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CT Construction Digest Friday May 10, 2024

CRDA’s Freimuth: UConn dorm project would be transformative to downtown Hartford

David Krechevsky

The University of Connecticut’s effort to create a dormitory for its downtown Hartford branch campus would include nearly $28 million in financial support from the Capital Region Development Authority and a private lender.

CRDA’s Housing & Neighborhood Committee convened Thursday morning to discuss the proposal and unanimously approved sending it to the full board for consideration.

According to CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth, the plan would create a student dormitory at 64 Pratt St. The six-floor building is an annex to 242 Trumbull St., which was acquired last year by Shelbourne Global Solutions. Shelbourne, based in Brooklyn, New York, is the central business district’s largest office landlord.

Shelbourne has partnered with Hartford-based real estate developer and investor Lexington Partners and Hartford-based LAZ Parking to develop the project.

Freimuth said the proposal would require creating a “condo structure” for the dormitory portion of the building on the upper floors, separating them from the first two floors that have a mix of retail and back office service space.

The dormitory space would be approximately 84,000 square feet and accommodate 202 beds in approximately 75 to 80 single-, double-, and four-bed suites. 

The development deal would total $27.9 million, Freimuth said, including a first loan of $10.06 million; $10 million in interim financing provided by the CRDA; $3 million in equity; and approximately $4.9 million in city and state grants.

The CRDA interim financing would be a 20-year loan but would be brought down to $7.5 million after three years, Freimuth said. 

Freimuth said UConn hopes to open the dorm by the fall of 2025, which he admitted is an “aggressive” timetable given the approvals required. In addition to needing approval from the CRDA board of directors and the UConn Board of Trustees, the state Bond Commission also must approve the financing plan. The project also is subject to approval by city land-use boards.

“Failure to that will push it out to ‘26, since UConn does not normally occupy (dorms) mid-term,” he said.

Freimuth told the committee that the building is ideally situated for the project. “This building, in ways that no one really foresaw, kind of jumped to the front real quick,” he said.
The annex on Pratt Street, which is closed to vehicle traffic, is about a 10-minute walk from the UConn Hartford campus, located in the former Hartford Times building on Prospect Street. It is also a half-block from the XL Center, where UConn is finalizing a five-year lease for space it will retrofit to host a new agricultural and food science program, sports medicine center, mental health clinic and two lecture halls.

The UConn School of Business is also nearby at 100 Constitution Plaza.

Freimuth described the project as transformative.

“It’s a reminder of the influence of the school and its impact and contributions to the downtown core,” he said. “It would put 200-plus kids on Pratt Street. It’s putting a talent pool on the street, helping to reinforce businesses’ demand for labor. There’s a lot of elements in this that are not in the numbers.”

Committee members generally agreed, though member Robert Patricelli asked whether CRDA funds had ever previously been used for a project with a public or quasi-public institution that could instead go directly to the state Bond Commission for funding.

Freimuth said there had been previous instances, including some projects with the state Department of Administrative Services. He added that because UConn would be the tenant “it helps the underwriting.”

Patricelli also asked whether the reconfiguration of the building for dorm rooms would make it difficult to convert to something else if necessary in the future. 

Jane Davey, director of asset management and acquisitions for LAZ Investments, said there would be some difficulty if the building needed to be converted to something else, but that it would be no more difficult than converting a hotel to a residential space. 

“If you did need to convert to something residential, that infrastructure remains,” she said, adding, “it’s not at the magnitude as if we had to convert it from office space.”

Freimuth said the design of the interior will be done to UConn’s specifications, which was explained by  UConn Provost Anne D’Alleva. 

“The way that this building will be configured is suite-style housing, which is preferred by students today,” she said. “It will look like small apartments with a central living space, a small kitchen and a bathroom, and bedrooms that can be occupied by one student or they can share bedrooms.”

