CT Construction Digest Monday March 13, 2023
Yet another I-95 study, fixing nothing
Why do we keep “studying” problems instead of fixing them? Why do we still pay consultants millions of dollars, over and over, to look at the same issues while we avoid spending that money to change the conditions that create them?
We keep hoping there’s an easy solution… that some savvy consultant will find the missing link, shout “Ahah! We’ve found the answer!” and then we can fix it. But we should know that’s not going to happen. If the solutions were easy, we’d have found them long ago.
The latest example of wasting money: a $7 million, three-year traffic study of I-95, the fifth such study in 20 years. This time the focus is just a three-mile stretch in downtown Stamford ranked as one of the worst bottlenecks in the nation.
The road sees 200,000 vehicles a day with 40+% of that traffic entering or leaving the highway in Stamford, “The City That Works” (but can’t seem to move its own street traffic). Anybody driving that stretch of I-95 knows what a mess it is most hours of the day.
This new study is looking slightly beyond I-95 itself to include 50 intersections in downtown Stamford as well as the 1,500+ daily pedestrians who dodge cars trying to cross under I-95.
Visit the consultant’s beautiful website, I95Stamford.com, and you are greeted by a background video that immediately makes one skeptical. The video shows traffic freely flowing on I-95, as if on a Sunday morning, not the typical 15 mph bumper-to-bumper flow that greets daily commuters. Do these consultants even understand the problem?
Dig further into the website and you get a sense of why this project is costing $7 million. In the cause of “environmental justice” and social equity all of the documentation is available in English, Spanish and Creole. There are facts sheets, brochures, newsletters and even a telephone hotline. And there are fascinating video archives of their first efforts at community outreach.
Let’s just say that local folks are skeptical. We’ve seen this political posturing, these listening sessions and stakeholder engagement before and know they lead to nothing.
During the Q&A with the consultants in the first public session there were the usual calls for bike lanes, pedestrian crossing and yes, one old timer said we need to replace the highway with a monorail. The consultants listened politely, nodded and said they appreciate “big ideas.”
But the first caller, Zach, really said it best: “This seems like a waste of money. You can’t take three years to study this.” Then he made the best observation of all: “The problem with I-95 is that the trains run too slow. Let’s get more people on the train and out of cars.” Exactly.
So why isn’t the Connecticut Department of Transportation studying Metro-North and the Stamford Transportation Center (which they own) right next to the highway? Why aren’t they figuring out why people are driving instead of taking the train?
Answer those questions and the traffic problems will be solved.
Work Begins on I-95 Exit 74 in East Lyme on Monday, March 13
EAST LYME — Long-anticipated work on the I-95 interchange with Route 161 at Exit 74 will begin on Monday, March 13.
During the first week impacts on traffic will be minimal according to Josh Morgan, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, who said the state’s project team met with East Lyme officials on March 9 for a pre-construction meeting.
East Lyme First Selectman Kevin Seery, in his March 9 blog post on the town website, said that work during the first week will involve surveyors placing stakes and ribbons.
“It is not anticipated that there will be lane closures while the survey work is being done next week, but it is possible,” he wrote.
The next phase will include relocating the “utility poles, gas lines, and water and sewer lines on Rt 161,” said Seery.
“That is when the lane closures are anticipated to begin. The Project Managers have stated their intention is to notify the Town approximately two weeks in advance of the need to close lanes so ample notification can be provided to the public,” he wrote.
The project was estimated at $142 million in 2021, when it was expected to begin. The project was delayed for two years due to a number of property issues pertaining to acquisitions and easements.
According to Morgan, the project — which includes replacing the bridge, widening the highway, adding auxiliary lanes, extending on/off ramps, widening Rte. 161, and adding commuter parking lots — is expected to be completed in 4.5 years.
“Lane closures will be required based on project needs. All lane closures and project updates will be shared via the project website, local alerts through the municipality, and social media,” said Morgan. “The project website – I-95EastLyme.com – is still being developed and will be online in mid-April.”
Meriden approaching conclusion of Harbor Brook channeling, officials say
MERIDEN — After launching the project nearly a year ago, city officials say disaster prevention measures along Harbor Brook are nearing completion, with a possible conclusion date as early as this fall.
The efforts to expand and deepen Harbor Brook represent one component in a multifaceted, decades-long initiative to confront over a century of repeated flooding in downtown Meriden.
