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CT Construction Digest Monday August 8, 2022

UConn approves $215M for construction of new residence hall

Robert Storace

The University of Connecticut Board of Trustees Wednesday unanimously approved moving forward with the construction of a new South Campus Residence Hall, which comes with a $215 million price tag.

The residence hall – which is expected to be open for occupancy in the fall of 2024 – will have 657 beds and a new 500-seat dining hall. The money to pay for the project will come from three separate bonding sources, the school said.

UConn officials said the new residence hall will include open and private lounges, common space, a game room, laundry facilities, bicycle storage, seminar rooms, meeting rooms, and multipurpose rooms.

The university said the new residence hall will create much-needed swing space for the university’s housing rehabilitation and replacement program and address a shortage in on-campus, suite-style housing. Each suite in the new residence hall will have two bedrooms and one bathroom.

UConn houses about 70% of its undergraduate students on campus each year, one of the highest on-campus residency rates in the nation, the school said.

UConn Board of Trustees Chairperson Dan Toscano said this “is the beginning of an overhaul of our housing, which is probably decades overdue. It is actually threatening our competitiveness as a flagship university.”

Hartford City Council considers tax breaks/property giveaways for two developments

Michael Puffer

In its meeting Monday, Hartford’s City Council will consider giving property and tax breaks enabling two developments in blighted areas north of the city center.

City leaders propose to give four properties at the corner of Main and Ann Uccello Streets to a partnership of the nonprofit San Juan Center and apartments developer Carabetta Development LLC. Using these and four privately held properties, the partnership plans a $17.4 million project resulting in 43 apartments and 7,300 square feet of retail space in three buildings.

One of the city properties holds a four-story, mixed-use building that once hosted the Arrowhead Café on its first floor. The others are vacant.

The council is also being asked to grant the development a decade-long tax break. Under it, there would be no taxes for the first three years, with the tax burden rising from 5% of what otherwise would be owed to 12% in the following seven years.

“The proposed development will result in the redevelopment of a severely blighted City owned building along with two underutilized privately-owned historic structures,” Mayor Luke Bronin wrote to council members. “This development will be a critical component in the link between downtown Hartford and the City’s North end neighborhoods.”

This “Arrowhead” project was awarded a $6.3 million state grant. The balance of funds would come from a Capital Region Development Authority loan, private-sector loan, historic tax credits, developer equity and funds allocated to the city from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Several blocks to the west -- at the corner of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street -- city leaders want to give four vacant lots to a partnership of nonprofit National Development Council and Atlanta-based Genesis Development Partners.  The plan is to merge those properties and two abutting vacant properties held by Kings Chapel Church of God to create two parcels.

One of the resulting properties would be sold for $250,000 to Genesis, which would build a $1.9 million, 2,502-square-foot retail building.

Under the proposed agreement, the second property would undergo an estimated $12 million development, yielding a 38,000-square-foot commercial building. The city would lease 15,600 square feet of office space for its Health Department at up to $270,000 a year. There would also be space for a community room, restaurant and retail shops.

The proposal would bring about 65 health department staff to the area.

Under the proposal, Hartford would sell the city properties for $1. It would waive all property tax on the 38,000-square-foot development for a decade. After that, the city would have the right to buy the building for $1.

Under the proposal, the public would supply the bulk of development funds for the 38,000-square-foot building, with a $5 million city grant and a $5.5 million loan from the Capital Region Development Authority.

Hartford faces new, high-stakes trial over Dunkin’ Donuts Park; tab for lawyer fees now well into millions

Kenneth R. Gosselin

HARTFORD — Hartford has paid $4.5 million in fees since 2017 to hire outside lawyers to defend itself against a high-stakes lawsuit claiming the city should not have fired the first developers of Hartford’s minor league baseball park and the land around it, according to records provided by the city.

Now, with the state Supreme Court ordering a new trial, those legal costs are expected to keep climbing.

The city could not provide an estimate of the hours its staff of lawyers spent on the lawsuit filed by Centerplan Construction Co. and DoNo Hartford LLC after their 2016 termination as builders of Dunkin’ Donuts Park and a future mixed-use development around the ballpark.

But the city’s chief attorney, Corporation Counsel Howard Rifkin, according to city estimates, devoted 30% of his time during the period from the developers’ termination to the first trial on the issue. During the five-week trial in 2019 — after which a jury sided with the city’s decision to fire — Rifkin spent 90% of his time on the matter. Rifkin is paid an annual salary of $146,375, city records show.

The selection of Centerplan and DoNo Hartford and their subsequent firing straddled two mayoral administrations. Mayor Pedro E. Segarra hired the first development team and ground was broken just north of downtown Hartford in early 2015.