D’Alleva said students can eat in their suites or dine in a cafeteria being installed in the Hartford Times campus building. “For most students it will be a hybrid arrangement, eating partly at home and partly on campus and, we hope, partly in the community,” she said.
She added that a residence hall is not just an apartment building for students, and noted that the annex building has a large atrium that makes it an ideal gathering spot.

“You need to have a communal life,” she said. “That atrium is really a spectacular space. We can hold events there, provide a computer lab, soft seating, a game room. It’s a space that will really let us develop a communal life for students.”

Committee Chair Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who is president of Trinity College, praised the project as “a very positive thing,” but said she was concerned that another building would be removed from the city’s tax rolls. 

Freimuth said that would not be the case. “There will be a tax agreement between the city8 and the developer that will keep it a taxable piece of real estate,” he said.

Committee member Randal Davis, interim director of development services for the city, also praised the project. 

“I think it’s an excellent addition to the downtown world that we have here,”  he said. “It is supported by the administration and, long term, will be a continued benefit to the city.”

Waterford, East Lyme residents frustrated by failure of data center study bill

Daniel Drainville

Waterford ― Opponents of a proposed data center on the grounds of the Millstone Power Station, who had rallied in support of a bill to study the center’s impact on the electrical grid and their communities, were frustrated Thursday to learn the legislation didn’t go forward.

Senate Bill 299 would have required ISO New England, the grid manager for five states in New England, to study the potential impact to the grid of the data center, which would receive power directly from Millstone. It passed the state Senate on Saturday, but the House failed to vote on the bill before the end of its legislative session at midnight Wednesday.

Members of Concerned Citizens of Waterford and East Lyme said they spent the past four days placing hundreds of phone calls and sending emails to the governor’s office and state representatives to lobby support for the bill.

The group, which started as just Waterford residents last summer, gathered information on data centers and shared numerous quality of life, environmental and energy concerns about the project. Among those concerns are that the project, which would consume around 15 percent of the station’s current output, would jeopardize the region’s energy security. Officials from Millstone owner Dominion Energy Nuclear Connecticut deny those claims.

Bryan Sayles, one of the leaders of the Concerned Citizens of Waterford and East Lyme, said members are “not against technology.” But they maintain it’s “not good to go meddling with power plants,” and believe the impact of an on-site data center should be investigated.

“It’s been tough,” Sayles said. “You know we’ve worked so hard. We’ve worked along democratic lines. We’ve been nonviolent. We’ve been transparent with our information. We’ve posed credible information and reasons why SB 299 should be adopted.”

So he and other members grew frustrated and confused as they watched the bill, which he said passed the Senate “with flying colors,” die in the twilight hours of Wednesday’s House session. He described it as a blow that shook the group’s confidence in state government.

“I don’t know that there are many other grassroots efforts in the state that would be able to do what we have so far,” he said.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, who supported the bill since it was first raised in the Energy and Technology Committee by state Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, said Thursday she shared the residents’ anger.

“This is too important a subject not to examine in-depth,” she said, adding that she was “deeply disappointed” representatives could not at least have an “open, honest debate on the merits of the bill, which was simply a study.”

“And to be frank, you know, there were a number of barely major bills that were voted on in the last three days, and we just ran out of time,” she said. “Not for lack of trying, and it became clear as time went on that bills that might generate more significant debate would fall by the wayside, and this was one of them.”

Cheeseman and Needleman said there was nothing in the bill that would have killed any data center deals currently on the table, including the host fee agreement Waterford signed with New England Edge last year in which the developer promised to pay a fee of $231 million over 30 years instead of property taxes to construct two, two-story data center buildings on the Millstone property.

The location would allow it to buy power directly from Dominion, reducing the cost of power consumed by the data centers.

State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, who was on the Town Council when NE Edge proposed a similar data center in Groton, said concerns over power consumption are valid.

“It’s an enormous amount of power,” he said, adding that with electricity needs continuing to grow, he’s not sure the state’s best interest to commit so much power to data centers.

