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CT Construction Digest Friday August 26, 2022

Middletown riverfront redevelopment project leader to be chosen

Cassandra Day

MIDDLETOWN — The city is close to announcing the individual or entity chosen to lead the redevelopment of the former arcade garage site and nearby properties downtown, a critical component of the ambitious riverfront revitalization project expected to be realized within the next decade.

After launching a request for proposals two years ago, the city in June was poised to examine five applications from developers with ideas for reusing three plots near the riverfront — an area considered a “cornerstone for redevelopment.”

The city received two applications from its initial RFP two years ago. However, one deal fell through and the other proposal was deemed unsuitable, former economic development coordinator Thomas Marano has said. One proposed a mixed-use complex with apartments, retail, offices and more, he said at the time.

The chosen developer would purchase/develop a combined 3.5-acre parcel at 60 Dingwall Drive, two adjacent sites, including the parking lot of 222 Main St. behind the police station; and 195 deKoven Drive, owned by Attention To Detail. The developer would have to negotiate with the latter on a purchase price.

“We’re very excited about the level of interest and talent that has come out from the development community,” Mayor Ben Florsheim said at this week’s Downtown Business District meeting.

The arcade’s lower level was closed in December 2013 due to crumbling concrete and other hazards. The 50-year-old garage had been experiencing damage from crumbling concrete for years, and posed a safety risk. Afterward, the entire structure was blocked off.

It finally was razed and temporarily replaced with a surface lot near the rear of the police station on Main Street.

Florsheim Wednesday said a meeting was set to occur with the developer later in the week.

The selection panel has interviewed and re-interviewed candidates whose proposals were considered, the mayor added.

He, Interim Director of Economic and Community Development Bobby Knoll Peterson, Acting Chief of Staff Alice Diaz, Director of Land Use Marek Kozikowski, Middlesex County Chamber of President Larry McHugh, Deputy Mayor Vincent Loffredo and Council Minority Leader Phil Pessina, who is on the Economic Development Commission, will make the recommendation.

“We want to establish working relationship guidelines with the developer we feel strongly about,” as well as ask some follow-up questions, Florsheim explained.

“We don’t want to make a final selection until we have made sure we’re all on the same page about what the time frames are going to be, what the working relationship is going to look like,” he added.

The city has set aside bonding money approved by voters in 2020, as well as federal funds. “That has been a long process, but I feel pretty good about the project,” Florsheim said.

Additional parking will soon be available in the North End. Some 40 parking spaces will be added downtown at a one-acre, combined lot owned by the city at 7 and 31 Rapallo Ave. A small building on the parcel is expected to be demolished.

Once that is gone, the lot would help alleviate what officials have described as a “severe” shortage of parking for shops, restaurants, recreation areas and other locations downtown.

“It will help to depressurize parking a little bit, especially as we move toward the construction of that garage,” Florsheim said.

He anticipated a public announcement would be made over the next two weeks or so, paving the way for work on the site to begin by late summer 2023.

Julia Bergman

Bob Stefanowski, the Republican candidate for governor, has spent months campaigning on issues that GOP candidates across the country see as weak spots for Democrats: inflation, crime, parental choice.

But as his campaign heads into the home stretch before the November election, with new faces and more aggressive tactics, Stefanowski is elevating another talking point that he brought up at his first press conference after receiving the GOP nomination: corruption in Connecticut. Stefanowski has claimed that major corruption has happened under Lamont’s watch, calling it as big of a burden, if not more, on taxpayers as any other tax — even coining the phrase” corruption tax.”

“You’re going to hear a lot about it between now and November: the corruption tax,” Stefanowski said. “Remember that name, Governor Lamont’s corruption tax.”

On Thursday, Stefanowski, flanked by Republican state lawmakers, including his running mate, Rep. Laura Devlin, of Fairfield, and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, of Stratford, convened a press conference in downtown New London to highlight one of the poster childs for his claims: the costly overhaul of the State Pier happening just across the Thames River that is now under federal investigation. At times, the press conference was punctuated by the sounds of pile drivers in the distance — a sign of the active construction site at the pier.

“What better example of a corruption tax than this,” Stefanowski said as he walked toward two cardboard rectangle bars, one green and one red, next to the podium where he was speaking— the green bar showed an early estimate for the project, $93 million, and the red bar indicated the current cost projection: $242 million.

