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CT Construction Digest Monday May 22, 2023

New London officials celebrate speedy construction of downtown apartments

Johana Vazquez

New London ― A gathering at the construction site of new modular apartments at 174 Bank St. Friday was not the usual groundbreaking or ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Construction has started but is not finished. Three stories of elevated steel and dark gray metal walls at the site still appeared bare and hollow.

Mayor Michael Passero said it was a celebration of the construction’s halfway point. He said the developers, New-York based Vessel Technologies, started putting together what is to be a five-story modern apartment building four weeks ago.

As opposed to conventional construction, the energy-efficient development will be made of partially pre-fabricated materials allowing it to be built quicker. This is Vessel’s first residential building in Connecticut.

Neil Rubler, founder and CEO of Vessel Technologies, said he was honored to stand at the site Friday looking out at incredible views of the Thames River, surrounded by so much history. He said the development under construction will house the next generation of residents building ships and contributing to the higher education institutions in the area.

Rubler said the material for the building was pre-fabricated at a facility in York, Pa., and made in a way that makes the completed building and its construction more efficient. He said this method does not make it any less safer than other buildings and the material used, such as steel, is non-combustible and able to withstand major storms.

The building as of now will have up to 30 one-bedroom apartments although Rubler said the structural components of the building can be changed to create two-bedrooms if needed.

Passero said the “cutting edge” development is significant as the site has been vacant for nearly 30 years since the colonial-era building there burned to the ground.

The cost to develop the site, because of its small size and location in a flood plain, led to little interest from developers.

Vessel purchased the site for $225,000 in February 2022. The City Council in August approved a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with Vessel, providing the company an estimated 25.1% discount in tax payments to the city over 20 years.

Felix Reyes, director of the city’s office of development and planning, said the site has been the “missing tooth” of Bank Street and it is finally getting a crown -- quality new housing that’s affordable.

Rubler said the apartments would be affordable to those earning 80% of the area median income and likely priced between $1,600 to $1,700 for a one-bedroom apartment. He said the apartments would be for those earning $60,000 to $70,000 a year and who are being priced out of local quality housing.

In the Norwich-New London area, one person who earns 80% AMI is making $57,512 based on 2022 HUD Median Incomes.

Vessel’s rental prices align closely to The Docks apartments just down the street where a one-bedroom unit rents for between $1,600-$2,000. Rubler said competitive prices often do not include amenities or utilities costs and Vessel’s apartments would. He said this is made easier with electricity coming from a solar array on the roof.

Rubler said advertising for the units began two weeks ago and Vessel has already had 80 to 90 applicants. He said Vessel aims to complete the building by Labor Day.

The modern look of the building has been the subject of debate, with mixed reactions from the Historic District Commission and some members of the public.

“I don’t think it’ll be out of place,” Passero said. “New London has eclectic buildings appropriate to the age they were built ... this is a 21st century building so it’s appropriate.”

He said the building is better than having a blighted lot that was undeveloped for 30 years and was detrimental to the downtown.

Mary Ellen Godin

MERIDEN — Cedar Street will be closed to through traffic at least until December to allow workers to begin an expansion of the Cedar Street bridge.

“Right now the bridge is too small to pass the 100-year heavy rainstorm,” said City Engineer Brian Ennis. “It backs up into the Carabetta properties upstream. This will get the Carabetta properties out of the floodplain.”

Workers have begun cutting off the gas mains under the bridge and are expected to finish this week. The next step is to work on the new footprint which will extend the bridge from 35 feet to 55 or 60 feet. The existing bridge will be demolished and the new abutments will be built at the same time. The road pavement will be raised six inches.

The bridge carries traffic over Harbor Brook between Park and Pratt streets.

Last year, the city received notice from the South Central Regional Council of Governments that it had been awarded a $3.8 million Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program grant from the state for the project.

The work is part of the city’s overall flood control initiatives, which seek to deepen and widen Harbor Brook channels to prevent flooding downtown.

The project, Ennis said, is similar to the Cooper Street bridge replacement that was completed last year. That project, which took nine months to complete, began in April 2021.

“We expect Cedar Street to go a little bit quicker because it’s a smaller structure,” Ennis said in December. “Cedar Street doesn’t get all that much traffic. So there’s no reason to widen it,” the city engineer said.

The city is also working on a similar channel improvement in the area of the former Church & Morse and Record-Journal buildings, Ennis said.

“They are working with Amtrak on that right now,” Ennis said. “It’s an expansion of the (Meriden) Green culvert.”

