Clark House residents concerned over air quality, privacy during construction

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

AMHERST — An ongoing project to modernize the Clark House, a downtown property with 100 affordable apartments, is raising concerns from tenants about how the air quality in the building is being impacted by the construction and whether their rights to privacy are being compromised by workers.

“People are stressed out,” said Christina Rose, a Clark House tenant for the past three years who previously lived at the 22 Lessey St. property from 2000 to 2008.

Rose, one of four tenants who have been staying at a Hadley hotel for the duration of the work, expresses sympathy for those who remain at Clark House.

“We should all have been out of the building. It’s like a construction site,” Rose said.

Joan Mason, who has made her home at Clark House for the past 20 years but is also at a Hadley hotel, said her concerns are not only dust and debris, which affects her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but schedules that cause workers to enter apartments, sometimes when residents are just getting up, and little, if any, advance notification of when the work will take place.

“What really stirs people up is workmen can come in at any time without notice,” Mason said.

The project began last November as part of $15.8 million in improvements being financed by the quasi-public agency Mass Housing.

When Redwood Housing Partners of Burlingame, California, purchased the building, it agreed to extend the federal Section 8 housing assistance payment contract on all 100 apartments and make extensive improvements to the five-story building, which was built in 1980. This included replacing all domestic hot and cold water piping, improving accessibility, upgrading the community room, modernizing elevators and replacing sliding glass doors and windows.

WinnResidential of Boston is in charge of managing the property that has 81 apartments designated affordable for elderly residents, with 19 that are affordable units for families and disabled residents.

Ed Cafasso, a spokesman for Clark House, said WinnResidential sympathizes with Clark House residents and appreciates their patience, adding renovations underway in the property’s south tower, have been inconvenient and disruptive at times, including removing sections of dry wall and drop ceilings to get to work areas.

“These renovations are necessary and unavoidable,” Cafasso said. “The building systems need to be modernized so that they continue to serve residents without interruption for decades to come.”

Air handling equipment is being used to keep fresh air moving, he said.

“We are doing our best to keep residents informed and to act as a liaison with the property owner, Redwood Housing Partners,” Cafasso said. “We will continue to try to keep the inconveniences to a minimum.”

Frustrated with the project and what they see as a lack of response from the property owner and manager, tenants are organizing meetings, including one held Monday attended by State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

As a result of that meeting, Cafasso said Redwood has promised to hire a full-time clerk of the works to oversee the on-site construction, as well as asking security staff and contractors to be more respectful of residents when accessing their apartments, providing a hospitality suite to those residents who need to leave their apartment during work in their unit and having clearer communication about the work schedule.

Rose said all tenants were informed that construction would be commencing and were given a schedule of how the work would proceed. Still, she said it has been more intrusive than anyone envisioned when it began. “The way they did it has been really disturbing,” Rose said.

She characterized the work as not being nearly as organized as she expected, possibly because it can’t be done one floor at a time. Instead, work is being done on all floors simultaneously.

“It’s really been haphazard,” Rose said.

This was indicated in a letter sent last week about the “current rehab schedule,” which outlined unforeseen complications that would postpone completion in that part of the building until Feb. 26.

The letter reads: “We are attempting to get all of your apartment open walls and plumbing complete in full over the next two weeks. We are very sorry for any inconvenience this may or has caused, and thank you for all of your patience during this very difficult rehab.”

Mason said she already brought complaints to the health and inspections departments after debris, including fiberglass remnants, was found on the carpets, and the generally filthy and “appalling conditions,” as she put it, were observed.

Building Commissioner Robert Morra said when his office received a complaint, inspectors examined the work and made recommendations to cut down on the dust and debris

“In response, the contractor began using air purifiers, fans and filters, and improved protection and clean-up procedures,” Morra said.

Mason said she appreciates that the purifiers are in place. “That’s helped out immensely,” Mason said.

Morra notes management was responsive by booking the hotel rooms, and that no other concerns have been brought to his office.

Cafasso said the work in the south tower will wrap up in early March, and the work in the north tower will begin shortly after that, with another four months to complete.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.