CT Construction Digest Friday January 20, 2023
Keith M. Phaneuf
Gov. Ned Lamont’s choice for transportation commissioner told legislators Thursday his greatest challenge is finding new professionals to oversee the rebuild of Connecticut’s aging highways, bridges and rail lines.
While a key legislative panel unanimously endorsed the nomination of Garrett Eucalitto of New Haven, the state’s construction industry also threw its support behind the transportation policy veteran, arguing he is best suited to accelerate long-overdue capital projects.
Eucalitto “is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable transportation leaders that I know,” Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, testified before the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee. “He is likely one of the best in the country.”
The association, which represents most major businesses linked to transportation infrastructure work, has been critical of the Department of Transportation’s failure to launch more projects in recent years, despite a huge infusion of funding.
Shortly after winning reelection to a second term, Lamont tapped Eucalitto in November to succeed retiring DOT Commissioner James Giulietti.
But Shubert said Eucalitto, who has two decades of experience in transportation policy and administration — including serving as the DOT’s deputy commissioner since January 2020 — understands the challenges better than anyone else.
Between October 2017 and January 2020, Eucalitto was a transportation program director for the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.
But for five years prior, he worked in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration in the Office of Policy and Management, the chief budget and policy planning agency. And for most of that time, Eucalitto, an undersecretary, oversaw financial issues tied to transportation.
In other words, according to Shubert, Eucalitto understands state fiscal policy as well as the inner workings of the DOT — and knows how to work with the legislature.
“Garrett is the most established administrator of transportation programs in Connecticut,” Shubert said. “He has worked earnestly to attain his status as a respected professional in his agency and across the country.”
Eucalitto said the department is using new outreach strategies to recruit engineers, planners and other professionals from out of state.
“We know we’ve tapped the talent we have here,” he told the committee. “We need to look outside of our boundaries.”
The DOT has slightly fewer than 3,000 employees now, fewer than it had 13 years ago when a legislative investigation concluded it was struggling to get projects done on time and under budget.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, urged Eucalitto on Thursday to pay close attention to the staffing issue, saying legislators would support requests for additional personnel.
Recalling a conversation with a former state transportation commissioner, Looney said the department has been “hollowed out from within” over the past two decades and can’t perform many core duties because of staffing issues.
The new commissioner added that the private industries that support Connecticut’s transportation capital program also need more skilled tradespeople.
“We need to build that pipeline for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Labor leaders also say the department needs more engineers and other professionals if it hopes to rebuild Connecticut’s aging infrastructure at a faster pace.
Despite a huge increase in sales tax receipts dedicated to the state budget’s Special Transportation Fund since 2015, borrowing to support capital projects during Lamont’s first term was largely unchanged from the previous four years.
Connecticut borrowed an average of $744 million per year between 2019 and 2022 to fix its transportation infrastructure. That’s just 2.6% more than the $725 million bonded annually between 2015 and 2018 under Malloy.
The Special Transportation Fund covers the debt payments on that borrowing as well as public transit program costs and DOT operating expenses.
Adding staff, getting more projects underway and accelerating the capital program will become even more crucial in the near future if Connecticut hopes to maximize increased transportation aid from Washington.
“You’re going to be in the middle of a storm,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who co-chairs the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee, told Eucalitto.
The much-touted $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure initiative passed in late 2021 does guarantee $5.4 billion for Connecticut over the next five years for highway, bridge, transit and other projects.
But states also can apply for much more funding, specifically a share of a $12.5 billion Bridge Investment Program and a roughly $16 billion pool for major transportation projects that will provide significant economic impacts.
And Duff said Connecticut is going to want to maximize its share of federal funding, adding that Eucalitto is “an excellent nominee” to lead the transportation department.
Eucalitto’s nomination now heads to the state Senate for final consideration.
Mary E O Leary
NEW HAVEN — For a project that has had its ups and downs over the past 15 years, serious progress was made this week with more residences, retail and now bioscience labs getting approvals for the former Veterans Memorial Coliseum site.
The Coliseum, demolished in 2007 and its 5-acre site used as a parking lot since then, recently saw shovels in the ground as the first component of the "Square 10" development gets underway.
That $76 million plan, labeled phase 1A, was tweaked Wednesday at the City Plan Commission meeting, but its major features of 200 housing units, some 25,000 square feet of public open space and a plaza along a retail laneway remain.
For phase 1B, the commissioners approved 120 apartments that will wrap a 657-space garage on two sides. A separate life-science building, which originally had a later timeline, was approved in phase 1C.
A total of 20 percent of the apartments in the two phases will be set aside as affordable in the development.
A consortium of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, the Fieber Group and KDP, which got city approval in 2019, is building phases 1A and 1B.
The 11-story, 200,000-square-foot bioscience building will be built by Ancora L&G. Based in Durham, N.C,, it specializes in life-science research facilities sited in proximity to academic centers.
"This is a project we have a lot of confidence in," Peter Calkins, vice president of Ancora Partners LLC, said. He said Carter Winstanley, a major developer of biotech buildings in New Haven, has shown the market definitely exists here.