The project is the subject of a sprawling federal investigation that includes the Connecticut Port Authority, the quasi-public state agency the oversees the pier. The port authority has come under fire for financial mismanagement and lack of oversight. The Office of State Ethics announced last month that a New York-based maritime consultant and financier has agreed to pay a $10,000 penalty for gifts the company made to port authority employees and a board member in 2017 and 2019.

But no criminal charges have been filed in the probes of State Pier and other construction projects overseen by Lamont’s former deputy budget director, Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, which were made public in February, unlike another case of corruption Stefanowski frequently underscores: the alleged fraud scheme by West Haven officials involving federal pandemic money. That probe has resulted in criminal charges and guilty pleas.

“Everybody sat down, they said it’s going to be $93 million. Now it’s $150 million higher. Anybody want to guess who picks up that over?” Stefanowski asked Thursday, eventually answering his own question: the state’s taxpayers. That $150 million would’ve been better spent on improving education or hiring more state troopers, he said.

At one point, Stefanowski, 60, suggested that the scandals plaguing the Lamont administration were worse than what occurred during the John G. Rowland administration. The former Republican governor served time in federal prison over a bid-rigging conspiracy.

“There's been more corruption allegations in this administration - I turned 60 this year - than I've ever seen,” Stefanowski said.

While Stefanowski was in New London, Lamont was in Hartford to announce that about 200,000 Connecticut families would soon be receiving a new state child tax rebate in the mail. Asked by reporters after the news conference to respond to Stefanowki’s claims of corruption and mismanagement in his administration, Lamont brushed off the attack.

“He’s a CFO who likes to make up numbers,” he said. “There’s no truth to that.”

The governor instead highlighted State Pier, which is being renovated to support the burgeoning offshore wind industry, as one of the most-important investments the state has made in recent history.

“I think you’re going to see New London, which was once one of the most-robust ports in the country, come back to its former glory and State Pier is a big part of that,” Lamont said. “So, if he’s negative on State Pier, I’m not.”

Stefanowski continues to paint Lamont as a governor “in over his head,” incapable of managing big deals, juxtaposing those claims with his corporate background. Asked how his approach to the cost overruns and other issues plaguing the project would’ve differed from Lamont’s, Stefanowski said: “I’d sit down with Ørsted and say we’ve got to fundamentally restructure. I did it all the time. In the corporate world.”

Danish energy company Ørsted has partnered with Eversource to bring offshore wind power to Connecticut and Rhode Island. If he was governor, Stefanowski said he would’ve sat down with representatives from the two companies and told them they would be responsible for picking up “100 percent of the mistake,” referring to the cost overruns, “because you gave us the estimate.”

“That’s the difference between a business leader and a guy who ran a small cable company who could care less about the taxpayers of Connecticut,” Stefanowski charged.

West Haven officials call for reality check on The Haven: ‘They are leaving’

Brian Zahn

WEST HAVEN — After years of false starts and delays, local officials have confirmed they believe what frustrated residents have speculated for a while: The Haven upscale outlet mall is not happening.

Following a May meeting with developer Simon Group, two members of the city’s delegation to the General Assembly told the Register that they believed the development — a $200 million, 347,826-square-foot, high-end mall on the waterfront — had no future.

Mayor Nancy Rossi said at the time that the city would be “aggressive” in nudging along the development, including threats of blight fines that were expected to cost the developer $3,600 per day. A month later, she presented a five-year plan to the Municipal Accountability Review Board that projected the city would see a $10 million increase to its grand list in the 2026 fiscal year because of The Haven development.

Simon Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Although state Reps. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, and Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven, have shared their belief that the mall project will not come to pass, Rossi said she has not reached that conclusion.

“I don’t know what’s going to go there. There are hypotheses, but I just want it knocked down,” Rossi said.

Rossi said her top priority is seeing forward movement instead of stagnation. Although developers filled out permit paperwork to demolish some of the buildings on the site, she said the fee has not been paid. Until then, she said, no structure will be demolished.

“I used to do collections. Do you know how many times I’ve heard the check is in the mail?” she said.

