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CT Construction Digest Thursday August 26, 2021

Fairfield officials approve affordable housing project on Park Ave. with several conditions

Serenity Bishop

FAIRFIELD — The green light has finally been given to Primrose Development LLC to build an affordable housing complex at 5545 Park Ave., but only if the building’s height is reduced.

Primrose Development LLC had applied to build a six-story, 120-unit apartment building, with 36 apartments qualifying as affordable housing. The property would rest on a 2.4 acre property with nearly 200 parking spots.

Commissioner Thomas Noonan proposed that the development be approved, but only if the building was reduced to four stories, the color of the exterior of the building was changed to blend in with the surroundings and more trees and plant life were planted to protect the integrity of the Merritt Parkway.

“I think it goes without saying that the Merritt Parkway is a historic resource,” Noonan said. “Four stories in my view is a reasonable change. The other conditions of approval the exterior color scheme and the extra planting will also serve to better either screen or at least make it pop less as drivers go down the Merritt Parkway.”

He said six stories would be visible from the parkway, both above and through the trees.

“Even if it was six stories with it being a similar color scheme of the area I still believe it to be too overpowering and too detrimental to the integrity of the Merritt Parkway,” Noonan said.

Noonan’s proposal was in line with the changes members of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy suggested during the last public hearing. Conservancy Executive Director Wes Haynes expressed the exact same changes the he wanted to see happen, but also went on to say that there was “nothing beautiful” about the project. He believed the project would be an intrusion into the very essential architectural character of the parkway and even referred to the project as, “God awful.”

Attorney Ray Rizio, who represents the developer, said in the last public hearing that people won’t see the project from the parkway whether it is four stories, six stories or eight stories tall because of the mature trees and people’s driving speeds. He did admit the building would be more visible during the winter when the leaves fall, but contested that it would not be an intrusive amount.

“I think we are all reluctant to have such a massive structure in Fairfield on the Merritt Parkway,” commission Secretary Meg Francis said.

Francis cautioned applying too many conditions could affect a judge’s assessment and could possibly lead to an appeal.

Prior to the developer’s 120-unit application, Primrose applied for a four-story structure with 80 units in late 2020. The project was denied, but when Primrose applied for the 120-unit building the new application was made under state law Section 8-30g, which dictates the only way the commission could deny the plan is to prove it poses a threat to public health, welfare and safety that outweighs Fairfield’s need for affordable housing.

In regards to the development, Francis simply said, “We have to accept reality.”

The commission included one last condition that required Primrose to complete the required testing for drainage engineering before starting construction.

This condition was added during the decision vote as Commissioner Kathryn Braun questioned whether the proposal had the appropriate wetlands approval. Braun was the only commissioner who did not vote to approve the project citing the lack of information about the environmental impact of the development.

Sen. Murphy: Millions of dollars in potential investments for New London

Greg Smith  

New London — A series of infrastructure spending plans being considered by Congress would potentially lead to an investment of “tens of millions of dollars” to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and city of New London, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn said.

Murphy met with local business and city leaders and state legislators at City Hall on Wednesday to talk about the potential for federal investments locally over the next 10 years. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate earlier this month includes $59 million for the Coast Guard Academy.

A $6 million portion of that funding would come directly to the city’s waterfront in the form of improvements to City Pier in order to accommodate the barque Eagle. New London’s City Council in April approved a license agreement with the Coast Guard to provide a berth for “America’s Tall Ship” adjacent to the future National Coast Guard Museum, a $100 million facility to be built behind Union Station. The Coast Guard is the only branch of the armed services without a national museum, and the association still is in the fundraising and permitting phase for the museum.

Murphy said he expects future federal investments toward the museum as part of an appropriations bill not associated with the infrastructure bill. Murphy is a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

“I’m the chairman of the committee that writes the Coast Guard’s budget," Murphy said. "Obviously this is a top priority for me, to continue funding the Coast Guard museum.”

He said one of the reasons for his visit to the city on Wednesday was to ensure the city is prepared with a plan to accommodate the influx of people associated with the museum.

“I think the plan’s there and it’s my job to work with them and refine it and find the money for it,” Murphy said.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city is seeking federal funds for expansion of the Water Street parking garage, which would provide a link for a state-funded $20 million bridge spanning the railroad tracks and connecting the city's waterfront and the site of the new museum.