City Engineer Brian Ennis said floods first began as a byproduct of the second Industrial revolution in the mid 19th century after factories were built directly on top of natural floodplains along waterways snaking across Meriden, effectively removing a buffer between river waters and the city.
“There's a lot of rivers and streams that go through town, and because of the industrial nature of Meriden, a lot of overdevelopment on the brook was done,” Ennis said. “So the what used to be floodplain at a Brook was filled and developed and buildings were put on it and when there's no place for all the water to go.”
Construction is running ahead of schedule, Ennis said, thanks to this year’s atypically mild winter which gave crews space to operate with greater efficiency and avoid weather-induced roadblocks traditionally seen between December and early March.
Flood Control Implementation Agency member Michael Rohde struck an optimistic tone while outlining development progress in and around Hanover Street, suggesting the city is rapidly approaching an end to channeling in the area.
“We’re coming down to the final phases,” Rohde said. “We’re about 70% plus done with the whole project.”
Ennis said while a conclusion to channel work in northern Meriden could come in the fall of 2023, he conceded an end date in 2024 is also likely given demolition roadblocks engineers faced in the neighborhood.
Ennis said widening Harbor Brook required the removal of three buildings, two of which have either been cleared away or are currently being torn down. A third, however, was initially intended to be repurposed, but was severely damaged by a fire in 2022, forcing the city to abruptly change course.
“It’s not that we’re running out of money [for demolition], it’s that we didn’t plan on doing anything about that,” Ennis said. “The original plan was to reuse that building, but when we had a fire last year, it became structurally unsound.”
In order to raze the former medical office building on Cook Avenue, Ennis said engineers must obtain approval from the city Department of Economic and Community Development.
In conjunction with measures to expand Harbor Brook, Flood Control Implementation Agency member Sonya Jelks said, engineers are set to begin working on an adjacent expansion of the nearby Linear Trail, with a preemptive start date slated for this summer and an end date “hopefully this year.”
Jelks said trail developments aimed to connect Meriden, Southington, Wallingford and Cheshire to one another, but starting construction hinged on widening out Harbor Brook.
“The goal is to create these trails such that they go from town to town so that folks can take advantage of safe walkways [and] safe bikeways for families and young people,” Jelks said. “That whole process has been somewhat rooted in flood control work that we're doing.”
Completing a joint channeling and trail development initiative proved to be an ambitious and costly project with what Ennis labeled a price tag of roughly $13 million — $6 million of which was funded by the city of Meriden. The other $7 million, Ennis said was acquired through a mixture of federal and state grants.
Jelks attributed the success of channeling in recent years to an influx of cash from Hartford and Washington, as well as a willingness on the part of local bureaucrats to finance a development she sees as vital to the long term economic stability of both business and homeowners in Meriden.
“I'm just extremely happy that we've been fortunate in Meriden to receive state and local support on trying to complete these projects, which we know ultimately will be of benefit to not only the businesses that are in downtown district, but even some homes that we're going to be lifting out of flood control,” Jelks said.
At East Norwalk I-95 interchange, CT's first 'diverging diamond' intersection is still on table
NORWALK — Nearly four years after plans for a complete redesign of the East Norwalk Interstate 95 exchange, the state continues to study whether the area should be converted into Connecticut's first "diamond intersection."
In early 2019, the state Department of Transportation announced it was considering restructuring the I-95 interchange on East Avenue in East Norwalk.
At the time of the project’s announcement, the state was looking to convert the interchange to a “diamond intersection,” which would be the first of its kind in Connecticut.
"A traffic study is ongoing to determine if a diverging diamond is a feasible alternative in the area, and what other potential alternatives may improve safety and alleviate traffic," DOT spokesperson Josh Morgan said. "A timeline for this potential project is still being developed."
Near the overpass eyed for the diamond intersection, the state recently purchased a plot of land for $3.85 million. However, the land is not intended for use in the I-95 interchange, Morgan said. The property, at 180 East Ave., was instead purchased as part of the Walk Bridge project.
The diverging diamond interchange would involve both directions of traffic briefly crossing over to the opposite side of the road between the on- and off-ramps. The proposed design would eliminate the need for drivers to cross oncoming traffic, theoretically resulting in less bottlenecking at the intersection.
The change would also decrease the amount of dangerous T-bone accidents and limit time spent at traffic lights, Matthew Vail, a principal engineer of state highway design for the DOT previously said.
Diverging diamond interchanges first became popular in France during the 1970s and, since the early 2000s, have begun to catch on in the American Midwest.