A number of rotted, blighted structures have sat behind a chain-link fence across from First Avenue for years now, leading to complaints from neighbors who say they live across from an eyesore. The presence of abandoned structures has made the site attractive to public safety agencies conducting drills — neighbors were startled by an unannounced FBI drill last month that created four loud explosions on a weekday morning.

Rossi said that blight fines are being issued and a letter was sent to the Board of Police Commissioners requesting a vote to reopen Water Street.

Rossi said she also is now unsure how much the property will add to the city’s grand list by 2026.

“If we get a viable project, whatever that project is, whether it’s a mall or a conference center or mixed-use or a ballfield, then we’ll be able to have a real assessment,” she said. “We can’t make any assumptions right now.”

Councilwoman Sarah Ackbarali, D-3, whose district includes the development, said she had been requesting updates and was frustrated to not receive them.

“I want to apologize to all of my constituents and to those that have been and continue to be affected by the area that we have long called ‘The Haven.’ This total lack of transparency regarding the status of the property and the investors current intentions is completely unacceptable,” Ackbarali said in a statement. “What is even more troublesome to me is that I was only made aware of this only hours before it’s press release despite months of requesting weekly updates with little to no response in return. I am here not only as your 3rd district Councilwoman, but as a disappointed resident as well. I am demanding full transparency from this point on. The people of West Haven deserve better and I intend to do everything in my power to continue to fight for them. Again, I extend my deepest apologies and hope that we can all move forward in a much more positive direction.”

Borer said she believes any denial that The Haven project has expired is an attempt to “sugarcoat” the reality.

“You can’t sugarcoat this: they are leaving. They’re not stalled. They’re not delayed. They’re not,” she said. “And I think we all need to move forward and put them in our rearview mirror aggressively.”

Other local officials, who also believe the promise of a mall has expired, said they anticipate the area’s future.

“I think this gives us a great opportunity to plan for something that would benefit everyone and include constituents in plans and proposals,” said state Rep. Trenee McGee, D-West Haven, in a statement.

City Council President Peter Massaro, D-6, said the parcel is privately owned and it will “probably” be placed on the market for sale.

Christine Gallo, chairwoman of the city’s Economic Development Commission, said she would want the city to “use every carrot and stick and every pot of honey and jar of vinegar at our disposal” to get Simon to list the property.

“I feel like the city is stalling until they have something else to show for it. But absolutely nothing is going to happen, period, case closed. The property has to be sold,” she said.

Gallo said her preference would be for a luxury hotel along the water. The city passed on an offer from a developer to purchase 6 Rock St. to develop a hotel, opting instead to lease the city-owned property to New England Brewing Co. for a brewery and taproom along the shoreline.

“This would fill a big niche,” she said. “I think it’s an idea and that’s the kind of thing that should go in there: it’s to me a perfect location for it. I think it would be one of a kind.”

Ed O’Brien, a former mayor whose four years in office were marked by efforts to advance the project, said he was “saddened” to learn that many local officials no longer believe the project will come to pass.

“I hope the administration and developers can work together to attract a larger development that will bring jobs, tax revenue, and beautify our city,” he said in a statement.

Roughly one year ago, members of the state delegation successfully advocated for the area to receive a special tax district designation — such a designation creates favorable borrowing conditions for the owner of the property. The city drafted an interlocal agreement months ago that the developer has not signed.

Borer said she was unclear as to whether the designation would transfer to a new owner, but built in to that legislative designation is that any new development on that land would be required to go through the city’s regulatory boards and commissions.

“There’s no opportunity for a bait and switch,” she said. “Whoever they sell it to will have to fit within our municipal development plan.”

The city offered roughly $1.3 million of a grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to Simon to incentivize development, according to Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan. Tiernan said the city would consider issuing a lien on the property and foreclosing if the grant is not refunded.

“It’s a pretty simple process to get the money back if we have to,” he said.

Rossi said the city would like to receive a refund, but her top priority is that The Haven pay to demolish buildings on the site.

“I’m not going to focus on any other plans until they prove they have some skin in the game,” she said.

$166M school project headed to referendum in Cheshire

Peter Prohaska

CHESHIRE — A long-awaited $166 million school project is headed to referendum this November.