Larger Meriden Green

The city can’t begin to expand the Meriden Green north until the Cedar Street bridge is finished, Ennis said. Officials had applied for a nearly $8 million Community Challenge Grant in April to pay the costs to expand the Green over Mill Street and build a sensory park. But the grant was rejected for a second time. Another application will be submitted next month, Ennis said.

“We’re hoping the third time will be the charm,” Ennis said. “Every six months is a new funding round. We have four more bites at the apple.”

Milone & McBroom are engineering the expansion of the Meriden Green. BL Cos. is doing the channel redesign between Cedar and Center streets.

Part of the Meriden Green expansion calls for eliminating Mill Street and daylighting the brook on an additional parcel owned by the city.

A larger bridge replacement project on Center Street is also in the planning stage and is expected to take longer, Ennis told the Record-Journal in December.

Completing the Cedar Street bridge project before starting on the larger Center Street project would also facilitate a smoother transition while that roadway is closed.

Ennis said the Center Street project involves moving underground and overhead utilities, including electric and gas lines, of which the Cedar Street project involves significantly less.

“So we can jump right into construction on Cedar,” Ennis said. Meanwhile, Center Street would likely require an additional nine to 12 months of work because of the utility relocation involved, Ennis said.

The city’s bridge work will be complete when the Center Street bridge is complete, he said.

Mike Anthony

Gampel Pavilion has looked and smelled like a lumber yard recently, saw dust floating upward while the original basketball court is being dismantled following a 34-year sneaker pounding.

The new court, to be installed over the coming months, opens a new era and essentially opens the next facilities initiative — adjusting game-day and student-athlete experiences in the iconic building that opened during the Dream Season of 1989-90.

“Gampel is a great college venue, and we want to keep it that way,” athletic director David Benedict said this week. “In order to do that into the future, it’s time to invest some money in it.”

UConn has begun working with Populous, a Boston-based architectural firm that specializes in stadiums, toward plans for various renovations. Early ideas were ambitious.

For example, UConn had Populous take a hard look at a nearly total makeover of Gampel. A footbridge would connect the arena to the South Garage across Jim Calhoun Way, a secondary concourse would exist in space currently external to the building and office areas would be leveled in favor of merchandising, beer sales and more. Square footage, currently about 228,000, would increase dramatically.

The cost estimate came back at north of $300 million.

UConn would be better off building from scratch.

So, for now, the athletic department will focus on what is necessary instead of what remains eventually possible. Projects in the coming years will cost $30-50 million, depending on fundraising success, Benedict said.

“I’m not sure it’s going to look a ton different in five years,” Benedict said. “Projects that would really transform this place probably wouldn’t happen in five years, with everything that goes into that. Ten would be more realistic.

“There are a lot of things that would be great to have. They all come with a price tag, unfortunately. Certainly we think Gampel needs a little bit of a refresh. If we had an endless amount of money, you might consider starting over. But I don’t know that that’s in our thought process right now. There are a lot of things we’re looking at to try to freshen things up.”

Perhaps first, or at least up high, on the Gampel to-do list is to replace all lower-level seating that is not permanent, which is most of it. The roll-in, roll-out, bleachers — like the court they have surrounded — are nearing the end of their usable life and new seating must be installed in the next two years.

“We’ll maybe replace them as currently configured,” Benedict said. “Or, could we do some different things? Could we create some premium seating that offers nicer chairs, that are padded, wider, more comfortable? Could you maybe create a second row of floor seats, which we’re completely sold out of now? Could you potentially move students courtside versus being on the ends? Those are all things that we’re talking about.”

Video boards also need to be replaced. They’re too old to fix or improve upon, Benedict said. Parts aren’t made for such machines anymore. 

“We need to try to address our premium offerings, which we have very little of, which means, how do we create some club spaces?” Benedict said. “How do we create better points of sale and options from a concession standpoint? And the biggest thing is how our fans can move in and out and around the building, which is difficult, because we don’t have an outer concourse. So it really clogs things up. We want to be sold out and that creates problems with bathrooms and points of sale and concessions.”

The court, sections of which will be for sale this summer, has been carefully dismantled. The mid-court logo was cut out. So were more than a dozen areas marked significant for what took place there at various points over the years.

So the area of court where, say, Sue Bird took the shot to beat Notre Dame in 2001 or the area from which Shabazz Napier beat Florida in 2013, will be for sale, coming with a letter of authenticity. UConn hopes to have such sections of the court adorned with an autograph from players involved and, perhaps, a picture of the moment.