The building will be designed by Pelli Clarke & Partners, an internationally known architectural firm located in New Haven for the past 43 years. The structure will be built at the corner of South Orange Street and the North Frontage Road linear park that the city will develop..
"Because of its gateway and threshold placement in the city, it (the building) represents a very important opportunity to create a kind of landmark as one enters the city of New Haven," architect Fred Clarke said.
Clarke said another landmark component is that it will be highly sustainable as they aim for a LEED gold building rating. He said they are looking to minimize the use of carbon sources and emissions and optimize energy performance. The architect said they are sourcing local materials and fabricators whenever they can.
Clarke said there will be 41 bicycle storage places in the building, with lockers and showers for researchers. There also will be amenity space on the top floor.
"It is a building that really embodies the whole idea of sustainability and forward thinking in the Yale and New Haven communities," Clarke said.
He showed three slides of the proposed building at different times of the day and how he expects the light will interact with it.
"It represents a kind of emblem of the future of science and the future of technology in New Haven," Clarke said of the structure as viewed at mid-day.
The architect predicted it will become "a beautiful glowing lantern, a beacon at the edge of the city" in the evening and will be highly visible from the nearby highways.
The bioscience building will be located at the southwest corner of the parcel with nine stories of space topped by two floors in a mechanical penthouse. The first floor will have 3,134 square feet of retail or restaurant space.
For phase 1B, apartments will cover the north and east sides for 10 floors of the garage with residences extending to the 11th floor. Half will be one-bedroom units with one-third two-bedrooms and the rest studio apartments.
Architect Ulises Montes de Oca of Lessard Design said the average size will be 851 square feet. He said there will be balconies at every other window with materials and colors blending with those in the phase 1A structure.
"Architectural-wise we're playing the same game," he said.
Alder Adam Marchand, D-25, who is also a City Plan commissioner, asked why the garage needed to have such a large number of spaces.
Attorney Carolyn Kone, who represents Spinnaker, said the structure will provide parking for all three buildings, as well as the retail components, visitors to the site and construction in Phase 2. She said the zoning rules require 65 spaces for building 1A with its 200 apartments, 60 for 1B and 300 for Ancora's bioscience building. The garage will be facing North Frontage Road, next to the biotech building.
Commissioner Ernest Pagan sought assurances that the public plaza and open space will continue in phase 1A. Kone described it as a "critical component" of the project that will not be changed when phase 2 kicks in.
Marchand also expressed concern about the pedestrian-friendly causeway in 1A that is shared with vehicles and cyclists, particularly when trash is removed from the main residential building.
Frank Caico, vice president at Spinnaker, said they have considerable experience with this, including in New Haven at its Audubon apartment complex farther down Orange Street. "We are used to managing that sort of thing," he said.
"It is really just part of being in an urban environment that you have these shared streets," Caico said.
He said they have taken a lot of care to frame the laneway in 1A on either side with street trees and furniture so it is "not just willy-nilly with people walking all over the place," Caico said.
Wesley Stout of Stout Associates, landscape architects, said this shared street approach "is hugely successful" in places he has visited. "It brings the streets to the people," he said, and creates vibrancy. "It is the reverse of autocentric."
When it came time to vote on the plans before them, Pagan called the biotech building "beautiful" and a unique addition to architecture in New Haven. "It is exciting," he said.
Marchand lauded the 1B building for the way the garage is hidden, while Chairwoman Leslie Radcliffe thanked the developers for choosing a local architect. Seeking a gold LEED standard for the life-science building was also praised.
The approvals covered site plans for 1B and 1C and a special permit for 1B, all for the large Coliseum parcel at 275 South Orange St. Modifications for the 1A site, necessary because the biotech building plans fell into place earlier than expected, were also unanimously approved. Marchand said they improved this portion of the plans.
New London ― As of this week, all the properties on the Fort Trumbull peninsula are slated for development.
Parcels on the peninsula, which also is home to Fort Trumbull State Park, have been vacant for almost 20 years. The land was cleared for development in a move by the city that led to the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New London, about the use of eminent domain.
In recent years, parcels have been been approved as the future site of new apartment complexes, an extended stay hotel and the city’s community center.
The City Council Tuesday approved the sale of the remaining 6.28 acres of property to RJ Development + Advisors LLC, the same developer building 203 apartments on Howard Street.
The land is owned and marketed by the city’s development arm, the Renaissance City Development Association.
According to a development agreement between RCDA and RJ Development, parcels labeled 1A and 3C were sold for $500,000 and parcel 4A was sold for $1. The developer agreed to pay a $30,000 deposit to show its commitment.
The agreement states the projects on the property will primarily consist of, but will not be limited to, “the construction of residential units to be offered for market rate sale or rent/lease,” with the associated parking and other improvements.
Councilor John D. Satti on Tuesday asked if the developer has called for any tax deferrals.
Peter Davis, executive director of RCDA, said the property is in a enterprise zone so there is a tax abatement that comes with the zone. He said the developer would have to work with the assessor on paperwork that needs to be filed.
Davis said he doesn’t know if the developer plans to ask for additional tax deferrals, but he did ask about an abatement for environmental remediation work. He said all the properties need environmental work.
