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CT Construction Digest Monday February 12, 2024

Redevelopment plan for Westbrook Outlets calls for mix of housing, commercial space

Brian Hallenbeck

Westbrook ― What’s this town got that Waterford doesn’t?

How about hope for a dying mall in its midst?

In recent weeks, the Westbrook Outlets, an open-air shopping center off Exit 65 of Interstate 95, some 20 miles west of Waterford’s Crystal Mall, has emerged as the potential site of a $425 million development that would involve leveling what’s there now and replacing it with a mix of residential and commercial space.

The plan ― still so preliminary it doesn’t have a name ― would comprise 595 apartments, 100 townhouse condominiums, retail and entertainment components, and possibly, a hotel and an amphitheater.

Hartford-based Lexington Partners is teaming with the outlets’ owner, T Westbrook Center, a foreign limited liability company, to develop the project.

“It’s massive, twice the size of anything we’ve ever done,” Chris Reilly, Lexington Partners’ president of property management, told the Westbrook Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission last week.

So how did this come about? Who called who?

“They found us,” Reilly, in an interview, said of the people behind T Westbrook Center, who have yet to comment publicly on the development plan. “They knew they needed to do something different. The outlets were 25% occupied.”

Lexington Partners’ projects, most of which are in Hartford County, include The Tannery, a nine-building, 250-unit apartment complex in Glastonbury; and The Borden, a mixed-use development of 150 apartments and commercial/retail space in two adjacent buildings in Wethersfield.

In 2018, Lexington acquired a nine-building, 186-unit apartment complex next to the Old Saybrook train station.

Lexington Partners worked on The Borden project with Westbrook’s town planner, Peter Gillespie, who was then the Wethersfield planner and economic development manager. The relationship smoothed Lexington’s “entree” to Westbrook officialdom, Reilly said.

But it was T Westbrook Center that approached the town about redeveloping the outlets site.

“We had been in conversations with the owners for some time,” said Gillespie, who was the city planner in New London from 1990 to 2003. “The outlets had been declining for a number of years before COVID, which was really a devastating blow.”

“They’re pretty savvy,” he said of T Westbrook Center. “They saw the writing on the wall. ... They made a connection with Lexington.”

In the end, malls are private property, their fates determined by their owners.

That’s been demonstrated in Waterford, where Crystal Mall had deteriorated for years when a commercial lender foreclosed in 2022 on the mall’s owner, Simon Property Group. In an online auction last June, Namdar Realty Group of Great Neck, N.Y., bought the 535,500-square-foot mall as well as two free-standing restaurants for $9.5 million.

Two of Crystal Mall’s vacant anchor spaces, formerly occupied by Sears and Macy’s, are owned by separate entities.

Namdar and its partner, Mason Asset Management, have unveiled no plans to repurpose Crystal Mall, where more than half the spaces are empty. Reports that JCPenney, the mall’s last surviving anchor, will close this spring could not be confirmed Friday with the chain’s corporate headquarters.

Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule, a staunch advocate for a repurposing of the mall, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on the mall’s status.

Meanwhile, it was reported last week that Namdar had sold Enfield Square, a mall it owned in north-central Connecticut, though the buyer was not named.

In a 2017 transaction, T Westbrook Center bought the Westbrook Outlets and seven parcels of adjacent land from Tanger, a major operator that owns the outlet mall at Foxwoods Resort Casino, for $40 million. The Westbrook mall opened in1995.

Reilly, asked his opinion of the Crystal Mall site, said Lexington Partners has never been approached in regard to developing a project there. Because of its size, the cost of demolishing it would pose a challenge, he said, as would the fact that it has multiple owners.

With 290,000 square feet of leasable space, the Westbrook Outlets are about half the size of Crystal Mall.

As for demographic comparisons, the population within a three-mile radius of Crystal Mall (36,377) is three times what it is near the Westbrook Outlets (12,169), according to the malls’ marketing materials. Average household income within three miles of Crystal Mall ($98,354) is about 80% of what is is near the outlets ($121,819).

“It’s right off 95, right near the train station, with all the amenities of a shore community,” Reilly said, extolling the Westbrook Outlets site’s suitability. “Quite frankly, there’s not much south of the Amtrak tracks (that run south of the site). Few homes would be impacted (by the proposed development).”