“I’m sure you can figure out some of them,” Benedict said. “We’re going to figure out a combination of things on how we can make sure there is no question that the piece of floor that they have is exactly what it’s supposed to be. And we’ll create a nice little package.”

Gampel, constructed at a cost of $28 million ($65 million today), opened in January 1990. The building underwent $10 million of work on its roof in 2017. The goal now is to make the arena more comfortable and all areas of it more accessible.  

“Part of that is going to be if we are successful in securing some revenue or support from fundraising or other sources,” Benedict said. “But just like there are conversations around the XL Center needing to be rehabilitated, and an infusion of money, we need some help with Gampel as well. We’re certainly hopeful that over a period of time we’ll be able to address some of these things.

“Something that would be phased in, and address things that are easier to do than major construction, to come and re-do all the technology and to add a lot more that would create a more pleasing experience, create a lot more energy. You can look no further than going over to the Toscano, seeing the technology there.”

The Toscano Family Ice Forum is UConn’s new hockey arena that opened in January. Construction cost was roughly $70 million. The major Gampel project was first explored with Populous would be much more substantial. 

“It was, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” Benedict said. “Ultimately, what you find out is you’re probably better off building new if you’re going to do all of that because you could probably do it for less and get a better outcome. The exercise gave us a lot of ideas on what can be done if you want to put $30-50 million into it and how that would transform things.

“You begin to look at it in pieces. How long does that, if you’re able to make those kinds of investments, further the lifetime of this building? I’m not sure we’ve had that conversation yet but I think there are some things that are very achievable at Gampel that would make the experience better for our fans and our student-athletes and have this continue to be a really great environment.”

Jared Weber

STAMFORD — State officials want to know if people who use the Stamford train station are good with a central plaza and covered bike parking. Or if they have objections to making Station Place a one-way street going west.

Since last year, the Connecticut Department of Transportation has been working on a master plan that will guide future improvements to the state-owned station. The ultimate goal is to increase access and public transit ridership by turning the station into a "best-in-class facility," according to a news release.

CTDOT will host an open house event from 4 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. May 23 at the Stamford Transportation Center to update riders about ongoing renovation plans and get feedback on two concepts being floated for possible redesigns. The meeting will take place in the station's first-floor conference room.

Both plans include making Station Place a one-way street for drop offs, more space for bike riders, a new ticket kiosk and a covered bus dock, among other changes. But one has a smaller plaza with a tunnel for local shuttles and they have different roof lines.

Ahead of the meeting, officials unveiled renderings for some of the changes being considered. The ideas target three parts of the complex in need — Station Place, the indoor concourse and the bus docks, with two concepts described for each area.

"These are concepts that have been worked on for some time," spokesperson Shannon Burnham said. "The thought is, with these concepts in mind, we're working with stakeholders and going out to the public and ask for their feedback."

On Station Place, the department is looking to check several boxes. The two-way street south of the tracks is highly used, serving as a pickup area for passengers with some on-street parking. It also provides access to the station's current parking garage, though CTDOT plans to demolish the structure after a new 928-spot garage opens later this year.

The department is considering housing, retail and other transit-oriented developments for the former garage space, spokesperson Shannon Burnham said earlier this month.

The redesigns are aimed to reduce congestion and make the street more welcoming to pedestrians and bikers. Both renderings show Station Place as a one-way street west toward Washington Boulevard with a new two-way bike path and covered bike parking. Most of the images include a large building in place of the current parking garage.

The first option has a large pedestrian plaza with benches and greenery. It also includes an additional bike lane on the north side of Station Place, providing direct access from Atlantic Street to the bike parking facility. The second option has a smaller plaza, as well as a tunnel for local shuttles to pick up and drop off Stamford residents.

The first design features a vaulted, rounded roof, while the second one has a "gull-wing" roof that curves over top of the structure.

For the concourse, officials said they hope to make the customer experience more efficient and accessible. Commuters have expressed frustration in recent months with closed platforms, elevators and escalators.

The two redesigns replace the current ticket office with a kiosk, either on the eastern or western wall. Both designs have an open floor plan with a new train information board surrounded by bench seating.

The bus dock redesign is aimed to improve efficiency and access between bus and rail transportation, according to the master plan website.

The areas would be between North and South State streets, underneath Interstate 95, with an indoor space in the middle where people can wait for buses. The new bus bays would also provide direct access to the concourse without having to walk out to North State Street.