During a June 2021 public hearing on median reconstruction and resurfacing of I-95, DOT’s Andy Fesenmeyer confirmed the diamond design is still under consideration for the intersection.
“This project is currently in the concept stage and options are being evaluated,” Fesenmeyer said, according to the meeting minutes.
Stamford schools upgrades will cost $51M of mayor's proposed $91M budget for building, capital projects
STAMFORD — Mayor Caroline Simmons' proposed $91.4 million total capital budget funding for next fiscal year is more than 60 percent higher than this year's adopted $55.5 million, and the lion's share of the new spending would be on school projects.
Borrowing would fund $56.2 million of the capital budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. The rest would be funded through other sources, such as state or federal grants.
Of the total proposed capital budget, $51 million would be set aside for school projects, with $34.5 million funded by bonding. The budget would increase authorized bonding for school projects by about $28 million compared with the 2022-23 fiscal year — which Simmons said is needed to advance a 20-year, $1.5 billion master plan for Stamford schools.
“Investing in our schools is essential to executing our long-term facilities plan, so we increased the amount of bond authorization for school facility projects in this budget,” Simmons told members of the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives during a joint meeting Wednesday night.
In December, the Board of Finance set a $70 million borrowing limit for the coming fiscal year — a $30 million increase driven by the schools’ master plan. The city and the state are expected to share the total cost of the plan roughly 50-50.
Simmons said the school projects within the fiscal 2023-24 capital budget include a roof replacement at Stamford High School, new flooring at Julia A. Stark Elementary School and improvements at Rippowam Middle School and at Springdale, Davenport Ridge, Northeast and Newfield elementary schools.
Here are some of the budget items that Simmons highlighted in her presentation Wednesday to the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives as well as in letters accompanying her proposed operating and capital budgets.
ROADS AND SIDEWALKS
Simmons' capital budget seeks a $5 million allocation for road paving and $300,000 for sidewalk reconstruction outside of downtown Stamford.
"Our goal is to get an adequate sidewalk around all of our school buildings over the next three years," Simmons said during Wednesday's presentation.
PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLISTS
Simmons has suggested using $500,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to build bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the Pepper Ridge and Hubbard Heights areas of the city and another $500,000 in ARPA funding for two traffic studies - one of the Cove and East Side neighborhoods and one to design improvements to the state-owned Washington Boulevard.
The mayor also wants to bond $250,000 for an inventory of sidewalks and pedestrian ramps; $1.5 million for roadway design and reconstruction projects; $1.2 million for traffic signals; and $1.4 million for a redesign of the West Main Street corridor. The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the city a $2.1 million grant for the West Side project last year.
Within the proposed capital budget is $1.7 million in funding for fire department apparatuses; $500,000 to replace fire hydrants; $200,000 for the Glenbrook fire station; and $200,000 for specialty police vehicles.
The city is also "making enhancements to the way that our Emergency Communication Center, or our 911 call center, is staffed," Simmons said Wednesday. Members of the Board of Representatives have voiced concerns about the center's staffing.
Simmons' capital budget proposes a total of about $2.6 million in funding to make upgrades at Cummings Park, Scalzi Park, West Beach, Barrett Park, Carwin Park, Hatchfield Park, Cove Island Park, Kosciuszko Park, Northrop Park and Fort Stamford.
"One of my goals is to ensure that every resident in our city has access to a quality park within a 10-minute walk of where they live," Simmons said.
Simmons included a $125,000 request in her capital budget to install charging stations for electric city vehicles. She also asked for $250,000 for an inventory of trees in city rights-of-way and larger parks; $50,000 for tree replanting; and $100,000 for remediation of tree pits in Stamford's downtown.
Simmons has proposed adding a position to the city's Land Use Bureau that will focus on housing. She also requested $1.25 million in her capital budget to support the redevelopment of Charter Oak Communities' Oak Park affordable housing community.
While the budget would authorize a total of $56.2 million in bonding, Simmons said the city plans to only issue $50 million in bonds later this year. Lauren Meyer, a special assistant to Simmons, told The Stamford Advocate that the city will determine which city and school projects are “shovel ready” and bond for them then. Last year, the city sold $40 million in general obligation bonds.
Simmons has also proposed to raise $20 million through taxes and reserve the cash for school projects. It would be a repeat of what the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives decided to do during last year’s budget process.
