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CT Construction Digest Monday August 15, 2022

Greenwich school board OKs plan for 660-student Central Middle School — with flexibility if enrollment grows

Annelise Hanshaw

GREENWICH — The Central Middle School building committee finally has a roadmap to designing Greenwich Public Schools’ newest building.

The Board of Education held numerous special meetings over the spring and summer to determine what size building would have longevity in central Greenwich, and Thursday evening, the board approved a 115,311-square-foot plan.

Board members Karen Kowalski and Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony were not in attendance Thursday; both voted against a 117,410-square-foot plan at the last meeting, July 27.

Even had they both dissented Thursday, the educational specifications still would have passed. Previous nay voters Joe Kelly and Cody Kittle changed their minds, with Kittle in favor of the slightly reduced square footage and Kelly abstaining.

“I would have preferred that the meeting waited until after the vacations, but I do understand the urgency of trying to get the ed specs to the building committee,” Mercanti-Anthony said Friday. “I mean, the reality is the vast majority of the ed specs make a terrific design for a middle school.”

The educational specifications, which determine the goals for the building committee and architect, plan for an enrollment of 660 students with room to be flexible should a larger wave of students attend.

Consultants built in flexibility by adding square footage in critical gathering spaces. For example, if 700 students enroll, a larger cafeteria would be essential for scheduling purposes, Principal Tom Healy told the board.

The district’s consultants at Construction Solutions Group also added extra space in the media center and hallways, which Mercanti-Anthony didn’t support.

“In the grand in the grand scheme of things, though, holding off on moving the project forward because of the debate over 500 square feet in the library is not in the best interest of the community,” he said.

“The media center was designed from the very beginning that the media center has to be the hub of the building. So, to have students moving in and out, teachers collaborating, students coming in, we just needed extra square footage there,” Healy said during the meeting Thursday.

Kelly did not have objections to the scale of the project, but he said his concerns remained about the amount of board oversight during the design process.

“The building committee could very well bring us a beautiful design and a beautiful building, but they also might not come to something we agree with and that’s the reason why I’m warning,” he said.

The Central Middle School building committee is currently editing a request for proposals for an architect and owner’s representative.

Board member Karen Hirsh was concerned that the board does not know what soil on the property is safe to build on.

Board member Christina Downey said they could add detail to the educational specifications once they receive the results of the soil testing. The testing was delayed a few days this week after the soil team contracted COVID-19.

The board should receive the results of the soil testing in “a few weeks,” Superintendent Toni Jones said.

Shelton P&Z wants off-site parking at Canal St. development

Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Developing the former Chromium Process site must include the developer guaranteeing 45 parking spaces, at least nine of which would need to be off site.

The Planning and Zoning Commission, at its meeting Tuesday, asked consultant Tony Panico to prepare a resolution approving, with conditions, John Guedes’ request for a Planned Development District at 113 Canal St.

The plans call for the development of a four-story building with first-floor retail space and 30 apartments on upper floors and 38 parking spaces. The development, named Chromium Commons, is planned on land between Canal Street East and Canal Street West that is presently used for city parking.

The approval would come with conditions, the most major calling for Guedes to “guarantee” a specific number of off-site spaces, which combined with the 38 onsite reach the required 1 ½ per unit as stated in the zoning regulations.

The 38 parking spaces with 30 units equals a 1.27 parking ratio. Zoning regulations require a 1.5 parking ratio, or a total of 45 spaces, so at least nine spaces have to be provided offsite somewhere, and the commission wants specific “private parking” spaces obtained somewhere.

Since 2018, the former Chromium Process lot has been used for parking. But Commissioner Ruth Parkins noted that this site was always designated for redevelopment, not parking.

Guedes has stated that the parking he has proposed for his development is adequate, with any spillover going to the Conti lot, a municipal parking area adjacent to the Chromium Process site.

Parkins added that any developer who cannot meet the required parking should be forced to lease the necessary amount.

“We can’t just say, ‘Use the Conti lot,’” she said. “That is not fair to other developers down there.”

Commission Chair Virginia Harger agreed with Parkins, and fellow Commissioner Jimmy Tickey joined in emphasizing the need for more parking downtown.

“Downtown has a parking problem and the city must address it,” Tickey said. “We need a central place downtown for parking, which will alleviate the cars circulating looking for parking and help downtown businesses.”

The city is in the process of leasing the parking spaces on the Yankee Gas property, located across the street from the now completed Cedar Village at Carroll’s. Those additional 70 spaces are still unavailable as remediation must be completed before the spaces are created.

The city also leases parking spaces at the Conti building.