Both designs includes space for a food service vendor.

The two concepts only differ in terms of back office use, according to the site. The design could incorporate office space for Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police or other uses.

More details and renderings are available on www.stcmasterplan.com.

Greenwich's new Central Middle School design is mostly set. But what will the cost be?

Jessica Simms

GREENWICH — Presenters answered only a few questions at the recent Central Middle School building project forum, but they shared updates, including when the first tentative design budget will be ready — this coming week.

Turner Construction is due to have a conceptual design estimate ready for the Board of Education and building committee by May 24. Laura Kostin, board member and member of the CMS committee, said that if the estimate is higher than the current budget appropriation from the Board of Estimate and Taxation — which for this upcoming fiscal year is $67.5 million — then the BOE has decisions to make.

"Based on information from Turner (Construction), it likely will (be higher)," Kostin said. "We, the BOE, will need to meet and decide our next steps." 

While attendees at the mid-week forum had a chance to submit questions online or handed in by notecard — which included queries about sustainability and student safety during the construction process — there was almost no chance to ask questions directly to the forum presenters: Tony Turner, chair of the committee; members of SLAM Collaborative, architects for the project; a representative from Construction Solutions Group; and someone from Turner Construction, construction manager.

The presenters said the majority of questions would be answered online on the project's website.

Turner said that the committee is only in the early stages of the project, as it is only about 100 days in the conceptual design process, but it already has set some parameters. 

The proposed new building is 124,623 gross square feet, with 81,005 net square feet is dedicated to educational programming. The existing building is 110,682 gross square feet, with 77,256 net square feet for educational programming. 

In total, the building size difference is 13,941 gross square feet. 

In the new building, the library media center is going to be 4,135 net square feet, which is more than 2,000 net square feet smaller than the current library media center, which measures 6,427 net square feet. 

The performing arts space — which includes the auditorium, band and orchestra space and storage — is going to be 12,385 net square feet, which is More than 1,000 net square feet bigger than the existing area, which is 11,160 net square feet.  

"You can see that there are some changes in just about every department in the school ... Some areas have gone up from existing to new building and that's in order to keep up with the evolving pedagogies and ways that we teach students and the services that we provide to students," said Amy Samuelson, SLAM architect. 

Turner said construction is aimed at a June 2024 start date and go through February 2026, with demolition of the existing building aiming to run from June 2026 to September 2026.

"This is high level subject to change, but this is the best thinking of the professionals," Turner said.

Trumbull mall parking deck to be rebuilt over next 18 months

Ethan Fry

TRUMBULL — Work will begin soon on permanent repairs to the parking garage at the Trumbull mall damaged more than a year ago.

About three-quarters of the Red Garage, near the Target store, will be rebuilt over the next 18 months, according to an announcement on the town’s website. The garage will be closed during the first of three phases of construction.

“They have a pretty solid plan,” Economic Development Director Rina Bakalar said Friday. “It is disruptive because you can’t replace 75 percent of a parking garage without disruption.”

The upper deck and part of the lower deck of the garage were closed temporarily in February 2022 when a chunk of concrete fell through the deck, creating a large pothole.

In the following months, residents and officials expressed frustration at how long it was taking for there to be progress on fixing the garage before “shoring up” work was announced in October.

The upper deck of the garage remains closed to vehicles, but most of the lower deck is now open.

Ownership of the mall has also changed over the past year, from Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield to new owners Namdar Realty Group, based in Great Neck, N.Y.

An announcement on the town’s website Thursday said construction on the Red Parking Garage near the Target store at the mall will begin over the next several weeks and continue for 12 to 18 months.

Messages were left Friday for Namdar’s CEO and general manager.

Bakalar said she and other town officials, including First Selectwoman Vicki Tesoro, met about two weeks ago with representatives from Namdar and Target to review the plan.

The first phase of construction will replace the part of the garage closest to Target, Bakalar said. The company would like to have construction done before back-to-school shopping season, she said.

There will be secure walkways where employees and visitors can park and securely walk to the store’s entrance.

“I think it’s a good plan,” Bakalar said.

As part of the deal for Namdar to acquire the mall from, URW put money in escrow to enable work on the garage. At the time, Tesoro said she "had a good feeling" about the new owners of the mall.