After working on the project for two years, Lexington Partners went public for the first time during an informal presentation to the Westbrook Zoning Commission on Jan. 22. It followed up at last week’s session with the inland wetlands board.

The transparency came on the eve of Lexington Partners’ submission of an all-important application to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which must approve the development’s proposed subsurface sewage disposal system.

Without that approval, the project goes nowhere, Reilly said.

During the DEEP review, Lexington Partners will begin the town permitting process, according to the developers’ attorney, Edward Cassella. Although much of the proposed development meets zoning regulations, it will require a few zoning text amendments regarding such items as maximum building height, number of stories and parking spaces.

Lexington Partners hopes to break ground in the second quarter of 2025 and complete construction in 2027.

Reilly stressed that little about the project’s design is cast in stone.

“It’s very preliminary,” he said. “Even the look of the buildings, the materials could change completely. One thing that’s not going to change is the boulevard concept.”

Renderings show a street running through the middle of the development, with a mix of retail and residential on either side. Gillespie, the town planner, said the proposal has the “feel” of Blue Back Square, an upscale mixed-use development in West Hartford.

Such elements as a 100-room hotel and a 1,000-seat amphitheater may be eliminated from the plan.

Residential development is Lexington Partners’ specialty.

“Connecticut is in desperate need of housing,” Reilly said. “What we’re proposing here would only be a small drop in the bucket. ... There probably would be some affordable housing. Every project we’ve done in the last six years has had some affordable housing.”

So far, residents’ reaction to the project has been mostly positive, Gillespie said, though some have expressed concern about an influx of residents if the development gets built.

“We’re a small town and this is a big project,” he said. “I think the plan will continue to evolve.”

CT company makes plea for state contract after claiming wrongful termination

Ken Dixon

A West Haven company is making a plea to be considered for hazardous waste-cleanup work after it claims being wrongfully terminated a few years ago during a state investigation into contract steering that has not implicated the firm.

AAIS Corp. charges that it is now barred from other state and local work and has become ancillary damage in a wide-ranging state and federal investigation into contracts. The company was ordered off the property of the old Cedarcrest Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital in Newington, leaving hazardous material scattered around the property.

"Since AAIS was removed from the state contract nearly two years ago, our company has been prevented from getting hazardous material abatement projects that employed hundreds of skilled workers and sustained the company for decades," Glen Mulrenan, VP of Spectrum Environmental, LLC, of which AAIS is a division, said on Friday.

The state Department of Administrative Services confirmed that AAIS was fired from the Newington job site, where it had been responsible for asbestos removal and has been paid a total of $1,992,511 for their work. Although the company left the hospital property in January of 2023, the last payment to AAIS was made in September for $373,307, the company said on Thursday, adding that some payments were delayed for as long as two years during DAS audits.

Leigh Appleby, communications director for the DAS, said Friday night that AAIS was terminated from the contract "for convenience" but is free to bid on state work and other contracts.

"For example, they can still do work as a prime contractor or as a subcontractor," Appleby said. "They were only removed from one state procurement contract.  AAIS can compete for the hazmat contract when DAS next advertises for a new version of that contract.  The current contract is set to expire July 30, 2026. I would also add that there is nothing barring any political subdivision from going through a competitive procurement process with vendors outside of state contracts."

The hospital project is one of several that DAS and federal authorities investigated for possible contract steering, including school construction projects supervised by Konstantinos Diamantis, a former member of the state House of Representatives who has since retired and whose employee grievance was dismissed.

An attorney for AAIS said this week that the cleanup of the hospital property was about halfway finished and that it would cost the state another $550,000 and that the DAS is "scapegoating" the company. The hospital closed in 2010.

"The simple facts are that AAIS was unfairly terminated from the contract, and that each purchase order that DAS awards without its participation in the bidding process is an exercise in mismanagement," wrote Michael J. Donnelly of the Hartford firm of Murtha Cullina, in a letter to Michelle Gilman, commissioner of the DAS, dated Feb. 1. "It is important to note that throughout our interactions with DAS, AAIS has never been informed of any allegations that it acted improperly in connection with the award or performance of any of the jobs in question."