Satti asked the city’s Law Director Jeffrey T. Londregan if there have been any discussions in reference to future tax abatements.
Londregan said he hasn’t been involved in any such discussions and that those discussions would have to come before the council, apart from the enterprise zone incentive.
Londregan said the enterprise zone is a state plan that gives local tax relief to developers over several years on a sliding scale.
New London ― Construction on the city’s long-awaited community center is months away from becoming a reality.
The City Council Tuesday voted to approve a $30 million construction contract and $2.9 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the first phase of what now is a $40 million project. The project totals three phases.
“This is about us,” Felix Reyes, director of the city’s Office of Development and Planning, said. “This is about investing in ourselves. You see a lot of developments in New London but the question is ‘what’s for us?’ This is that investment.”
Reyes said there have been many approvals before Tuesday for architects, bonding, engineers and construction managers, but the council vote was to build the center. He projects construction to start in the next two months and for the building to be finished Nov. 2024.
The site plan for the community center includes a two-court basketball/sports gymnasium, conference rooms, multi-purpose rooms, classrooms, a fitness center, community room, kitchen and a swimming pool.
For the past two years, the city worked to keep the budget for the building at $30 million. Reyes said he didn’t want to put blame on the COVID-19 pandemic, but cost factors today are just not the same.
Downes Construction Company, LLC, the firm managing the construction of the center, sought bids for the project in the fall of 2022. Reyes said the city averaged five to seven bids per vendor, which he said shows the city maximized its ability to get the best price from the most qualified vendor.
“The project is still $40 million,” Reyes said. “It came in at a lot more than we planned. However ... we continue to operate in the mindset that we will build what we promised at the beginning.”
Reyes said the city already has $35 million, including the $30 million approved previously by the City Council, ARPA funds and grants from the state government. He said the city would raise funds for the remaining $5 million.
Under the new budget, hard costs of construction are roughly $34.5 million, leaving the remainder for soft costs, contingency fees and more.
Reyes said the revenue for the center would be driven by membership fees, which will be on a sliding scale based on household income for city residents, rental fees and program fees. He said the city also anticipates revenue from naming rights and philanthropy.
During public comment Tuesday, city resident Keith Dagenais said $40 million is a ton of money for a shell of a building.
“We have zero money in place currently for phase two or three,” Dagenais said. “Nothing should be voted on until we know exactly where the money is coming from.”
Others that spoke about the community center asked that it be named after Tommie Major, the city’s parks and recreation director, who retired Tuesday after 34 years. Major spoke against the notion at the meeting.
Councilor John Satti said he was a bit uncomfortable voting in favor of the motion, because the city has borrowed $30 million for the project and now the project is in the range of $40 million. He said his concern was that in the first phase, there is no money allocated for work such as carpentry, tiling, bathrooms, landscaping and more.
Satti asked whether the money for the first contract is appropriated and the rest is not raised, would the city need to appropriate more funds through debt service.
Reyes said the phasing is not uncommon and the city decided to lock in a price for 85% of the building now, because it will not get any cheaper. He said filling the $5 million gap in the magnitude of the project it is not a big feat.
Reyes said there would be time to raise the money from now until the end of the project for the furniture and finishes that come after.
Councilor Efrain Dominguez said he thinks 99.9% of New London is ready to build the center. Dominguez said when he hear things that are not positive he is reminded of when the city bonded $160 million to build the schools.
“These are not expenses. These are investments,” he said.
Dominguez said the city has talked for the past 15-20 years about building a community center, and now has a chance to make it a reality.
Facing rising challenges in the economy, developers Brian Zelman and Avner Krohn are seeking an option to significantly trim an approved 477-apartment development at the former Showcase Cinema site in East Hartford.
But by how much depends on how one counts.
The development agreement with the town that outlines financial backing, tax relief and other conditions calls for a minimum of 360 units. The town’s Planning and Zoning Board signed off on 477 units.
Zelman and Krohn aim to amend the land-use approval and the development agreement, reducing the minimum allowable units to 300. The partners say they intend to build more than 400 units in their amenity-rich, market rate “Concourse Park” development. But they also want flexibility to build less should economic conditions further deteriorate.
“We have every intention of building more than 400 units simultaneously, but we need to have some versatility based on the interest rates,” Krohn said. “We are completely committed to building this.”
Zelman is principal of Zelman Real Estate. Krohn is principal of Jasko Development. The town has agreed to sell the 25-acre Showcase Cinema site for $1 to the joint venture of Jasko Zelman 1 LLC. Zelman said he hopes to achieve necessary modifications to prior town approvals in the next 60 to 90 days.
East Hartford Mayor Michael Walsh has expressed tentative support but said town staff are still vetting proposed changes.
“The market has become less friendly than it was in February of ’22 when we announced this,” Walsh told a subcommittee of the Capital Region Development Authority last week. “So, I think the project will be a little smaller. Instead of upwards of 480 apartments, we will be closer to 300 to 390. It’s still a substantial project for us … .”
Under the initial development agreement approved last year, East Hartford is to supply $10 million in grant funding to offset development costs, which are currently estimated in excess of $100 million.