, the authority’s director of housing management.

“They’re nervous,” he said. “Change is hard.”

Rockovich said the temporary displacement is expected to last about four months. The authority offices, located on the building’s ground floor, will be relocated to William Gill Commons on Walker Drive for about a year as work at Holland Towers continues. Rockovich said staff will maintain a presence on site during that time, but the office space will be undergoing renovation as well.

A call for bids on the project is expected to go out soon, she added. The authority’s capital budget has approximately $3.7 million set aside for the work, which will be supplemented by a 2023 grant award of just over $1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees public housing agencies.

“I’m ecstatic that we got that much,” Rockovich said after informing board members of the grant at the authority’s meeting last week.

The available funding is not expected to cover renovations for the entire building, however. Depending on the bids received, the plan is to first do half of the building and then continue with one remaining vertical stack at a time as additional annual grant funds become available from HUD.

And the work won’t stop there, according to Ketcham. Once the apartments have been completed, the building’s common areas will be rehabilitated as well. But the common areas are receiving attention even before that happens: Staff members are working on converting a common area on one floor into a library space, while a similar area on the seventh floor is being converted to an office-and-meeting space for the building’s recently reconstituted Resident Council.

After significant tension over the past two years as tenants grew frustrated with bedbug infestations and described strained relations with management, Rockovich pointed to a new agreement with the Resident Council and the imminent renovations as reason to be “very positive” about the facility’s future.