Panico added that owners of 62-66 Center St. and 325 Coram Ave., a 0.48-acre site that includes the building that formerly housed Jeff’s Appliance and a house, are rumored to be considering a modification to modify a PDD received for the site several years ago.

That modification, Panico said, would call for a restaurant on the top level, retail on the first floor, and the remaining area used as a garage for parking for its tenants’ needs. Any extra parking spaces would be made available to others at a fee, he added.

The resolution for Chromium Commons will be prepared and discussed at a future commission meeting.

Panico said the commission could approve the application for the PDD, but if Guedes does not provide information that satisfies the conditions, the commission does not have to sign off on the final development.

Chromium Commons has become a lightning rod for those charging that downtown parking is already woefully inadequate. But that criticism is undeserved, according to Guedes, who has stated that there is enough parking downtown to accommodate additional development, the city just needs to take steps to alert drivers to its existence.

In a letter to the commission submitted earlier this year, Angelo Melisi, Jr.,the developer of Bridge Street Commons I and II in the heart of downtown, called for the denial of Guedes’s plans as presently submitted.

“Given the current situation in downtown Shelton, and in the immediate vicinity of this proposal, this is simply not enough parking,” Melisi wrote in the letter.

Melisi said he supports the development of more apartments and commercial space downtown but wrote “I do object to the construction of more apartments and more commercial space without adequate parking.”

Meet the duo behind an ambitious $30M plan to build the region’s first autonomous vehicle test track facility, research center

Robert Storace

Longtime financial adviser Steve Cortese heard back in 2018 that UConn was seeking investors to potentially build an autonomous vehicle testing facility near its Storrs campus, an idea that piqued his interest.

So he decided to travel to the university with his daughter who was enrolling that year in the school’s nursing program.

It was during that visit four years ago that Cortese met Eric Jackson, associate research professor in UConn’s engineering school and director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center. Jackson presented his idea for the potential testing site that could include simulated highway driving environments, intersections, parking lots and ramps — in what would be the first such test track facility in New England.

Today, that vision is much closer to becoming reality.

UConn’s Board of Trustees recently approved an option agreement to sell 105 acres in the southwest portion of the school’s Mansfield Depot Campus to a private company — Promesa Capital LLC — headed by Cortese, who would lead a group of investors in developing the site as the region’s first-ever connected and autonomous vehicle test track and research facility.

Such a facility, Jackson and Cortese said, would be a boon for the university and region, helping make UConn a leader in autonomous vehicle research, technology and safety.

“My goal is to raise the stature of UConn to a school where world-class research takes place on this technology, and students come to UConn specifically to work with leading faculty on projects that will change the way we travel,” Jackson said. “UConn will be transformational in terms of research and will provide a world-class facility to open opportunities we’ve never had before for the future of transportation.”

The players

Under the option agreement — if all steps and zoning approvals are met — UConn would sell the Mansfield property to Promesa Capital LLC for $5 million.

Promesa Capital would use its own money from investors to fund construction of the estimated $30 million test track facility, named Spectrum Park. UConn — and other entities — would use the property for different purposes.

Cortese said he thought the project would be a great investment opportunity for someone with his professional background, which includes more than 25 years as a stockbroker and financial advisor.

Cortese isn’t a household name, and he’s kept a low profile online. He does not have a LinkedIn page and a simple Google search brings little to no information about the 52-year-old Florida native. He said he attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he majored in history, but didn’t graduate.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lists several companies he’s been associated with including as an investment advisory representative with Dynamic Wealth Advisors. The SEC website also lists his employment with Stamford-based Hedgeye Risk Management LLC, which provides investment research and is an online financial media company, according to its website.

He was also a business development consultant for a limited liability company called Sungarden Fund Management LLC, which is not registered in Connecticut.

Jackson, a Tolland resident, earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Kentucky and got his civil engineering Ph.D. at UConn, where he specialized in transportation systems. He leads the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, which works with the state Department of Transportation to develop and maintain a crash data entry, collection, and safety analysis system.

Cortese formed Guilford-based Promesa Capital LLC in 2021. It serves as the financial arm of Spectrum Park, a safety research company. The companies, Cortese said, were formed with the sole purpose of a potential deal for the UConn-owned land, which is located in one of the state’s 72 Opportunity Zones, making investment in the project potentially eligible for capital gains tax benefits, Cortese said.

That’s part of the pitch Cortese is making to investors, who he declined to name. Cortese said he has enough investor money for the land purchase, but will need to raise more to cover the estimated $30 million project cost.

It would take about 18 months to complete build-out of the test track facility, Jackson said.

Under the plan, Cortese’s company would work with the university to maintain and potentially operate the facility.

Business model

Cortese said the testing facility’s business model is to have a consortium of large companies that want to invest in the project and have a presence in the facility.