The letter says AAIS understood Gilman's position as a new commissioner, appointed in February 2022. "However, DAS, under your charge has had sufficient time to wrap its arms around the situation, and it is time that DAS stops scapegoating a Connecticut business and wasting Connecticut taxpayer’s money." 

Donnelly said that "multiple" audits by both the DAS and the state Comptroller's office cleared AAIS of wrongdoing, and the fact that the September payments eventually went to the company is testament to its successful work remediating asbestos.

Norwalk committee approves $271.4 million in build costs for two new schools

Kalleen Rose Ozanic

NORWALK — After a Common Council committee set the maximum contractor costs for the upcoming construction of the South Norwalk School and the new Norwalk High School, the city is looking at a maximum combined cost for the projects of as much as $271.4 million.

Newfield Construction, the South Norwalk School's contractor, can charge the city at most a committee-approved a $51.8 million. The new high school's contractor, Gilbane, can charge no more than $219.6 million for the build. Alan Lo, the city’s building and facilities manager, said the city did well with its guaranteed maximum prices.

“I think we have to recognize that, the last few years, the construction industry, especially school construction in Connecticut, has been very challenging as the prices go up and down,” Lo said at the meeting Wednesday of the Common Council's Land Use and Building Management Committee.

Both projects are set to break ground in late February, Lo said at the meeting. The South Norwalk School is slated to open for students in the 2025-26 school year, while the Norwalk Public Schools anticipates the new high school will welcome its first class in the 2027-28 school year.

South Norwalk School

South Norwalk School’s guaranteed maximum price takes up about 68 percent of the project’s $76 million budget.

The city will receive 80 percent reimbursement from the state for the project, making Norwalk’s financial obligation for the new build at $15.2 million.

In the Wednesday meeting, the committee voted to remove Shawn’s Lawns, an excavation contractor, from the build; Lo said the business has unresolved zoning and conservation commission violations. 

“I feel very strongly that this is not a company that I feel comfortable giving our city business to,” Chair Barbara Smyth said before the committee voted to remove the contractor from the project.

Some parts of the two projects are ineligible for state reimbursement, Lo said. For the South Norwalk School, one of the big ticket items for which the city is on the hook will be traffic improvements.

In September, the Common Council approved a $2 million special appropriations request for flood and road improvements surrounding the upcoming school at 1 Meadow St. Ext.

The funds were pulled from the free balances of the Jefferson and Ponus Ridge schools.

The Common Council also approved $2.9 million at that meeting for the acquisition of six nearby properties on which the new school will expand: 8, 32, 36 and 38 Oxford St., 16 Meadow St. Ext, and a 1.13-parcel next to the proposed school property. 

Norwalk High School

The guaranteed maximum price for the new Norwalk High School takes up the vast majority of the project’s $239 million budget at about 92 percent.

The new high school project also will receive 80 percent reimbursement from the state; the city is responsible for $47.8 million. In this project, the turf and concessions won’t be eligible for state reimbursement, Lo said.

The new building will be constructed on the site of the current Testa Field Complex. A new athletic facility will be built in place of the existing school, which will be demolished after the new one is built, according to the project website. 

“As a result, many athletic programs will be displaced during construction from 2024 through 2027,” the project website states.

Because of the disruptions, students will be bused to athletic practices and competitions at other sites that would previously have been held at there. The district will bus students to athletic spaces at Nathan Hale Middle School, West Rocks Middle School, Cranbury Elementary School, Brien McMahon High School and Oak Hills Park.

Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT —The 1,500 apartments proposed for the Steelpointe waterfront redevelopment have for some time been billed as high-end or luxury units in a class of their own, at least for Bridgeport.

“I’m looking to create a market here ... that does not exist today,” Robert Christoph Jr. who, with his father has spent a slow but steady several years transforming the East Side land situated between the harbor and Interstate 95, said in an interview over two years ago.

So when a ceremonial ground-breaking was held on the site Jan. 16 it came as a surprise that 160 of the 420 units planned for the first phase of construction would be lower-priced workforce housing. Not low income, but aimed instead at teachers, police officers, nurses and others, and exceeding an affordable requirement in an earlier agreement with the city.