“I would tell residents ― keep speaking up, because at the end of the day when you advocate for your community, there’s an impact,” he said, praising the efforts of fellow representatives Cheeseman and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, for supporting the bill.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t get it over the finish line,” he added.

The NE Edge project is in limbo after a January decision by the state Siting Council to deny Dominion a boundary change it would need to proceed with the project.

Needleman in 2021 introduced the bill that created tax incentives for data centers to be built in Connecticut, which Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law. It enabled the state Department of Economic and Community Development to sign long-term agreements with developers that pledge to invest millions of dollars in the state.

“Part of the reason we did the tax incentives was to offset the high costs of energy in the state,” he had explained in a phone interview Monday.

The thought of that law was that it would allow Connecticut to become “a little bit more of a hub for technology,” he said.

But at the time, Needleman said neither he nor the legislation’s other supporters contemplated the potential for “behind-the-meter” data centers that would take power directly from a power plant before it advances to the grid ― like the one proposed by NE Edge.

“So really, the issue is to determine if large data centers collocated on power plants impact costs to ratepayers,” Needleman said.

Needleman added the bill that failed to get a house vote would have examined the economic impact of building such a large data center from a construction point of view, but also its impact on energy markets and reliability. If it found negative impact, there was a chance the tax incentives the state promised could have been revoked.

Cheeseman said Steinberg, the chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, has already committed to proposing the bill again when lawmakers convene next year. The legislative session begins in January and ends in June.

In the meantime, Cheeseman said “technically, there’s no reason that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection couldn’t conduct a study on its own, and I will advocate for that.”

Cannabis cultivator gets $16M investment for planned East Hartford grow facility

Skyler Frazer

Aplanned cannabis cultivation facility in East Hartford has received a big financial boost from a real estate trust that is investing $16 million into the project, the company announced this week.

C3 Industries Inc., a Michigan-based multi-state cannabis company building a cultivation facility in East Hartford, recently took on a $16 million investment from real estate capital provider NewLake Capital Partners, which is based in New Canaan.

The funding includes $4 million for the acquisition of a 58,500 square-foot industrial property in East Hartford, and a $12 million construction build out to repurpose the former cold-storage facility into a cannabis grower. C3 and NewLake have entered into a “long-term triple net lease” together for the facility, according to information from NewLake.

NewLake didn’t disclose the address of the building, but C3 won local approvals to establish a cultivator at a 120,617-square-foot industrial building at 241 Park Ave., and roughly 15,000-square-foot adjacent portion of the industrial complex at 217-221 Park Ave.

C3 and NewLake have previously partnered on a cannabis cultivation facility in Missouri, so this is the second deal between the two companies.

C3, founded by brothers Ankur and Vishal Rungta in 2018, was awarded a “Section 149” cultivator license in late 2022, which allows large-scale cultivation sites to locate in areas disproportionately affected by the federal “war on drugs.” The allowable zones under Section 149 are clustered in lower income and urban areas, including East Hartford.

C3 currently has cannabis operations in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Manchester to apply for federal grant to help fund its overhaul of Main Street, which could cost $15M

Joseph Villanova

MANCHESTER — Town officials are applying for a federal "Safe Streets" grant that would help pay for the proposed overhaul of Main Street.

The Downtown Manchester Improvements Project is billed as a comprehensive redesign of the Main Street corridor that would enhance safety for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians while smoothing out the flow of traffic.

The plan dates back to March 2022 but has been modified over the years after feedback from residents and stakeholders, with some particularly concerned about how parking will change as a result of the streetscape, the new Main Street library, and the redevelopment of 942 Main St.

In addition to necessary infrastructure upgrades and roundabouts at the Charter Oak and Center Street intersections, the plan would see travel lanes reduced as part of a "road diet" that would lend additional street space for dedicated bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks.

As for how to pay for its new Main Street, estimated in February to cost between $10 million and $15 million, Manchester hopes that the state and federal governments will foot much of the bill.