Potential clients would be charged a user fee, which is how the facility would earn revenue.

Companies that he and UConn are hoping to attract run the gamut from car manufacturers and communications firms to software and energy companies. Cortese and Jackson said about two dozen companies — from Connecticut, throughout the United States and even globally — have already expressed interest in the test track facility. Five companies, which the partners declined to identify, have committed to being part of the project when the test track opens.

Preliminary plans for the site, Jackson said, include a loop stretching about three-quarters of a mile that would allow cars to drive as fast as 65 miles per hour. The vehicles would encircle roadways and replicate city and rural driving conditions, complete with faux buildings, vehicles and people.

The short- and long-term potential for such a test track is endless, Jackson said.

“We will have autonomous and connected vehicles that can avoid crashes and also Smart City technologies and, moving forward, into drones and possibly flying modes of transportation,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he envisions that major car manufacturers would test their vehicles at the facility with the goal of using the latest technology to make those cars safer to drive.

In the short term, Jackson said, they are looking to build smart technology that would allow cars to communicate with each other and/or traffic signals to avoid crashes. He said technology for driverless cars is still decades away, before potential widespread adoption.

The facility – which is expected to be manned by 22 researchers, mostly from UConn, to start – will also provide opportunities for startups, Jackson said.

Examples could include an artificial intelligence company that develops cameras or sensors that help navigate a vehicle or assist the driver; or a company that builds smart traffic signals, he said.

Part of the goal of the test track facility is to save lives, Jackson said. According to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, about 180 people have died in the state from traffic-related deaths this year as of July, a 45% increase from the same time last year.

University of Michigan

There are only a few autonomous-vehicle testing tracks in the country, most at colleges, including Virginia Tech and the University of Michigan, which has the 32-acre MCity site in Ann Arbor.

Cortese said he visited the University of Michigan track several years ago to get a sense of how it operates.

Jim Lollar, MCity test facilities manager, said the University of Michigan facility is a public/private partnership that opened in July 2015, with more than 60 clients.

Today it has about 25 clients — including State Farm Insurance, Verizon and Ford — that use the latest technologies with the goals of making roads safer for motorists.

For example, Lollar said the track has the latest 5G technologies that offer clients faster data communication speeds necessary for autonomous vehicles.

“We provide capabilities that users put in place to test things like lane departure warnings, or technology so a car knows it’s leaving a lane when snow is on the ground,” Lollar said. “We provide an environment here for them to test.”

Cortese said it’s difficult – at this point – to pinpoint exactly how many jobs could be created by his planned facility, but “in terms of the science, this can put Connecticut on the map for artificial intelligence driving and safety research.”

“We expect to garner interest from all corners of the globe,” he said.

One Silver Lane plan moves forward, while another is tabled

Collin Atwood

One major project within the Silver Lane corridor moved in the right direction at Wednesday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, while another proposal has been tabled to provide additional details.

The commission approved ND Acquisition LLC’s plan to construct two 100,000-square-foot high-tech manufacturing buildings and two large warehouses, combining for more than 2 million square feet on 300 acres just south of Rentschler Field.

“We have made incredible progress thus far,” Managing Partner Andrew Gallinaro said. “Our goal, as you may know, is to be able to start construction at some point later this year.”

Although this was the major approval that ND Acquisitions needed, a few steps still need to be taken before the project is shovel ready.

Director of Development Eileen Buckheit and Interim Town Planner Steve Hnatuk said ND Acquisitions still needs to apply for building permits and meet conditions of the town’s approval.

PZC member Peter Marra expressed his concerns about how the 1,300 trailers that the site can hold would get to the highway.

“When these truckers leave the property, do they plan on going right on the highway and not into East Hartford roads or Silver Lane,” Marra asked.

Paul Vitaliano, a civil engineer with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, confirmed that the trailers would be avoiding Silver Lane.

PZC Chairman John Ryan wondered if the project was going to expand on the pond currently on site. Vitaliano said that they planned on adding a few more ponds, but will not expand or remove the existing one.

Also during the meeting, Jasko Development and Zelman Real Estate presented their plan to build an amenity-focused apartment complex at the old Showcase Cinemas property.

The proposal would include 470 units after being previously approved for 477. The bulk of the units will be built on the main campus and 30 other ones will be in a building just east of the campus.

PZC member Hank Pawlowski worried about damage being done to the drainage system on the site and questioned how it would be maintained.

Marra noted that he was on the Inland and Wetlands Commission when a soil scientist explained the drainage system to them. He added that the system doesn’t need to be serviced every year and that it would take a catastrophe for it to need maintenance.

“The way he explained it was once every 40 to 50 years under harsh conditions, and if they’re working fine, they would be left alone,” Marra said.