City Councilman Scott Burns, until recently the co-chairman of that legislative body's economic development committee, called that a positive.

"I think it's a good change/addition to the project," he said. "(We) shouldn't make this a waterfront enclave for the wealthy."

According to state officials, the 160 apartments will be spread out among different sizes, from studios to three-bedroom units, and with rents starting around $2,000 per month. The average projected savings for tenants is $385 per month over market rate.

What led to the change in plans? The Christophs needed the state's help wrapping up the financing for the already delayed $190 million project.

"There was a gap in the final financing package for the first housing phase," Adam Wood, a spokesperson for the Christophs, said. "The developer met with state leaders. ... One of the financing options made available featured workforce housing, a shared goal of the state and the community."

More specifically the Christophs are receiving a $20 million low interest loan from a $200 million, two-year pot of money Gov. Ned Lamont, who attended the Jan. groundbreaking, had proposed last year to help boost Connecticut's housing stock.

State Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno in an interview blamed rising interest rates for the challenges breaking ground at Steelpointe.

"The goal for this program is to work with those projects that were delayed because of the high interest rates and to make sure the money is on the street and we are building units," she said. "Do you have your lender? Your permits? Do you have that small gap that can make this work? Here we are, give us some affordability for these young professionals who are going to be working in the city and need housing.”

But during last month's groundbreaking ceremony Ryan Cronk, a partner in the project, made candid comments about the overall challenges of putting the funds together for redevelopment in Bridgeport. Cronk is a principal with Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins Properties. In fall 2022 it was announced his company would help build and manage the Steelpointe housing complex.

"My first time in Bridgeport was three years ago. ... I came out here and thought, 'Wow, this is awesome,'" Cronk said. But then, he said, "We started hearing back from all these lenders that didn't want to come out to Bridgeport. ... We talked to, I don't know, about 100 banks?"

After convincing four in-state banks and four from outside of Connecticut to participate at Steelpointe, the development team then turned to the state last fall, Cronk continued. 

"And that was to get us to the top to start construction," he said.

There was prior indication that putting together the entire $190 million would prove challenging. In late 2021 the Christophs successfully sought a local 12-year tax break. As reported at the time, there was some criticism that the subsidy was unnecessary and unwarranted for a mostly luxury complex. But Bridgeport Economic Development Director Thomas Gill had insisted that without that aid, "They would have a gap in their financing and their financing and lending institutions would not approve the project."

Pasquale Guliano is managing director of multifamily programs with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, a quasi-public agency involved in helping Steelpointe. He in an interview said the challenge the Christophs  faced was convincing people with money that luxury housing would work in Bridgeport.

"This is going to be transformational for the Bridgeport market," he said. "You could say right now there is no other 420-unit project in Fairfield County going up on the water. This is very unique and it should have a major impact. (But) we've seen banks or lenders are a little apprehensive lending in unproven markets. Bridgeport really hasn't had much in the lines of this type of development. ... So you have to sort of buy into the vision."

As for how the state loan changes the development, initially under the deal with Bridgeport the Christophs were to have 10 percent of their total units set aside as workforce housing. So if all 1,500 apartments were eventually built, that meant 150 maximum would have cheaper rents than the higher-end ones.

But a significant number of that 10 percent could be constructed offsite. And, according to their data, the Christophs had already either helped construct or are building 75 total units in other neighborhoods to meet that original 10 percent requirement. Wood confirmed that the 160 now included in this first phase will be in addition to that 75 and actually be incorporated into Steelpointe.

Guliano and Mosquera-Bruno noted that the lower-priced apartments will blend right in.

"Nothing has changed in terms of the design or the level of finishes or that nature," he said.

Citing local demand for more housing options, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said he does not believe the workforce component in any way diminishes the original intent to turn Steelpointe into a showpiece akin to similar projects like in Stamford. Not only have the Christophs built a new marina at Steelpointe but they have been holding luxury boat shows for the past few years.

"The takeaway is it adds what I think a lot of people were happy to see," Ganim said.

City Council President Aidee Nieves, who represents Bridgeport's East Side, said the Christophs informed her late last year they were hoping to obtain some state dollars for workforce units when she called them concerned construction had yet to begin.