The city’s current mayor, Luke Bronin, fired Centerplan and DoNo Hartford, in June, 2016, just six months into his first term. Bronin pointed to cost overruns, missed construction deadlines, and incomplete work.

Centerplan and DoNo sought $90 million in damages for wrongful termination, alleging the city ordered changes that delayed completion of the $71 million, city-taxpayer funded, 6,000-seat stadium.

‘The number is huge’

The tally, so far, on outside legal costs took some by surprise.

“The number is huge, and if they have to pay another huge number and they don’t do well on the second trial, that’s a potential disaster and fiscal crisis for the city,” said Robert K. Killian Jr., a lifelong Democrat who served as the city’s probate judge 31 years through eight elections.

Bronin, now in his second term as mayor, maintains the second trial also will reaffirm his decision to fire the developers. He also stands by the decision to terminate, and the legal fees, while substantial, are a fraction of what city taxpayers might have been on the hook for.

“There have been tough decisions and close calls in my time as mayor,” Bronin said. “This was not one of them. I had a deep conviction that if we had not terminated Centerplan, taxpayers of Hartford would have been out tens of millions of dollars more, probably would not have had a baseball team or a baseball stadium to show for it.”

Bronin said that after the termination, Centerplan’s surety company stepped in to finish the job, hiring a new contractor.

Centerplan “said they were 98% done, but if you are 98% done, your insurance company does not have to spend $40 million to correct and finish your work,” Bronin said.

Before being elected as mayor in 2015, Bronin, a Democrat, was critical of the decision by the then-fiscally strained city to borrow funds to finance the stadium and choose a developer who had no experience building a ballpark. Once mayor, the stadium had to be seen through to completion, Bronin said, and he acknowledges that it has become an asset for the city.

Bronin declined comment on whether he would consider settling the lawsuit out of court.

Killian, an attorney who also was in the field of Democratic mayoral candidates in 2015, said the city was in a tough position and needed to finish the stadium so it could move on with development around the ballpark. The mixed-use development was intended to boost the city’s tax base, but also help pay down the debt on the ballpark.

“I hope — and believe — they will have a good shot at the second trial, since the first was overturned on a procedural issue,” Killian said.

Second trial more complex

The second trial will examine who made changes to the stadium plans and when, particularly in the six months leading up to Centerplan and DoNo Hartford’s termination, an issue central to the state Supreme Court ordering a new trial. But the lawsuit also has become more complex because the city subsequently hired a new builder for the apartments and storefront space around Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

The developer, RMS Cos. of Stamford, is nearing completion of the first phase of 270 apartments, just to the south of the ballpark. But Centerplan and DoNo Hartford are seeking to block RMS from moving on to the second phase and essentially take back development around the park. There could be financial implications in terms of damages for moving ahead with another developer should the jury in the second trial reach a verdict in favor of the former developers.

If a jury in the second trial were to side with Centerplan and DoNo Hartford and award damages, there would likely be an appeal. If the developers were ultimately successful, there is no insurance coverage that would cover the award, city officials confirmed.

Councilman Josh Michtom, of the Working Families Party, said he wonders how far the city should pursue litigation, especially with mounting outside legal bills. He said he believes the vision for the ballpark — and the surrounding development — was ill-conceived from the start and has yet to boost businesses downtown or increase guests staying at city hotels.

“I understand that we want to extract something good like housing and broader development,” Michtom said. “But at what point do we just throw in the towel and solve the thing the cheapest way possible? We should be wary of spending more on litigating this issue than the city will ever get out of winning it.”

Emily Morgan

NORWALK — Three of the city’s public middle schools top the list to next take advantage of the new reimbursement rate for school construction, officials said.

Alan Lo, Norwalk’s building and facilities manager, said the city and school district have identified Nathan Hale, Roton and West Rocks middle schools as the next buildings needing to be reconstructed or renovated.

The 60 percent reimbursement rate for school construction, approved earlier this year, would benefit either option. The new reimbursement rate went into effect June 1 and runs for 25 years. The city and school district are developing a 25-year school construction plan using the 2021 Norwalk Facilities Plan Study as a guide.

To determine the feasibility of construction for two of the middle schools, the Land Use and Building Management committee approved $25,000 for Antinozzi Associates to provide conceptual designs and cost estimates for potential swing space at Roton or West Rocks so education can continue on-site while the existing schools are built new or renovated.

“Bottom line, there is no plan right now. By doing this exercise, we’ll determine a way to create swing space so that we can implement these projects and overall develop a 25-year plan,” Lo told the committee last week.