Landscape architect Mary Blackburn presented the plan for the vegetation on the site and noted that the development team wanted this complex to have “abundant planting” and a park-like setting.

Marra commended Blackburn for including a lot of native trees to Connecticut but wondered if the plans could include a large oak tree to better represent East Hartford.

“On our police logo, we have a bridge and a Charter Oak tree,” Marra said. “I don’t see anything that really ties into East Hartford.”

Blackburn said that the team would look into adding a white oak “statement” tree along the main road through the complex.

PZC member Sid Soderholm stated that the renderings shown to the commission were artist drawings and not detailed architectural designs that show necessary requirements such as elevation.

Hnatuk added that he also made a recommendation to the applicant prior to the meeting to supply additional architectural drawings for the buildings.

“It wasn’t exactly clear to me which buildings were which on the site plan compared to the architectural drawings, and it didn’t look to me like all of the proposed building architecturals were included into the plan,” Hnatuk added.

Ryan said that there was not enough information for the commission to make a decision and proposed to table the discussion until the meeting in September.

“I think that this project is amazing,” Marra said. “Whatever the commission needs, provide it, and they’ll take it from there.”

Suite Spot: New residence hall at UConn will cater to shifting student housing preferences. At a cost of $215 million.

Kenneth R. Gosselin

The University of Connecticut will build a $215 million residence hall with suites — the first new, student housing to be constructed on the Storrs campus in six years and nearly two decades before that — an expenditure seen as critical to attracting top-notch students to the university.

“This is the beginning of an overhaul of our housing which is probably decades overdue and actually threatening our competitiveness as a flagship university,” Daniel D. Toscano, chairman of the UConn board of trustees, said, in a recent trustees meeting at which the project was approved.

A housing study and student survey conducted just before the pandemic showed shifting preferences for housing, moving more toward suites and apartments and away from traditional dormitories with shared rooms. Student housing and accompanying amenities is increasingly emerging as a competitive flashpoint for universities like UConn that have higher aspirations.

The new residence hall also steps up competition with private developers who want to build off-campus apartments with amenities near the Storrs campus. In an average year, between 11,500 and 12,500 students live on campus and UConn sees room for more growth.

The new residence hall in UConn’s South Campus area will have 657 beds in multiple wings of varying heights, but mostly five stories, at the corner of Gilbert and Mansfield roads. The new residence hall will be arranged in suites, with two, private bedrooms sharing a bathroom. A 500-seat dining hall will overlook nearby Mirror Lake and ease waiting times at nearby dining halls.

Initially, the South Campus residence hall was conceived a dormitory. But the housing study and student survey was evidence that the residence hall needed to be redesigned in a suite configuration, according to Laura Cruickshank, the university’s master planner and chief architect.

In a typical year, according to the university, almost 60% of the university’s on-campus students are freshmen and sophomores, mostly housed in dorm settings with roommates. However, the university learned in the study and survey that students at all levels prefer suites and apartments.

The residence hall, expected to open in fall, 2024, has long been contemplated as part of the UConn 2015 master plan. But the South Campus project was put on hold because construction on the $105 million, 8-story Peter J. Werth Residence Tower in the Hilltop area and other projects — including the $155 million renovation of the Gant Science Complex and the construction of a new, $95 million engineering building — were underway on campus.

Werth, a traditional-style dormitory, opened in 2016.

The total price tag for South Campus residence hall is closer to $222 million because an additional $6.6 million is need to prepare the site for construction, plus move and renovate a historic house at 4 Gilbert Rd.

The financing for the $215 million is a combination of $76 million from the Next Generation Connecticut program aimed at transforming the university into a “STEM” institution, boosting Connecticut’s economy with new technologies, companies and highly-skilled graduates who will stay in the state.

Another $124 million would come from UConn “revenue bonds,” which would be repaid through the operations repaid with income from the operation of on-campus housing. And $15 million would come from UConn funds.

The South Campus project is the first leg of a major redevelopment of aging housing on the Storrs campus, some of it dating back to before World War II. Prior to the construction of the Werth tower, little had been invested in new, on-campus housing since the late 1990s.

Cruickshank told the trustees at their meeting that one student housing project now on the drawing boards involves the redevelopment of the aging, student housing on South Eagleville Road, known as the Mansfield Apartments.

The 1940s-era, townhouse-style apartments, Cruickshank said, are in “terrible shape” on a “very badly utilized site, and that will be something that we will be coming back to the board in the coming year.”

The plans for the Mansfield Apartments call for demolishing the the 270-bed complex and replacing it with something “more contemporary” according to the UConn website. The apartments had been used as an isolation location during the pandemic, and UConn does not want to reopen the complex to the general student population.