“I’m just such a believer in the future of New London and there’s a lot of potential for federal investment here over the next 10 years,” Murphy said. “I wanted an hour to step back and start to think about the vision for the city and how the museum and the pier and the housing investments can work together, so that I can present sort of a united vision for the city when I’m making these asks in Washington.”

Among those gathered at Wednesday’s event were representatives from Electric Boat, the Coast Guard Academy, Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Southeast CT Cultural Coalition and U.S. Coast Guard Museum Association President and retired Capt. Wes Pulver.

Pulver said he was excited by Murphy’s commitment to the region and the Coast Guard. “The museum is just one piece of what’s happening downtown," he said. "This is exciting to see it all come together.”

Murphy called it a “unique moment in New London,” considering the number of potential areas for investment.

“This is an opportunity to make the plan they’ve been working on for years real,” he said.

Included in the bipartisan infrastructure plan is $25 million for infrastructure upgrades and modernization of the Coast Guard Academy’s power and heating system and $28 million for renovation of Chase Hall, which serves as the barracks for cadet and officer training school.

The Coast Guard Academy’s external affairs officer, Cmdr. Krystyn Pecora, said renovations to Chase Hall are underway, along with a major overhaul of a waterfront area known as Pine Hall, which is being transformed into the Maritime Center of Excellence. Murphy said the infrastructure bill additionally contains funds needed for upgrades and maintenance of rail infrastructure, including bridges and station upgrades.

Developer begins $14 million New Britain project; six-story building will be latest move to revitalize downtown

Don Stacom

Mayor Erin Stewart used a 52,000-pound excavator Wednesday morning to rip into the brick walls of the long-vacant Burritt Bank building, an early step in developer Avner Krohn’s plan to replace it with a six-story apartment complex and retail building.

The estimated $14 million project will be the biggest single change to the downtown skyline in decades.


Krohn, who has become the most prominent business owner in the downtown’s redevelopment, predicted the new complex will help revitalize one of the city’s busiest commercial corners.

The two-story bank headquarters has sat idle at Bank and Main streets in the heart of the city since the Burritt InterFinancial Bancorporation failed in 1992.

“As long as I’ve been alive, really, this building has been unoccupied,” Stewart said at a brief ceremony to begin demolition. The mayor was just 5 when federal banking authorities shut down Burritt,

“It’s been a source of blight in downtown,” Stewart added. “Avner has a vision, a strong vision, for downtown that he’s been committed to since 2005.”

Krohn, a New York developer who started investing in downtown buildings 16 years ago, said the city’s turnaround in recent years has been substantial.

“Online in 2005 I was searching in Connecticut. I had seen the Andrews Building and was quite impressed. I started looking at the area — courthouse, city hall, the core downtown, and thought this could be a good investment,” he said.

“At that time where the current police station is were a bunch of dilapidated buildings, the Rao Building was boarded up, the streetscapes were just a dream, CTfastrak wasn’t even talked about yet,” Krohn said. “But I thought with the right renovations, we could attract office tenants — we did. And then we started moving onto other projects.”

Krohn’s Jasko Development LLC converted the five-story, 29,000-square foot Andrews Building into apartments and rehabilitated and sold the historic Raphael Building on West Main. It also renovated and sold the five-story Rao Building downtown and has done numerous commercial projects elsewhere in the city as well as in Torrington, Bloomfield, Enfield and Vernon.

“I look at New Britain as a tapestry — it’s filled with history but it’s also a blank slate downtown,” Krohn said. “Now it’s changing drastically in a way where we can paint a new picture. It’s a manageable downtown, it’s walkable, I see live entertainment and restaurants and people living downtown.”

Krohn plans to construct a first-floor restaurant with extensive patio seating as well as rows of tables street-side. Unlike the Burritt, the new building will be set back from the sidewalks on both Bank and Main streets.

There also will be street-level retail space, on the second through sixth floors will be apartments. The opening is planned for early 2023.

“We’ll have all kinds of open storefronts. Almost an entire area of 5,000 square feet will be an outdoor urban oasis — probably a $1 million project as part of this project. Part of that will be restaurant space. We specifically changed the footprint so we have al fresco dining wrapping around Main and Bank,” Krohn said.

Stewart called the combination of retail and market-rate housing good for New Britain.

“Properties like this and mixed-use development that bring additional, up-to-date housing units downtown is exactly what the demand is now. People want new, they want to be in a downtown setting, they like what downtown New Britain has to offer,” she said. “But they need that excitement, that new development to bring them here.”