The first school construction project to benefit from the 60 percent reimbursement rate will be the new elementary school in South Norwalk. The city anticipates to close this month on the school property at 1 Meadow St. Extension. Nine proposals for the school construction project are under review.

The new Cranbury Elementary, the last Norwalk school being built under the former reimbursement rates, recently completed all the necessary utility shutdowns and excavation on the site is nearly completed.

Mike Faenza, project manager for Construction Solutions Group, reported to the committee that steel erection will begin in September.

Farmer Turned Activist: Meet Kevin Blacker

It started with an idea about farmland, climate change and a thousand tons of rocks.

Kevin Blacker sits in his red Ford F-350, its truck bed dusted with clumps of hay from his latest job, looking out over the massive construction area that is the State Pier in New London, a project site that has turned this farmer into an activist.

The State Pier is being redeveloped as a staging area for Connecticut’s offshore wind turbine farm known as Revolution Wind, which, under the original terms, will be owned and operated jointly by Danish company Ørsted and Connecticut electricity giant Eversource. Eversource recently announced they will be selling their stake in the wind farm.

The State Pier project has the full backing of Democrat leadership from Gov. Ned Lamont all the way to President Joe Biden’s administration as they look to transition the United States to more wind and solar-based electricity generation to replace fossil fuels.

Just a few months ago, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm joined a full roster of public officials and labor leaders at the site to tout the project, as Connecticut and several other states work to transition to an electric grid with “net-zero” carbon emissions. It’s one of several wind farms being developed off the Northeast Coast in Massachusetts and New York.

But the State Pier project in Connecticut has had its share of trouble, too, as the confluence of government working hand in hand with corporations has led to some very public instances of grift, contracting violations and an escalating price tag shouldered by taxpayers.

With those scandals has come some public outcry as the project excluded the longshoremen’s union from off-loading ships for the State Pier project and kicked out a road salt distributor that had previously used the pier for shipping and distributing.

But perhaps no one has caused local, state and federal officials or corporate executives a bigger headache than Kevin Blacker, whose relentless campaign against the State Pier project has earned him two arrests, some praise and much, much more ire from those holding the reins of power.

Blacker certainly isn’t the first Connecticut citizen to mount a campaign against policy proposals and projects pushed by the powers that be.

In 2018, Patrick Sasser, a firefighter who also owned a small trucking business, rose to prominence fighting Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to place tolls on Connecticut’s highways. His No Tolls CT movement drew headlines and public support through lawn signs, bumper stickers and regular media appearances ultimately culminating with tolls becoming too much of a political hot-potato that the governor and legislature finally put it to bed.

Before him, Susette Kelo and her Little Pink House story about a corporate takeover of land through the Connecticut government’s use of eminent domain garnered a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, a book and even an award-winning film. And while Kelo wasn’t successful at the Supreme Court, her story did change eminent domain laws in other states and remains a symbol of government overreach at the hands of corporate giants.

But what would lead a 36-year-old with a degree in soil science from the University of New Hampshire to so vigorously oppose a project that, aside from the political and ethical issues that draw the attention of news junkies, doesn’t register much interest from the public?

As indicated before, his story starts with farmland, a thousand tons of rocks and an idea to help mitigate the effects of rising sea levels for coastal properties.

Blacker grew up in Noank, Connecticut. His father owned a landscaping company. Blacker grew up working with his father, and continued to work for him when he returned from college. But while at school, Blacker became interested in farming. Currently he is in production farming, cutting and selling hay in Ledyard, renting farmland in towns like North Stonington, to cultivate the land.

But there wasn’t much money in renting farmland and both Blacker and his father became interested in buying their own property but were unsuccessful. 

“I wasn’t making enough money for the amount of work I was putting into farming. It’s really, really hard work and I could see that I wasn’t ever going to be able to buy a piece of land mowing lawns or farming. I had to find another way to make money,” Blacker said in an interview. 

“Renting land was not where it was at. It was a cycle. You rent a piece of land, you make all these improvements, everything in farming requires long-term capital improvements. You have to build fence, fix barns, fix roads,” Blacker said. “I kept cows for ten years on rented land and you build miles of barbed wire fence, which is just ridiculously hard work and then you lose the piece of land. Somebody dies, something changes, you make it too nice and suddenly they want it back and I kept getting burned, and it was really clear that I needed to get a piece of land that I really owned.”

So, in 2017, just as the State Pier project was first making its way through Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration as a potential hub for offshore wind, Blacker was getting started on a business idea. 

“Mowing lawns, putting in hay, it’s just plain hard, physical work,” Blacker said. “I can look ahead to my dad who’s thirty years ahead of me and he’s hobbling around and all worn out and I know I need to think of something that’s not physical.”