What's next for Wall Street Corridor after POKO deal? Milligan, Norwalk say they have 'big plans'

Katherine Lutge

NORWALK — The city and developers say they are finally taking action to revitalize the Wall Street Corridor — a core area of Norwalk that has languished in part because of a massive project that has remained stagnant for about 20 years. 

“What’s next is I am going to keep doing projects; I have big plans,” said developer Jason Milligan, who owns more than 20 properties on and around the Wall Street Corridor. 

His comments came weeks after he and the city reached a settlement worth $3.25 million over a disputed property in the area tied to the so-called POKO project, which had called for market-rate and affordable housing, hundreds of parking spots, and thousands of square feet of retail and live/work space. The settlement ended a five-year legal battle and multiple lawsuits related to the developer’s acquisition of an Isaacs Street parking lot. 

Now that the lawsuit has been resolved, Citibank is expected to begin its redevelopment of a Wall Street property that has been covered in Tyvek construction wrap for years. Milligan aims to build hundreds of apartments in the area, while the city plans to upgrade traffic patterns and sidewalks in the area.  

“Hopefully we will have this new great relationship that we can build upon, no more fighting; we can start growing in the same direction,” Milligan said.

This hope was shared by Common Council members and city officials in the meeting where the settlement was unanimously approved. 

“We are so glad to get this behind us; it will now help us move forward to make a vibrant and modern Wall Street, which has been a commitment of my administration from the very beginning,” Mayor Harry Rilling said.

Why development has languished 

Revitalization efforts began in 2004 when the city approved a Wall Street plan that aimed to "restore the Wall Street area to its position as the traditional center of Norwalk's community life." 

In 2007, the city approved a developer, POKO-IWSR Managers LLC, and sold it property on Wall Street and Isaacs Street for a fraction of its worth under a Land Dispositions Agreement that ensured the development aligned with the city’s plans. This included adequate public parking.  

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, plans to develop the site were halted; however, when Rilling was first elected mayor in 2013, he promised to restart development in the Wall Street Corridor.  

But in 2017, Kenneth Olson, CEO of POKO, died suddenly, leaving the fate of the company and the Wall Street redevelopment in limbo.  

The two main properties were sold to two different owners: Citibank and Milligan. Citibank’s acquisition was in conjunction with the city and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, and a new Land Dispositions Agreement was drafted. 

But the city claimed the estate did not have the right to sell the Isaac Street parking lot to Milligan under the terms of POKO’s Land Disposition Agreement. Five years of legal battles ensued, until last month when the settlement was reached.

Key to the agreement is that Milligan must provide 88 public parking spaces on Leonard Street, which the city values to be worth over $1.9 million. Milligan and other defendants must also pay the city $1.35 million in cash proceeds.  

The parking is expected to allow Citibank to proceed with its project. The company could not be reached for comment, and its latest plans have not been announced. 

Milligan's projects

Milligan’s properties along the corridor include 64 Wall St., the former My Three Sons property that he is converting from a kids entertainment center into seven retail locations with two restaurants, a bakery and a bubble tea shop. The last restaurant space, Greer Southern Table, opened this month. He said he is also considering putting a boutique hotel there. 

Also, he said he has renovated a 4 Berkeley St. office building into 11 modern apartments, converted a former hooka lounge and strip club at 22 Leonard St. into a shared artist space, and turned a former restaurant at 7 Wall St. into retail space and six apartments overlooking the harbor, among other projects. 

“I’ve been trying to rebuild that area of Norwalk for a long time,” Milligan said. “I am very fond of that area. I put my office in that neighborhood. I am a large owner of property in that neighborhood, and I really want to see it succeed. It’s an old historical neighborhood that for a variety of reasons has not seen a resonance.”

For Milligan, he says his focus is to bring more people to the area by developing residential buildings and retail spaces for businesses. 

“My immediate focus is to complete several residential projects I have under construction in the area that will add 42 apartments,” Milligan said. “All should be done within the next six months.”

That includes 5 Mott Ave., where he said he renovated former law officers into nine modern apartments that should be occupied in June. 

At the Isaacs Street property involved in the lawsuit with the city, Milligan plans to construct "plus or minus" 100 apartments and a parking garage. The settlement requires him to offer 88 public parking spaces there and on neighboring Leonard Street.

Also on Isaacs Street, at the former El Dorado Club, he aims to build "plus or minus" 100 apartments, a hotel or a college dorm with a first floor production space. 

“I am in the planning stages for two large-scale projects that could add 200 to 300 apartments and some production space,” he said. “In conjunction with these two projects would be abundant parking.”  