"I didn't know it was a whole 160," Nieves said. She said she is happy because the need for housing is a major issue in town when she talks with constituents.

"Workforce housing speaks to young professionals who don't want to own a home yet but want a nice place to live," Nieves said.

Nieves said she was however disappointed to learn that M&T Bank, which acquired Bridgeport-based People's in 2022, did not wind up being one of the financial partners when the Christophs needed help.

"This would have been a flagship development for them to invest in Bridgeport," she said. "It leaves a little sour spot for me."

In response, Frank Micalizzi, M&T's Bridgeport Regional president and head of commercial banking for Connecticut, said in a statement, "M&T Bank remains fully committed to Bridgeport, our New England headquarters."

He cited examples like committing to opening a branch in a new East End redevelopment, launching a multicultural small business lab to support Bridgeport entrepreneurs and sponsoring various community events.

"While we are not able to participate as partners in all local development projects, we did work cooperatively with the (Steelpointe) team to explore a potential role. We wish them the best in making this project a reality for the Bridgeport community," Micalizzi concluded.

As for whether Steelpointe's apartments might have an even larger affordably priced component as other sections are erected, Guliano said it is too soon to say.

"We're just focused on the first phase," he said. "This is a 48-month construction term and the (state loan) program is funded for two years. We'd be happy to talk to them and any developer on any market rate project going forward.”

Emily M. Olson

TORRINGTON — City officials will present plans to reconstruct Migeon Avenue, in a road project that includes paving, new curbing, replacement of sidewalks and associated miscellaneous work, which will provide for safer vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle travel, according to a statement. 

 The project is financed by the state Department of Transportation's Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program, and the City of Torrington. 

"It is anticipated that construction will begin in the summer of 2024," according to officials. "It is the City of Torrington’s and the State’s policy to keep people informed and involved when such projects are undertaken. It is important that the community be informed and share its concerns to assist in the project’s development."

A virtual presentation will be presented on Zoom, an online meeting platform, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15. This meeting is not being held in person. The public is invited to attend. 

To connect to the meeting, go to https://rb.gy/e62v9s, meeting ID 841 5458 1427, passcode: yHZ0Br, or by phone at 646-931 3860, meeting ID: 841 5458 1427, passcode: 932383. Find your local number at us02web.zoom.us/u/kepWB61USx

Anyone interested in obtaining further information or providing comments can contact Paul Kundzins, PE, City Engineer, at 860-489-2234 or in writing by mail or by email paul_kundzins@torringtonct.org. Public comments be submitted in writing no later than 4 p.m., Feb. 14.

Torrington commission to review renewal application of quarry site


TORRINGTON — Mountaintop Trucking is looking to renew its earth excavation permit – likely for the last time.

The Planning and Zoning Commission will be reviewing the application for the renewal at its meeting Wednesday, City Planner Jeremy Leifert said. It is the ninth time the renewal has come before the commission since about 2005.

Danny Stoughton, owner of Mountaintop Trucking, which produces aggregate from material excavated on the property, said the quarry is reaching its end.

“This will be our last renewal before we go to a site plan,” he said.

After that, he anticipates the property will revert to retail use. The company will continue excavating, but from a quarry it owns in Winsted.

Stoughton said Mountaintop has been in business for 42 years. It makes stone into products including driveway gravel, roadbase for under asphalt and other road materials, and drainage for around houses.

The quarry renewal repeats every two years, Leifert said. Since the surrounding area is commercially zoned, he doesn’t anticipate “the same pushback” that occurred last spring when O&G Industries and Haynes Aggregates Torrington jointly renewed their permits to excavate a quarry in a more residential area of Winsted Road. In those hearings, neighbors complained of noise from blasting and raised environmental concerns.

“We’ll likely have a few people but it’s not going to be the outpouring,” Leifert said of Mountaintop’s renewal.

He said the only issue he could recall with the quarry occurred about four or five years ago when Mountaintop’s access road encroached on Elks Pond on Guerdat Road. The quarry backs up to the proerty, a pond and pavilion owned by the Elks Club.

In his memo on the application, Leifert mentions that part of the encroachment area has yet to be restored.