“This reserve will allow for full payment of invoices related to school improvement projects until our state reimbursement is received,” Simmons said.
A state budget bill signed into law last year increased the reimbursement rate for certain school construction projects in Stamford from 20 percent to 60 percent for 25 years.
In addition to school buildings, Simmons said her administration prioritized spending on roads, sidewalks and pedestrian safety projects; public safety equipment; parks and sustainability projects; and housing.
Separately from the capital budget, Simmons rolled out a $654.7 million operating budget for the city and its schools — which would represent an overall increase of 3.7 percent from fiscal 2022-23.
Simmons didn’t mention a potential average mill rate. Property taxes account for more than 90 percent of the city’s revenue.
The schools’ portion, approved by the Board of Education last month, makes up $314.8 million of the total proposed operating budget. It would be a 4.3 percent increase for Stamford’s public schools if approved without cuts.
The Board of Finance and Board of Representatives only have the power to make cuts to the proposed capital and operating budgets; they cannot add funding to the proposal.
Simmons has asked for $329.2 million for the “city side” of the operating budget or a 2.98 percent increase. The total figure includes $191.8 million for operating expenses, $83 million for employee and retiree benefits and $53.8 million for debt service payments.
Simmons said the main cost drivers in her proposed operating budget included employee salaries and benefits.
“On the salary side, the majority of those (increases) were contractual wage obligations, but we did also add new positions, which I believe were mission critical to serving the city,” she said. “With respect to benefits, we did see an increase in active health care benefits due to an increase in premiums.”
In terms of savings, Simmons said the city’s pension and other-post-employment-benefits costs were down.
“It’s mostly due to two factors,” Simmons said. “One is that the number of retirees changed, and two is we switched a number of our OPEB retirees to the state partnership (health) plan, which resulted in cost savings.”
104-year-old Norwalk-based construction company that built Merritt Parkway to close
NORWALK — A 104-year-old, family-run construction company that built the Merritt Parkway and countless other projects in the city and state will close.
Despite some mixed feelings, owners Mike and Dan Deering have decided to shut down the Deering Construction company, a family-run business that's spanned five generations.
“This wasn’t something that was planned, it’s bittersweet, but it’s the right time for us,” Mike Deering said. “We’re at that retirement age now, we talked about it and it’s a good time for us to step away.”
Mike Deering is 60 and his brother Dan is 65.
The company plans to auction off everything — from outdoor heavy machinery to office desks and chairs — beginning 10 a.m. Saturday until all is sold at the company site at 20 Sherman Ave.
Deering Construction was started by their great grandfather Dan Deering in 1919. The company has provided construction services in greater Fairfield County and throughout Connecticut. Its services include heavy civil construction, excavation and grading, storm drainage, sewer, utility, streetscape construction and Bituminous Concrete paving.
The construction of the Merritt Parkway, one of the company’s first projects, and the Route 7 Connector were two of the biggest projects for the company. There are three final projects to be completed, including the Norwalk River Valley Trail. Mike Deering said the company will completely shut down when the last three projects are done at an unspecified date.
“It’s been a great experience for the five generations of our family,” Mike Deering said. “Thanks to everyone who used our services over the years.”
Bethel to demolish old police station with federal funds; affordable senior housing weighed for site
BETHEL — With nearly $200,000 in federal funds allocated for its demolition, the former police station building on Plumtrees Road may be on its way to becoming affordable senior housing, if some town officials get their way.
The Board of Selectmen voted during its Feb. 27 meeting to use $194,500 in COVID relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act to tear down the old building. It has sat mostly vacant since the fall of 2018, when officers moved into the new police station on Judd Avenue.
“We’re looking at options for affordable senior housing and part of getting (the old police station) out of the way is to that end,” First Selectman Dan Carter said Wednesday. “That is our primary goal right now.”
It’s been nine months since the Board of Selectmen approved the old police station’s demolition, and Carter said the decision to use ARPA money was made after plans to get a state grant fell through.
“We had a package all set up and were hoping to have it funded by a STEAP grant, but we didn’t get the grant, so we decided to go this way,” he said.
In addition to approving the teardown of the old police station in June 2022, the Board of Selectmen authorized the town finance department to seek bids for remediation and demolition of the vacant facility.
Bethel’s first selectman at the time, Matt Knickerbocker, said demolishing the old police station and repurposing the land would be more economical than spending $1.5 million to $2 million in an attempt to salvage the building. Anything constructed in its place would need to be built to different specifications due to nearby wetlands, he said.