At a special meeting of the Town Council Tuesday night, a resolution to send the $166.6 million school modernization project to the voters passed unanimously.

Now, it will be up to residents to decide whether the plan moves from concept to reality.

Cheshire public school officials in attendance clapped enthusiastically as the vote was made, signaling that the long grind toward the proposed project has finally reached an important milestone. If the referendum is approved by voters, two new schools are slated for construction: One will be an entirely new elementary school to be built on a town-owned parcel off Marion and Jarvis Roads. The other will be a redesigned and rebuilt Norton School at the current location off North Brooksvale Road. Darcey and Chapman schools will be closed and ownership will revert to the town. Costs to taxpayers will, however, be significant.

This is the first phase of what officials hope to be a multi-year effort that will address each school in the district. Future projects have yet to be finalized.

Just one citizen, Ray Ilnicki, spoke at the meeting. He commended the council for its hard work to better the schools, dating all the way back to 2010, but also questioned members about future costs and the quality of information available to voters.

“You ought to be transparent with the public,” he said, suggesting that many in town are not familiar with the issue. Council Chairman Tim Slocum replied at length, saying “every member of this council, everyone who’s worked on this project is trying to be as transparent as we possibly can.”

Because the referendum will appear on the ballot this November, public officials said they will no longer offer public advocacy for the project, per Connecticut state elections law and adhering to the advice of Town Attorney Jeffrey Donofrio. However, each member spoke passionately in favor of the project during the meeting.

Councilor Don Walsh pointed out that the proposed spending represents the largest expenditure in the town’s history, while tracing the origins of this process back 17 years.

“People have said, the council has kicked the can down the road so many times,” Walsh said. “We’re not kicking it down any more. We’re here. This is the opportunity for this town. We have vetted just about every scenario we possibly could.”

“We sat here in a candidate’s forum and to a person we all agreed that this referendum that we’re looking at tonight was the most important thing that we were facing as a Council, as a town, and certainly as a Board of Education,” Councilor Peter Talbot added. “We all supported it. We didn’t always agree on how we were going to get there but now that we’re here we are absolutely lock-step with this passing.”

“If we do not do this now, it will be too many years until we can address the issue again,” opined Councilor Sylvia Nichols.

Other proponents pointed to state funding as a key reason to support it in November.

“This is the right time to do this. We are receiving 50% reimbursement. If we don’t take advantage of this now, we’re not going to do it,” said Councilor Sandra Pavano. “We’re never going to get the opportunity for the finances that we have now. We do not want to see our students in trailers at the schools.”

Councilor John Milone mentioned that “it’s important for townspeople to understand that if they’re concerned about details of the project, the projects have not been fully designed yet. As with any development within the community, it will go through a regulatory process. There will be plenty of opportunity to consider things like traffic impact and architecture, and impact on wetlands, just like any other development. So don’t feel that if you vote for this you won’t have opportunity for input into the remainder of the project.”

Councilor David Veleber pointed out that given the “current state of our schools and potential enrollment projections, this is designed to address those issues in a way that we address the needs of the system, not necessarily the wants of the system. I know it’s expensive but this is a choice that we’re going to be faced with for both the improvement of our school system and the improvement of our town going forward.”

Councilor David Borowy made the economic argument that, not only have some capital items been deferred to make the plan more reasonable, but that he feels better schools will increase home values and resale values. He also made a more personal plea. “When my grandparents moved here in the 1930s, they were lucky that people had good schools before that. When my parents in the 1960s moved here, they also had good schools and the people before them had voted for them. And in the 1990s when I was on the council we voted on this. It seems every generation there’s an opportunity to do this and it’s time.”

Councilor Jim Jinks said “it’s been 50 years since we built a school, the newest one (was built in) 1971 and our other schools are much older. We need to continue to invest in our greatest resource which is our schools and our students and our families.”

Slocum finished out the council speeches, urging Cheshire residents to “seek out the information that’s going to make you better informed. Feel free to call any one of us. We want your questions, we want you to be engaged. It’s a heavy lift for every taxpayer in town, but it’s an uplifting lift. It’s going to upgrade and uplift our community.”

Frontier pays $5M fine for improper excavations

Andrew Larson

Stamford-based Frontier Communications has paid a $5 million fine and will not challenge a notice of violation issued by the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority last month alleging that the company jeopardized public safety through “reckless and inappropriate underground installations” of fiber optic cable.

