Abandoned Hospitals for the Mentally Ill Morph Into Housing

From The New York Times
By Katie Zezima
January 15, 2006

Abandoned Hospitals for the Mentally Ill Morph Into Housing FOR 150 years or so, the brick buildings of the Northampton State Hospital have loomed large over this western Massachusetts city. At its peak, the hospital housed 2,400 people with mental illnesses.

Ten years ago, the state closed the hospital, which abuts Smith College, and the 70 buildings were left empty. Now, the 126-acre property, within walking distance of the downtown, is shedding its ghosts and being transformed into a mixed-use development.

The first residents moved into new homes on an outlying part of the property last year. Two buildings were converted into 35 town houses and apartments that will be rented in the next few months, and one more building will probably be refurbished. The other buildings will be replaced with houses, office buildings and industrial space, according to Thomas Kegelman, a project manager at Community Builders, the developer.

When it is finished, there will be 207 housing units. “It is a model of how to develop new housing with a compact footprint,” said Northampton’s mayor, Claire Higgins.

The same scene is playing nationwide, as municipalities and developers look for ways to grow in a confined space, while revitalizing shuttered mental hospitals. Although there is sometimes controversy about demolishing the old buildings, the sites have no problem attracting developers or buyers.

The Benjamin Development Company in Garden City, N.Y., bought the 850-acre Harlem Valley Psychiatric Hospital in Dover, N.Y., in Dutchess County, north of New York City, for $4.5 million, and plans to build what amounts to a new town, with 1,200 residential units, retail and office space and a nine-hole golf course. The developers say they hope the nearby Harlem Valley-Wingdale Metro-North Railroad station will attract buyers who commute to Manhattan.

The Villebois, a community of 2,400 residences in Wilsonville, Ore., built on the old Dammasch State Hospital grounds, has a waiting list, as does the Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, Mich., a luxury town house development on the site of the former Traverse City State Hospital.

Meanwhile, prices for three-bedroom homes at the Rivermark in Santa Clara, Calif., on the former grounds of Agnews State Hospital, have increased to about $920,000, from about $650,000 in 2002, residents say. Sun Microsystems also built its headquarters on a parcel there.

While the projects bring benefits, they are often hard to develop. The sites are usually neglected and have rotting buildings filled with asbestos and lead paint. Then there are human hurdles: getting buyers to overcome any stigmas about the sites, dealing with the concerns of former patients and employees who have a personal connection to the land, and considering the objections of preservationists who are worried about the fate of historic buildings.

Overcoming the mental hospital stigma was difficult for Linda Jones, 39, who coordinates client services for a diversity training firm and grew up not far from a mental institution, Boston State Hospital. “Everyone in the neighborhood just considered it a place where the mentally ill went, and the rest of us just stayed away,” Ms. Jones said.

It’s no surprise that Ms. Jones, who has spent years trying to buy a home, was skeptical after hearing that part of the hospital was being developed into market-rate and low-income housing. But after attending community meetings and a home buyers’ class offered by the developer, Ms. Jones, who rents a one-bedroom apartment nearby, decided to move into the new community. She says she hopes to get a market-rate home for about $250,000.

Rebecca Macauley, a medical secretary who spent about five years as a patient living at Northampton State Hospital during the 1980’s and later worked as a security guard there, is glad to see the property developed. Ms. Macauley says the transformation reflects the progress made in treating patients with mental illness, who now tend to get help in smaller settings. “We’re now treating people like normal human beings, and in a back-door kind of way this is what the redevelopment is saying,” she said.

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