The idea is to build affordable senior housing on the site, Carter said, but nothing has been finalized.
“If we can’t do it for whatever reason, we have other options on the table,” he said.
Other ideas floated for the old police station property have included a skate park and additional parking for nearby soccer fields.
Selectman Rich Straiton proposed the senior housing last year, saying it would be “a great asset to the town,” while helping to fulfill the housing needs of Bethel’s aging residents.
No date has been set for the former police station’s demolition, but Carter said he expects it to take place in the next few months.
In Hartford’s Parkville, a $92 million redevelopment wins key state funding approval
HARTFORD — A redevelopment of an abandoned factory that was once a cornerstone of Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood won a key, state funding approval Friday for a $92 million conversion into apartments and business incubator space — a project that could significantly boost the Parkville Arts & Innovation District.
The highly ambitious conversion of the three-story, former Whitney Manufacturing Co. would take its place among the largest and most complex redevelopment projects in the city in the last decade.
On Friday, a committee of the Capital Region Development Authority, the quasi-public agency that provides state taxpayer-backed loans for housing and other development projects in the city and surrounding suburbs, approved an $8.5 million loan for the factory conversion.
“This project I see, and the city sees, as a linchpin in the broader Parkville revitalization, redevelopment effort, which was accelerated by the creation of the Parkville Market and the expansion of the market which is now underway,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a member of the CRDA’s housing and neighborhood committee, said, at Friday’s meeting. “And to really build on that momentum, we want to create residential density and make sure that area around that market is a viable, walkable neighborhood and what achieves that is getting residential density in that vicinity.”
Creating a vibrant, energetic neighborhood is key to attracting — and keeping — workforce talent that will not only benefit Hartford but the rest of Connecticut, Bronin said.
Bronin also said the city’s strategic plan of development includes the Parkville Arts & Innovation District as one of the 10 projects that could transform Hartford by the time the city turns 400 in 2035.
Developer Carlos A. Mouta, a major force behind redevelopment in Parkville, including the successful Parkville Market food hall, plans 235 market-rate apartments on the upper floors of the factory, at the corner of Hamilton Street and Bartholomew Avenue, and almost exclusively studios and one-bedroom units. The plans include 45,000 square feet of business incubator space on the ground floor to foster new start-ups.
Mouta told the committee he focused on studios and one-bedroom units because they are in demand in the neighborhood. Parkville’s existing three- and six-family houses accommodate larger families, Mouta said.
The planned rentals would include studios, one- and two-bedroom units ranging in size from 325 square feet to 975 square feet. About 60% of the units would be larger studios, at 450 square feet. Estimated monthly rents for the studios range between $1,089 and $1,281. One-bedrooms are estimated at $1,760, and two-bedrooms, $2,413. Rents include utilities and internet.
In addition, there would be seven penthouses in existing space on top of the building. They would range in size from 775 square feet for a unit with one-bedroom to 1,225 square feet for two-bedroom units. Estimated monthly rents would range from $2,167 to $3,285.
CRDA’s full board must still approve the financing plan backed by its committee, and the State Bond Commission also must sign off. Construction — expected to start this year — is forecast to take about two years.
Mouta is nearing completion of an environmental clean-up at the property, funded by a $4 million city loan, included in the overall cost.
The conversion of the factory, built in 1906 with successive expansions until 1941, would help more sharply define the arts and innovation district. A major focus of the district is creating innovation space to form startups while providing space for them to grow and creating jobs at all skill levels. While the plan rests heavily on encouraging innovation, it also seeks to create new housing, after-hours dining and entertainment, and a thriving arts community —all aimed at revitalizing a long impoverished area of the city.
The district also seeks to tap into the roots of the Parkville neighborhood, once a hub of manufacturing turning out bicycles, typewriters and automobiles. Bartholomew Avenue is envisioned as the “spine” of the district.
The conversion of the Whitney Manufacturing plant would rival the stature of projects such as the $85 million conversion of the former bank headquarters at 777 Main Street into apartments, completed in 2015; the unfolding North Crossing development around Dunkin’ Park, the city’s minor league ballpark; and the planned Bushnell South project near The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.
In addition to an $8.5 million CRDA loan, financing includes $12.8 million in developer equity, a $17 million bank loan, $26.4 million in historic tax credits, $5.75 million in deferred developer fees and a $17 million loan from the Connecticut Green Bank to improve the building’s energy efficiency.