Cultivating farmland for crops meant removing massive amounts of rocks and boulders from the soil, and Blacker, in consultation with his brother, saw an opportunity in turning this often worthless byproduct of farming into a business opportunity to protect coastal properties. 

“All these houses we work on in Noank are on the ocean and all of them have rocks protecting them,” Blacker said. “There’s value in these rocks. They say sea level is going to rise more, but I wanted to set up a way for farmers to sell these rocks.”

According to Blacker, the true value in the hay trade is not in the hay itself but in transporting and moving it efficiently. He saw a similar opportunity in rocks. “There’s money in them, but most of the money goes away if you don’t handle them efficiently.”

But to get rocks to places like Block Island, Fishers Island and coastal Connecticut would require access to a nearby port and the State Pier was practically in his backyard. He began attending meetings of the Connecticut Port Authority to understand the pier and meet the people in charge of it, and that’s when he began to really pay attention.

“I set out with my initial intention of selling rocks, but then I was at these meetings and started seeing that something was wrong,” Blacker said. “I started picking at it, digging, and the more I dug, the more I could see that there was something really wrong.”

When Blacker says there was something wrong at the Port Authority, he wasn’t off the mark. 

In 2019, there emerged reports from the media and state auditors that the quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority was spending excessively on travel and dining, lacked basic oversight controls and that CPA Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder paid her daughter thousands for photographs hung in her office.

The reports came courtesy of several whistle-blower complaints and the timing couldn’t have been worse for the Lamont administration as it embarked on the State Pier project with Eversource and Orsted.

Lamont was looking to clear away any hint of scandal or impropriety from the CPA as the State Pier project was looking to get started. Reemsynder submitted her resignation as did Deputy Secretary of State Scott Bates, who approved the purchase; the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee held informational hearings on the port authority’s excessive spending and lack of controls. The CPA’s executive director at the time, Evan Matthews, who was facing health issues, was placed on administrative leave and eventually resigned.

Those highly public problems at the CPA, however, were merely the most public manifestations of what Blacker saw as a lack of accountability at the Authority. 

He recounts a statutorily required board meeting he attended where there wasn’t a quorum to hear public comment and Bates said the statute was “just a technicality” and said the meeting wasn’t necessary.

“I’d read the law and the Port Authority was required to hold this hearing,” Blacker said. When Blacker stood up and requested to speak before the entire board as required, he was casually dismissed. “You can’t just let the government break the law.”

“I initially got into it for the rocks, but I stayed in it for the fight,” Blacker said. 

And Blacker has fought, sometimes landing him in handcuffs or, at least, in a room with police officers. Blacker’s enthusiasm, emails and sometimes over-the-top comments sometimes worked against him as he tried to draw attention to his cause.

In 2019, the Transportation Committee held a forum on the State Pier project. Several days before the meeting, Blacker sent out an email blast calling Gov. Lamont a “wimp” and the hearings a “farce.” 

It was fairly par for the course for the State Pier project’s most outspoken opponent who often employed such rhetoric, but upon arriving he was detained by police who tried to get him to leave the Capitol and go to the police station to give a statement. The police believed his email was threatening, according to Blacker. He refused to leave and sat in on the hearing anyway.

“Lamont’s staff literally unleashed police with the state’s major crime squad to intimidate and shut up Blacker, using Connecticut’s esteemed police like a third world dictator might, sending goons after dissidents,” New London Day opinion writer David Collins wrote.

Indeed, Blacker’s activism has certainly shined a light on scandals at the CPA, but has also occasionally veered into turbulent waters.

Writing that Blacker was a “very nice and well-meaning man,” Chief Editor and Founder of CT Examiner Gregory Stroud also noted the hundreds of emails he has received from Blacker that “have nevertheless grown more profane, and more frequent – sometimes six a day – and on occasion feature violent imagery and fears.”

Nevertheless, Stroud wrote “It was Blacker whose dogged activism has spurred many of us in the press to take a closer look at the port authority.”

Blacker was first arrested in February of 2020 during a Port Authority meeting. He had indicated ahead of time that he would be attending and would engage in “civil disobedience” to disrupt the meeting in protest the Harbor Development Agreement between the CPA, Gateway New London and Eversource/Ørsted that essentially removed any other companies that used the pier and torpedoed Blacker’s hopes of using the pier to create his business.

A brief video of the meeting shows Blacker speaking calmly but not stopping as board members try to ignore him and carry on with the meeting. He was eventually arrested, but the charges were dismissed after a couple court appearances.

He was arrested again in 2020 for painting road signs to the State Pier “Temptation Pink,” in honor of the Little Pink House.