The town received $7.5 million from the state Department of Economic Development in January, and has also lined up $875,000 in federal community project funding. On Tuesday night, the Board of Directors unanimously approved an application to the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Safe Streets and Roads for All" grant program that is expected to cover the remainder if awarded.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law established the program in 2022 to provide $5 billion over five years to projects focused on preventing deaths and serious injuries on roadways. The deadline for Manchester to apply for the latest round of funding is May 16.

Officials plan to continue to gather feedback on the town's streetscape plan throughout 2024, with the formal design process scheduled to begin this summer. Town staff expect to finalize the conceptual design and begin the permitting process in 2025, with construction hopefully beginning in spring 2026 after funding is secured and plans are complete.

In a presentation given to the Board of Directors on Tuesday night, Manchester town staff cited data from the Federal Highway Administration showing a "19 to 47 percent" reduction in total crashes on roads converted from four travel lanes to two travel lanes with a center turn lane, as is proposed for Main Street, and a 78-percent reduction in fatal and injury crashes on intersections converted from traffic signals to a modern roundabout design.

Town Engineer Tim Bockus said Tuesday that the Glastonbury roundabout on Hebron Avenue often comes up in discussions about Manchester's proposed roundabouts, but some residents are misinformed about the situation. He said UConn crash data shows 51 total crashes and 19 crashes with injuries occurred from January 2015 to Nov. 8, 2018, before the roundabout was built, and only 15 total crashes and three crashes with injuries from Nov. 9, 2018, through March 2024.

"That equates to a roughly 70 percent crash reduction and 84 percent crash-related injury reduction," Bockus said. "It's hard to get this message out when the data is being misrepresented."

Seventeen residents spoke in favor of the town's streetscape plan and grant application on Tuesday night, with many expressing a need to alleviate traffic congestion, accommodate cyclists, and reimagine Main Street to match younger sensibilities. In contrast, two residents spoke against the project, with one concerned about government spending and another suggesting more policing would fix traffic problems.

Town Manager Steve Stephanou said Tuesday that Manchester's streetscape plan is able to leverage external funds to conduct necessary infrastructure work that would otherwise be paid for by local taxpayers, by prioritizing features that the state is focused on.

"We're looking to make our greatest asset a safe, walkable, vibrant community," Stephanou said.

Director of Planning and Economic Development Gary Anderson said Tuesday that the streetscape plan was born from community input over the years, with surveys showing support for many features that the plan would enhance or highlight.

"This is not a plan that came out of nowhere," Anderson said.

Plans for major biotech park in Connecticut abandoned

Luther Turmelle

Plans to develop a sprawling biotech park in Branford off of Interstate 95, which was announced last April with great fanfare, have been scrapped by the Minnesota-based developer that was proposing the project.

A spokeswoman for Ryan Companies told Hearst Connecticut Media on Wednesday that the developer "is no longer pursuing the development." She declined to comment on the reasons for Ryan Companies abandoning the project.

Perry Maresca, Branford's economic and business development manager, said town officials were told that the reason Ryan scrapped the project "was because of the length of time it was going to take to get the project going." Another factor, according to Maresca, was an inability to secure an anchor tenant for the project.

When plans for the project were unveiled in April 2023, Ryan officials said it would be built in phases, with the first two involving the development of buildings between 100,000 and 150,000 square feet, depending on the needs of tenants the company is negotiating with. The plan at the time was that both buildings would be three or four stories tall.

When announced last year, the HealthTech Park project called for creating more than 500,000 square feet of laboratory space, research and development facilities for life sciences companies and some high-tech manufacturing related to the health care sector. The project was to have been built on a 120-acre site off of the Exit 56 interchange.

Ryan Companies was working with Stamford-based Heinrich Partners to develop the project on land that includes the former Bittersweet Farm and is owned by Hamden-based Belfonti Companies LLC and A. Secondino & Son of Branford.

Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove was not immediately available for comment on Thursday regarding Ryan's decision to abandon the project. Representatives for Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and the state's Department of Economic and Community Development were also not available for comment on the company's decision.