Traffic, sidewalk upgrades

On the city’s side, the Norwalk Transportation, Mobility and Parking Department is focused on upgrading traffic patterns and sidewalks along the corridor. Director Jim Travers and Assistant Director Garrett Bolella plan to make Wall Street a pedestrian-friendly street. They said the entire project will cost about $25 million. Phase one begins this fall. 

A big change they have planned: eliminating the slip lanes at the start of Wall Street and making it a four-way stop with crosswalks. 

“From a pedestrian standpoint, this is a nightmare, there is no crosswalk,” Bolella said. “How do you navigate this intersection?” 

Travers and Bolella said they have relied on community feedback in developing their plans.

“We’ve done a lot of data collection to understand the volume of traffic that moves in here and how we have it effectively move in the future,” Travers said. “What we heard from the community is that they want a pedestrian-friendly street.” 

In addition to the traffic pattern change, they plan to improve the aesthetic of the corridor by adding arches over the street with overhead lighting. 

“We want to introduce a lot of green elements,” Travers added. “We think it’s really important to create that sense of place, but also provide all the benefits that street trees provide to us, noise reduction, cleaning the air and reducing speed.” 

Arts hub

Both the city’s transportation department and Milligan envision the Wall Street area as a hub of art and music. 

The city planes to turn River Street into a pedestrian street that could be closed off for music or arts festivals. They also plan to honor the late jazz musician and Norwalk native Horace Silver with a piano keyboard crosswalk outside the Wall Street Theater. 

Milligan shared that he is working on building spaces for the Norwalk Conservatory of the Arts, which recently opened a two-year college program in addition to its pre-college intensive. 

“The important thing for the area is to have more people,” he said. “We need people to live, work, play, study in the neighborhood. The neighborhood soul is arts, music and entertainment which we will continue to expand and improve upon.”

$269 Million School Construction Tab, Delayed Reimbursement Leave Stamford in a Lasting Bind

Angela Carella,

The path is set for covering the cost of fixing Stamford school buildings, and taxpayers should prepare to dig ever deeper into their pockets for the next several years.

During that time, taxpayers should not expect major improvements to parks or other non-school city property.

That was the message that came with the final vote of the budget season, when members of the Board of Representatives Wednesday night approved a Board of Finance recommendation to increase taxes enough to raise $15 million for a school construction fund. 

Last year both boards approved a tax increase that raised $20 million, creating the original contribution to the fund.

Taxpayers can expect the same next year, Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman said during a special Board of Representatives meeting to vote on the higher tax rate. 

An analysis by the state Office of School Construction found that if the city bonds $35 million for school projects for each of the next few years, “we will need a minimum of $15 million a year” in cash, Freedman told representatives. 

Beyond raising taxes to fund the school construction reserve, taxpayers will have to cover the cost of a significant increase in the amount of money the city borrows by issuing bonds.

In each of the last two fiscal years the city bonded $40 million, Freedman said, but in 2023-24 the amount will be $70 million, which comes with interest payments of several million dollars a year.

The borrowed $70 million will be split evenly between city and school projects, Freedman said.

“The city has its own significant capital needs – repave streets and sidewalks; the parks need a lot of work, city buildings need work. There are a lot of demands,” Freedman said. “We didn’t want to cut that, but we knew we had to fund the (schools) plan, so we had to go up to bonding $70 million, and we will for the coming years.”

A typical tax bill of $10,100

The average Stamford homeowner can expect to pay 4.3 percent more in property taxes on July 1, when the next fiscal year begins. But some taxpayers will have a smaller increase, and others will pay much more, because the latest state-mandated property revaluation was based on prices driven to new heights by a pandemic house-buying boom.

Under the new mill rates for Stamford’s four taxing districts, which got final approval Wednesday, a single-family house assessed at $400,000 – roughly the average assessment – will pay $10,100 in District A taxes in 2023-24.

Residents will find out exactly how their taxes changed when they get their bills at the end of next month.

The new property valuations were so high – 25 percent more for the average single-family home – that city representatives and finance board members voted to phase it in over two years. 

So 2024-25 tax bills will be boosted by that, and likely by a tax increase that will be added to contribute, again, to the school construction fund.

The work on school buildings will cost $624 million over the next six years, Freedman said during Wednesday’s meeting.

“There are 18 schools in the plan,” he said. “Every school will be renovated or replaced.”