An attorney for Frontier, Timothy Jensen, sent a letter to PURA Wednesday that said the company would not request a hearing regarding the fine. He enclosed a $5 million check payable to the state treasurer.

Frontier said its payment was “not a waiver of its right to challenge any other decision.”

On July 27, PURA cited Frontier for safety violations and ordered it to cease and desist its practice of using improper trenchless excavation methods.

The authority accused Frontier and its contractors of laying fiber optic cables in the public right-of-way using inappropriate design and construction standards, causing damage to underground natural gas and electric distribution facilities. 

PURA’s examination found that Frontier failed to expose facilities being crossed in Ansonia, Enfield, Middletown, Wallingford, Meriden, Waterford and Stratford.

PURA has levied civil penalties ranging from thousands of dollars to as much as $30 million against Eversource — the maximum allowed by the state — in a decision last year. 

Bridgeport seeks $8.1M to redevelop blighted downtown property

BRIDGEPORT — As officials negotiate with a local developer to revive a key piece of blighted land on the border of downtown and the East End, adjacent to the Steelpointe peninsula, they need $8.1 million in state aid to prepare the site for new construction.

The property is the former AGI Rubber Co. at 141 Stratford Ave., in recent years the location of some large fires.

Last December developer Anthony Stewart, who rebuilt the Newfield library in the East End and is constructing a retail plaza nearby, confirmed he was in talks with Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration to build an IHOP restaurant and apartments on the municipally-owned AGI land.

But recently William Coleman, deputy director of economic development, told City Council members Bridgeport applied for significant financial assistance from the state’s newly-established Community Investment Fund to move the project forward. The legislature set aside that pot of money — $875 million spread out over five years — in 2021.

Coleman said that $8.1 million breaks down as follows: $1.5 million to complete the environmental cleanup; $3 million to raise the land, which borders the Pequonnock River, so it will not flood and to build a seawall there; and $3.6 million to construct a public access way along the water.

“All this is trying to do is give us a workable site,” Stewart said in an interview Wednesday.

Stewart said his proposal for the IHOP and a 10-story building with 200 market-rate and affordably-priced units has not changed over the last few months, though he declined to offer a cost estimate for construction.

“A lot of it depends on what the city is able to do to help make it a buildable site,” he said.

Asked what happens if the state dollars do not come through, or if only some of Bridgeport’s $8.1 million ask is granted, Stewart said he could still get something accomplished.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We just have to modify our plans,” he said.

Meanwhile Coleman has declined to confirm Stewart is the developer his department is negotiating with. When that topic was broached during his meeting last week with council members, Coleman said, “There’s conversation in the community, generally, and I can’t stop that.”

But, he argued, such details will eventually be revealed to the council because that legislative body will ultimately have to approve any redevelopment deal for the AGI acreage.

“We think you will like it,” Coleman said.

He noted how some on the council have called for more affordable housing, particularly following members’ vote earlier this year to approve a 12-year tax break to build up to 1,500 high end apartments at the nearby Steelpointe site.

Located further along Stratford Avenue from the AGI land, Steelpointe over the last several years has been revitalized by Robert Christoph Sr. and Robert Christoph Jr. and is home to a Bass Pro Shops, a Starbucks coffee shop, a Chipotle Mexican restaurant, the Boca oyster bar and a new marina. Besides the housing the Christophs have also said they want to build a hotel.

With the recent closure of the downtown Holiday Inn, Stewart said some have urged him to also consider incorporating a hotel into his plans for the AGI property. But, he said, he wants to stick with housing and that is also what the Ganim administration wants.

“They like housing. Bridgeport needs more housing, especially nice housing,” Stewart said. “It’s right by the train station, the bus station. The (Long Island Sound) ferry’s down the street. That’s a great location. I love that site. I think it would be a good commuter site.”

City Councilwoman Maria Valle represents the East End and is also a co-chair of the legislative body’s economic development committee. In an interview Wednesday she emphasized the importance of improving the AGI location.

“It’s gonna bring more individuals to the area and it won’t be an eyesore,” she said. “You have the beautiful Steelpointe and, across the street, this site.”