By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
A celebratory groundbreaking ceremony was shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic, but construction has begun on a $6.8 million affordable housing project for senior citizens who are now living in a flood-prone area of Ocean City.
In the planning stages for about five years, the 32-unit Speitel Commons development is being built by the Ocean City Housing Authority next to the agency’s Bayview Manor housing complex at Sixth Street and West Avenue.
City Councilman Bob Barr, who also serves as chairman of the housing authority’s board, called the project “monumental.”
Senior citizens who now live in the authority’s flood-prone Pecks Beach Village housing complex on Fourth Street will be moved over to the new project when it is completed in 2021.
Barr noted in an interview Tuesday that the seniors will no longer have to worry about getting stuck in the flooding that occurs at Pecks Beach Village not only during strong storms, but even when there is just heavy rain.
“They were, quite simply, in the worst location on the island,” Barr said of the flooding at Pecks Beach Village.
“But those kinds of things will be gone. The worry won’t be there,” he continued. “Now they’ll be safer, they’ll be dry and they’ll be in a brand new building.”
Barr and other members of the housing authority emphasized the importance of the project Tuesday during their monthly board meeting, which was held by teleconference to comply with social distancing guidelines during the pandemic.
The project is named in honor of the late Edmond C. Speitel Sr., a housing authority commissioner. Speitel, who was chairman of the authority’s finance and redevelopment committees, helped to oversee the new project from the conceptual phase.
“This was his vision, his dream, his baby,” Barr said of Speitel in the interview. “All throughout the project, what I’ve tried to remind people is, it was his vision. It was important for us to carry it through in the way that he wanted.”
Barr, who thanked Mayor Jay Gillian for his support of the project, said the housing complex reflects the care that Ocean City has for its senior citizens and people who may need a helping hand.
“It’s a picture of what Ocean City is all about. When there is a need, Ocean City comes together,” he said. “That’s what we did after (Hurricane) Sandy and that’s what we’re doing now.”
The senior citizens portion of Pecks Beach Village, located on the north side of Fourth Street, will be torn down when Speitel Commons is completed. The housing authority has set aside $200,000 for demolition work.
Pecks Beach Village also includes affordable housing for low-income families. The 40 family units are located on the south side of Fourth Street. The family units will stay for the time being, although there are longer-range plans to replace them with new housing construction.
Financing for Speitel Commons will come from a combination of funding from Ocean City and the New Jersey Mortgage Finance Agency.
In 2019, City Council approved a $6.6 million bond ordinance to build or rehabilitate affordable housing sites for senior citizens and low-income families. The projects will help Ocean City meet its state-mandated obligation to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing as part of a court settlement in 2018.
The city is expected to contribute more than $2 million toward the Speitel Commons project. The HMFA is providing $4.5 million in funding.
Jacqueline Jones, the housing authority’s executive director, said construction began on May 1 and is expected to take 12 months to complete.
The authority originally had planned to celebrate the start of construction with a formal groundbreaking ceremony on April 4, but the event was called off because of social distancing requirements and the state’s ban on large gatherings during the pandemic.
Jones told the board members during Tuesday’s meeting that no cases of COVID-19 have been reported with any of the residents or staff at the authority’s housing sites.
In comments made during April’s board meeting, Jones said the staff members are taking precautions by wearing masks and gloves and by regularly wiping down high-touch surfaces with disinfectant seven days a week.
Jones said nearly all of the residents are wearing masks when appropriate and are respectful of social distancing guidelines.
“It seems like it’s going OK,” she said.