The biggest project is reconstruction of Westhill High School on Roxbury Road, which opened in 1971. The cost of that project has been revised upward, from $260 million to $301 million, even before it begins.

The nearby Roxbury Elementary School also is slated for reconstruction, at a cost of $86 million.

The Board of Education wants to build a new $158 million school south of Interstate 95, using a building on Lockwood Avenue for grades K-4 and the campus of K.T. Murphy Elementary School on Horton Street for grades 5-8.

A series of smaller projects at multiple schools will cost $79 million, Freedman said. 

The rules of reimbursement

Of the total $624 million cost, Stamford taxpayers must cover $269 million, and the state will reimburse the city for the remaining $355 million, according to Freedman.

But it’s reimbursements, not up-front payments, and that makes things tricky, Freedman told city representatives.

It’s why the city needs to keep cash on hand – and why the elected boards have voted to add a tax increase and hold that money in a school construction fund, he said.

The state, for example, will reimburse the city for 80 percent of many of the Westhill costs, he said. But “when Westhill is under construction, we might get $10 million in bills a month. It would be nice to send the bills to the state and say, you pay $8 million and we’ll pay $2 million. But that’s not how it works. We have to pay the whole $10 million and then we have to wait about 120 days to get the money from the state.”

Beyond that, he said, “the state retains 5 percent of every invoice until the end of the project, so if we have a $300 million project like Westhill, the state will retain $15 million and we have to float that for four years, because that’s how long it will take to build Westhill.”

Over each of the six years of school construction, the city will need $47 million on hand, he said.

Another reason to have cash on hand is that bonding costs taxpayers money, Freedman said. If, instead of collecting $15 million in tax revenue, the city bonded that amount, it would have to pay back not only the $15 million but – at 4 percent over 20 years – another $6.2 million in interest.

“We would rather not pay that if we can avoid it,” Freedman said. “Over time that really adds up to a lot of money.”

Elected officials also should take a close look at aspects of the school projects that do not qualify for state reimbursement, such as replacing Westhill’s pool, Freedman said. 

“That’s about $10 million in non-reimbursable expenses right there,” he said. “I have made it clear to the director of operations and the mayor that I think the decision of whether to put a pool into Westhill is an issue of public policy and it needs to come back to both boards.” 

Big city projects on back burner

When the finance board chairman completed his presentation to city representatives, they had questions.

City Rep. Bradley Bewkes said his constituents in District 1 have waited for years for the city to make improvements at Cummings Park and beach.

“Just so we can set expectations for residents and taxpayers, will you explain what the sacrifices will be?” Bewkes said. “Is it safe to say that, until these school projects are finished in 2030, no other major projects will be manageable?”

“Depending on what you define as major, I think that’s a pretty accurate statement,” Freedman said. “On the city side, a $5 million project is considered pretty large. We will have a limited capacity to fund those, unless we decide at some point that we [can] raise more capital” by raising the tax rate.

City Rep. Megan Cottrell said she thinks the school construction reserve should be funded as necessary.

“In 2009 there was a report that showed the schools needed $174 million in repairs, and less than half that was funded,” Cottrell said. “What was a $174 million problem is turning into a $600 million problem because it was not dealt with promptly. … When we try to go cheap on school repairs, it hits us later.”

City Rep. Jeff Stella said that when school officials were talking about renovating buildings about four years ago, “we were told we had to sell the land to developers and let them manage the buildings because we couldn’t afford” it.

“We were told there was no way to do this. Now all of a sudden there’s a plan,” Stella said. “We’re asking the taxpayers for a lot of money. Are we sure this is the only way, and the best way, to pay for these ventures? I’m not really sold on this.” 

What changed is that, two years ago, the state revised its school funding formula, Freedman said.

“Stamford used to receive 20 percent state reimbursement for new construction. Now we’re receiving 80 percent for Westhill and 60 percent for everything else,” Freedman said. “That totally changes the financial calculations that we can make. A main reason Stamford never really addressed school construction problems for decades was that we never could afford it because reimbursement from the state was way, way too low.” 

Stella was one of two representatives on the 40-member board to vote against the extra tax to raise money for the school construction fund. The other “no” vote was city Rep. Anabel Figueroa.

East Hartford targets $20M in public funds to spur large-scale private developments

Michael Puffer

East Hartford is planning to use $17 million in state funds and $3 million from town taxpayers to advance three private redevelopment projects, two of which would each add hundreds of new market-rate apartments.

