BRATTLEBORO—Melrose Terrace residents Heather Lane and JoAnn Williams walk through a light blanket of new snow. The friends point to their favorite places in the 52-year-old housing complex.
In the summer, this is the spot in the Whetstone Brook where they soaked their feet in the water. And this walkway, the friends say, is best for a pretty walk around the property. The women open their apartments. The floor plan of each Melrose apartment is unique, they say. Williams’ petite black cat scampers onto the couch for a head scratch.
The women love living at Melrose. They don’t know where they will live once Melrose is shuttered, but they say they won’t move to Red Clover Commons.
Red Clover is the Brattleboro Housing Partnership’s newest housing complex located near Exit 1. The Housing Partnership constructed the complex to replace Melrose Terrace.
Over the next two years, the Housing Partnership will relocate Melrose residents and then raze the buildings, returning the area to green space.
Why? Because Melrose Terrace was built in the floodway of the Whetstone Brook. Federal regulations prohibit the housing of vulnerable populations — like Melrose’s elderly and disabled adults — in flood zones.
A lot to love
More Melrose residents gather in the common room located at the heart of the small community. The residents’ voices spill across the large table as multiple conversations zing back and forth.
Melrose houses 80 residents. They describe what they love about Melrose: the access to the outside, the quiet neighborhood, having a front and back door, living in single-story buildings, their sense of ownership of the complex, and the community gatherings.
Photo albums sit open on the table. Pictures from the 1970s to the present line the albums’ pages: holiday suppers, weddings, grandchildrens’ graduation parties, birthday celebrations, and bingo nights.
Resident Marie “Angie” Rabideau has called Melrose home for 33 years.
“I’m scared,” Rabideau said. “It’s going to be different … a little better maybe?”
“I’ve been here a long time, it’s been good to me,” she added.
The conversation shifts toward community events at Melrose. Rabideau and her friends belonged to a line dance group called the Melrose Dancers. The troupe had 10 dances in its repertoire and performed at local nursing homes.
“Why did we stop?” asked a woman identified as Polly.
“We all got older,” Rabideau laughed.
“Things just didn’t work anymore,” Dot Crawford said.
Crawford is in her 90s and has lived at Melrose for 16 years. She is investigating assisted living facilities, rather than moving to Red Clover.
“At my age it’s not good to make two changes,” Crawford said.
Williams said, “It’s harder to put a final period on [leaving]. There’s a lot of mixed feelings.”
Lane added, “[Red Clover] will be a different type of living.”
Home or housing?
The hard paradox is that while the residents call Melrose “home,” the property exists under the federal, state, and local regulatory framework of public housing.
And when federal, state, and local regulators say a public housing property must close, it closes.
In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded the complex. According to the Housing Partnership, Irene affected all 80 residents. Of these, 60 residents experienced mild flood damage as 40 apartments were flooded. The flood waters severely damaged five buildings, displacing 26 residents for months while the Housing Partnership made repairs.
Brattleboro Housing Partnership Executive Director Christine Hart struck a deal with regulators. The deal allowed the partnership to rehabilitate Melrose and temporarily rehouse its residents. The partnership could stay at Melrose on the condition that it close Melrose and build replacement housing within three to five years.
Residents gathered in the common room agreed that Irene changed their community.
For example, some long-term residents displaced by Irene chose not to return after the storm, the gathered residents said.
“Irene was a big wake-up call for a lot of people,” said Karen Ortlieb, a resident of six years. “That is a day a lot of us aren’t going to forget.”
The first group of residents are moving to Red Clover, a brand new, 55-unit, three-story, $14 million complex on Fairground Road. The partnership is vetting property for its next housing project, Hart said. Once property #2 is completed, the remaining Melrose residents will move.
Some of the residents still question why Melrose must close. They asked why the property couldn’t be made safe.
Hart said that federal flood and disaster related regulations strictly limit the amount of public funds the partnership can access because of Melrose’s location. Even if an engineering solution were possible, Hart said funding such a project would be near impossible.
Hart spreads the floor plans for Red Clover across a table in her office.
The last time most residents saw their apartments, the spaces had joists for walls, Hart said.
“It’s a bit of a leap of faith for them,” she said.
She believes Red Clover is a beautiful building and that the residents will eventually call it home. In the meantime, moving residents has proved a logistical brain tease. Hart said she appreciates the residents’ patience and understanding. Some of the finishing construction work is ongoing, she said.
A lot of sound dampening went in Red Clover, Hart said. She also worked with the architects on details to help residents age in place. For example, outside every apartment door is a place to store and charge a scooter or electric wheelchair.
Hart said the construction crew created green space and walking paths, though she acknowledged it wasn’t as much as at Melrose.
Every floor has a lounge area and trash chutes, Hart said. There are a lot of windows for natural light. For example, Hart said, near the kitchen sink in most apartments the contractor has installed a window. This window allows the resident to look across the hallway and out an exterior window.
She expects an open house next year, after residents have settled in.
“Eventually all of Melrose should be taken down,” Hart said.
Returning Melrose to green space and passive recreation is the best option for the site, Hart said.
Melrose was “flood prone since the day it opened,” Hart said. Should a second storm like Irene hit Brattleboro, the green space will act as a flood plain to slow the flood waters.
The dismantling of Melrose will happen in stages. First, the four buildings closest to the Whetstone will come down and the river bed will be widened, Hart said. The housing partnership has applied for a state grant, aimed at preventing natural disasters, to pay for the work. Once Melrose is empty, the final buildings, including the partnership’s offices, will be torn down, Hart said. She hopes this will all happen within one to two years.
Hart noted that before Irene, the Melrose property was valued at $4 million. After the storm, the appraisal dropped to $180,000.
“That’s the value of 11 buildings and 8.2 acres of land — that’s what the storm did,” Hart said.
In the common room, the residents’ conversation shifts again. This time to Red Clover. Most of the residents present are moving in November or early December. They discuss why they picked their apartment, the size of the bathroom, and the view from their windows.
Williams believes there will never be another place as special as Melrose.
Lane said she doesn’t want to leave and she is one of 25 people staying at Melrose until “Phase 2.”
“Now we set off for the next big adventure,” Ortlieb said.
“It’s how you look at it really,” Ortlieb continued. “Yes, we’re moving, but we’re going to know our neighbors.”
Resident Lena Fraga has lived in three different apartments in Melrose over 30 years.
“I love it here,” Fraga said.
When asked if she felt sad to be leaving, Fraga laughed.
“No,” she said. “I love change. I’ve never lived in a place where nobody [else has] lived.”