“This area will be restored during the two year renewal time frame,” he notes.

The commission will also clean up some local statutes on automotive establishments statutes to match state updates, Leifert said. In addition, it will look at an application to change a property at 184 South Main St. from mixed-use to residential and convert a building with a former culinary school back into a two-family home.

Lastly, the commission is going to start a discussion on regulations for temporary shelters, such as winter homeless shelters. When the question of winter homeless shelters arouse last November, the commission only had general standards to look at, Leifert said. There was nothing specific to winter shelters.

In December, the commission denied Northwest Hills Community Church permission to house a shelter. Later that month, it gave Trinity Episcopal Church the go-ahead to house the shelter there.

The plan is to make sure there’s something on the books before the questions comes up later this year, Leifert said. The end result will likely make it more flexible for properties to be used for temporary shelters.

Ignacio Laguarda

STAMFORD — Members of the Stamford Zoning Board were set to vote on a special permit for a proposed 471-unit downtown apartment complex on Clinton Avenue Tuesday night — until the request was withdrawn at the last minute.

 "I don’t get that," said a surprised Rosanne McManus, one of the board members. "I don’t get it at all."

"I don’t either," said board chairman David Stein.

The withdrawal happened during a discussion about affordable housing units for the project. New York developer Carmel Partners preferred to contribute roughly $13 million to the city's affordable housing trust fund as opposed to offering 49 of the units in the development at a below-market rate. 

A letter dated Jan. 29 from attorney Jason Klein, writing on behalf of the developer, stated that Carmel preferred to make the multi-million dollar payment due in part to the perceived risk of on-site below-market units holding up certificates of occupancy or leasing.

"Any such opportunity to lower risk is critical to financing residential development projects, particularly in today’s climate where the lending industry is facing uncertainty due to underperforming loans made in other sectors (particularly in the commercial office market) and the tightening of money supply," the letter read.

Zoning Board members had shown support for a different model — a 50-50 setup that would have required Carmel to pay half of the trust fund fee while providing roughly half of the 49 affordable units.

Zoning Board member Jerry Bosak supported the idea of splitting the below-market obligation between on-site units and a payment into the city's affordable housing fund. His reasoning was that providing the units as part of the Clinton Avenue project would more quickly create affordable housing. Money that goes into the fund is made available to nonprofits as grants.

"The problem that I have with the nonprofits is it takes a while for it to be done when we put it into the affordable housing trust," Bosak said. "It takes a while for that to be developed and we’re not realizing these projects for a couple of years.”

Stein agreed.

"We have an extreme shortage of affordable housing, so we need to do whatever we can to create more," he said.

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing suggested to the board that they steer away from the split concept and rather approve the fee-in-lieu to the trust fund or all of the 49 affordable units on site.

"That's the easier way of doing things from a compliance perspective," he said.

Representatives for the developer were not present during the online meeting, but sent a message to principal planner Vineeta Mathur, specifying they would withdraw the plan if the board insisted on the 50/50 split — and then withdrew the project in its entirety shortly after sending the first message.

It's unclear what the withdrawal means for the future of the project, which has been in the works for the past eight years and had already received the approval of the Planning and Zoning Boards.

Klein did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The development would have comprised two seven-story residential buildings — one on each side of Clinton Avenue, between Division Street and Richmond Hill Avenue.

The 4.3-acre site is located along the Rippowam River. Officials have been working for decades to piece together a riverside walking path connecting Scalzi Park to Kosciuszko Park — a central facet of long-term plans to expand Mill River Park.

Royal Bank of Scotland previously owned the parcel of land. But after the 2008 financial crisis, the corporation was looking to shed properties in Stamford. Part of the cutbacks included plans to consolidate property to create a large site that attracted residential developers, according to a November 2015 Stamford Advocate article.

The city owned nearby parcels inland, but not abutting the river — where it hoped to expand the Mill River Greenway officials at the time said. Seeing a mutually beneficial opportunity, city officials and RBS agreed to a land swap in August 2016. Officials also approved a general plan for the development that year, according to the Advocate.

After years of delays, New York developer Carmel Partners purchased the site from RBS in 2022.