The Capital Region Development Authority board of directors, on Thursday, signed off on the use of $10 million in new state bond funds and the repurposing of about $7 million in previously authorized bonding to aid three developments. These include a large-scale, mixed-use project adding hundreds of apartments and more to the Founders Plaza office park; development of at least 300 apartments at the former Showcase Cinemas site; and demolition of a former school to make room for an estimated 16 new houses.  

These requests also need to clear the state Bond Commission, which is expected to take them up at an upcoming meeting.

$10 million for demo

East Hartford got the CRDA’s blessing Thursday to spend $10 million to demolish the former McCartin School and three large derelict buildings at, or adjacent to Founders Plaza.

Town officials want to demolish the empty school to make room for houses that would mix well with the surrounding residential neighborhood. A development partner has not yet been identified.

At Founders Plaza, the town is working with undisclosed developers on a plan to add hundreds of apartments, along with new restaurants, entertainment, office space and passive recreation amenities. The roughly 50-year-old office park sits near the bank of the Connecticut River opposite downtown Hartford.

The lion’s share of the demo funds will be used to take down the former Red Thread Building at 300 East River Drive, the former Bank of America building at 20 Hartland St., and a parking garage.

“Really our conclusion is we have to remove those buildings to allow for new development,” East Hartford Director of Development Eileen Buckheit told the CRDA board Thursday. “We are looking for mixed-use development that has some housing, entertainment, restaurants – things that would work well being close to Founders Bridge and the East Coast Greenway. That demo number looks really large, but these are large buildings.”

East Hartford Mayor Michael Walsh said the Founders Plaza development is a top priority that will generate tax revenue and add vibrancy using the town’s most attractive and valuable development site.

“There will be a large live, work, play development overlooking the Connecticut River and the first step is to turn back the clock 50 years (through demolition),” Walsh said Friday morning. “To me, it’s a complementary development of the town’s best underutilized asset.”

Concourse Park also in line for subsidy

The CRDA board also signed off on East Hartford’s request to repurpose $7 million in previously approved state bond funding to defray costs of a planned development of at least 300 apartments on a 25-acre site off Silver Lane that once hosted a Showcase Cinemas.

East Hartford has already spent about $5 million of $12 million in previously approved state bonding on the purchase and demolition of the cinema site. It is now seeking approval to use the remaining funds to defray costs to build the much-anticipated Concourse Park apartment complex. Town officials aim to get remaining funds reauthorized in a manner that would allow for them to be applied to apartment construction.

Walsh said the Concourse Park development is a critical piece of a broader plan to revive the long-stagnant and declining Silver Lane commercial corridor. Massachusetts-based National Development is already building 2.5 million square feet of logistics space at Rentschler Field, and the city is moving to redevelop an enormous retail plaza on Silver Lane.

“That is simply the funding that needs to be in place to make this development a reality,” Walsh said of $10 million being directed at Concourse Park. “It’s all part of a critical development to make Silver Lane the economic engine it once was.”

Buckheit said town officials plan to use $3 million in previously approved municipal bonds to upgrade the street and utilities heading into the Showcase site.

New York-based developer Avner Krohn and West Hartford-based developer Brian Zelman had originally agreed to build at least 360 apartments and had land-use approvals that would have allowed up to 477 units. After interest rates soared and banks tightened their lending standards, the pair received town permission to scale back the proposal to a minimum of at least 300 units, a project the CRDA estimates will cost $80 million.

In recent interviews, Krohn and Zelman said they plan to begin building this fall and still aim to erect 402 units.  Reaching that goal will depend on the amount of financing they can secure from lenders, Krohn and Zelman said. 

Krohn said he anticipates leasing apartments after 18 or 19 months and completing the project completely within two years. 

Investments by the state and town are crucial to help overcome fast-rising interest rates and construction costs that have risen dramatically over the past two years or so, Krohn said. He praised Mayor Walsh for having the vision to make an investment that will pay long-term dividends.

Krohn said the city-owned Showcase site pays nothing in taxes today but will yield $800,000 annually after development wraps. Beyond that, this is the first market-rate housing development in East Hartford in decades, Krohn said. It will feature meticulous landscaping, right down to ensuring flowering plants match the color scheme of buildings, he noted. It will also be loaded with amenities, including a pool, 12,500-square-foot clubhouse, gardens, 16 acres of paths and more, he said.

“There are a lot of people working in the town who don’t have a market-rate option in the town,” Krohn said. “That means they’re spending their money somewhere else. That’s the reason these funds are so necessary.”