“As the price continued to escalate and more and more information came out about how dishonest the process had been and there was a total lack of action from any leader and a total lack of accountability, I decided that I was going to take action,” Blacker said.

“Number one, it would draw attention to what was occurring here, I wanted people to think about the connection between the pink house deal – which was really rotten and unfair and all done to benefit a private company – but it was also the most aggressive thing I could think of,” Blacker said, adding that he immediately publicized what he’d done.

That move earned him an arrest by the State Police major crimes unit as CPA Board Chairman David Kooris said the damage to the signs was in excess of $1,500 and therefore a felony. It wasn’t — the actual damages were in the hundreds — and the felony case was dropped for a lesser charge, but not before Blacker’s mugshot was posted in newspapers.

Blacker represented himself in the case, refused to pay the inflated costs and is still awaiting a misdemeanor trial before a judge.

Blacker had another near miss with law in 2022 after the State Contracting and Standards Board found that the CPA did not have the statutory authority to enter into a public-private partnership, along with several other problems, such as a finder’s fee paid to Seabury Capital who counted a recent CPA board member as one of their managing directors. “Again, nobody would do anything, nobody would take any action. I decided I’ll take some action,” Blacker said.

He donned a reflective vest, hopped the fence at the State Pier, stood in front of the dump trucks, bulldozers and payloaders and refused to move. “For probably an hour, hour and a half, it brought the work to a halt. It served the purpose of drawing attention. Everything I’ve done is for the purpose of drawing attention.”

“That’s what it’s taking; it takes action and sacrifice and determination to stop something that’s not right,” Blacker said.

But with attention comes derision, scorn and dislike, particularly when one pits themselves against a political machine with hundreds of millions, if not billions on the line. It can get to you.

“I’ve put so much time and effort into this, of course it affects me. I think about it a lot,” Blacker said, adding that “plenty” of his friends and family say he should just give up. 

“Not my dad,” Blacker says, “he never told me to give up, he trusts me. And the ones who really, really know me and trust me, they know that if I see something and I’m committed to it, there’s something there.”

“Of course, when people judge you and dislike you, you feel it,” Blacker said. “But I believe when something is right and you know you’re right, you ignore those uncomfortable feelings, and you keep on going. Anyone who has accomplished anything that’s really great has to deal with being judged.”

“But I don’t lose sleep over the fact that some people think I’m cracked,” Blacker said. “What drives me mad is things that are inefficient, wasteful, dishonest, and just wrong. That keeps me up at night.”

But Blacker also adds that his activism has put him in touch with people he now considers allies in his fight against the State Pier project. 

In essence, people know his name: politicians, bureaucrats and news media recognize him whether they like him or not and maybe one day that will help him.

“I see raw opportunity in the fight,” Blacker said.

Looking out over the work going on at the State Pier, it’s easy to see why some people think Blacker is “cracked.” 

The dump trucks alone going up and down the street and onto the port are probably too numerous to count. There are cranes everywhere. The whole place looks like it’s moving, and the offshore wind project is set to launch in 2023 with the political backing of the federal government.

Quite simply, it looks as if Blacker is fighting a losing battle. The State Pier project looks like a done deal.

But Kevin Blacker insists that it’s not. “The mentality I’m going at this with is that it’s not a done deal,” Blacker said.

“It’s happening,” Blacker said. “But just because something happens doesn’t mean it can’t be undone. And if you break the law, and they were dishonest and they lied and they violated anti-trust laws, there’s triple damages.”

The State Pier project has certainly met with some degree of scrutiny and scandal, and those scandals are ongoing. Aside from the resignations, lack of fiscal oversight and the SCSB report, the Office of State Ethics recently fined Seabury Capital $10,000 for giving gifts to CPA board members, including former executive director Evan Matthews, leading up to the contract award.

Last, but not least, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating former Office of Policy and Management Deputy Secretary Kosta Diamantis who was tasked with overseeing financial matters at the Port Authority on behalf of OPM. 

Diamantis was the subject of a hiring scandal involving Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, as well as improper contracting actions related to school construction at several municipalities in Connecticut, although the FBI has subpoenaed contracting records for the State Pier, as well.

But none that has slowed down progress at the State Pier. Nor has price tag, which has grown from $93 million to $255 million. Officials said the latest price increase would be the last.

But, sitting in his truck overlooking the massive worksite, Blacker maintains his belief in the American system of government, adhering to the letter of the law and accountability.

“They have the money. Somebody could make them fix it. Whether it would be put back to exactly what it was, I don’t know. But it can be fixed,” Blacker said. “This is America, and there’s accountability.”