Krohn said over the next five years he sees Jasko adding another roughly 200 apartments downtown.

Contractors caught between vaccine hesitancy and owner mandates

Joe Bousquin

Construction was supposed to be getting back to normal by now.

In June, with vaccines rolling out broadly across the U.S. and COVID-19 case numbers plummeting, Labor Day was heralded by many as the date workers would return to offices, and the pandemic would largely be a fading memory.

But things aren't quite working out that way.

"We started reopening in June, and there was a lot of hope," said Laura Guzman, vice president of marketing and communications at Milpitas, California-based XL Construction. "But as we started to watch the most recent trends, we've had to hit the pause button again."

Steps include following local mask mandates, social distancing on jobsites and limiting company meetings and gatherings, Guzman said.  

XL isn't alone. Other construction pros who thought they would be plowing ahead on projects unfettered by the virus are now having to step back and re-institute many of the same protocols they relaxed earlier this year. They say that new COVID-19 challenges have emerged as construction heads into the second autumn of the pandemic.

"Contractors that we work with are doubling down on their efforts to make sure workers both in their offices and on jobsites, are following local and federal mandates," said Brian A. Wolf, a partner in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, office of construction law firm Smith, Currie & Hancock. "They're taking the health and safety of their employees and the public very seriously."

Rising case numbers

Driven by the highly contagious delta variant and breakthrough infections even among the fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases have surged again, and recently hit 100,000 new daily infections nationally, a metric not seen since February. Healthcare professionals predict the number could reach 200,000 within weeks. Analyzing preliminary data from six states, the New York Times recently reported that breakthrough cases accounted for between 18% and 28% of all new infections.

Josh Stark, senior vice president of construction at Chicago-based developer and contractor Focus, said the wider-ranging impacts of the current surge could hinder construction further, especially as material suppliers are just now ramping back up to capacity.

"We're seeing suppliers come back online, which is great. But if COVID starts to hit in a big way again, then do those businesses have to shut down?" Stark said. "That affects our industry from a supply perspective, so that's definitely a concern."

The surge is happening as mask mandates have returned in many localities, at the same time that many large employers, including the federal government, the U.S. military, United Airlines, Walmart and Disney have announced they'll require employees to be vaccinated to return to work.  

For construction, those issues are unfolding against the backdrop of an industry that continues to face heightened levels of vaccine hesitancy, with more than 40% of workers consistently saying they would choose not to get vaccinated, even if they had the opportunity to do so. Today, that hesitancy is running headlong into worries from workers who are vaccinated, as well as mandates from project owners who are now increasingly requiring only vaccinated workers on their jobsites.

According to Silver Spring, Maryland-based construction safety nonprofit CPWR — The Center for Construction Research and Training, construction vaccination rates have consistently lagged other occupations, while vaccine hesitancy has remained comparably high. 

"In the last few weeks, we've started to get vaccine mandates from owners on jobs," said Kyle Peacock, CEO of San Francisco-based Peacock Construction, who notes that approximately 75% of his direct employees are vaccinated, although rates among his subs are lower. "All of our healthcare clients are doing it, but we've also had a couple office tenants that said they're only going to let vaccinated people into their offices. It's an issue we're trying to solve."

A major concern among contractors now is that the perennial labor shortage within the construction industry, which had already been exacerbated by the pandemic, will only become worse as clients require vaccinations for jobsites.  

Take a recent letter to members from the Associated General Contractors of America's Inland Northwest Chapter, which includes eastern Washington state, shortly after Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee ordered most state workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 18.

"It is important to note that this mandate does apply to all employees, contractors, subs and suppliers that work on or have access to state worksites," Cheryl Stewart, the chapter's executive director, wrote. "I know many of you will have employees that will choose not to work on state projects if vaccination is required. It is also certain that state agencies will lose employees over this issue, so project delays all around are going to be the norm moving forward."

Indeed, Ken Simonson, chief economist for the AGC, citing construction employment levels that remain below their pre-pandemic peak in 36 states, said delta could cause shockwaves throughout the industry. 

"The fast-spreading COVID-19 delta variant may make it harder to find employees eligible to work on restricted sites and may also depress demand if some owners defer projects," Simonson said in a statement about July employment data. 

Keeping track

Beyond the impact of the number of workers they'll have for vaccinated jobsites, contractors facing mandates from clients are also challenged by how to implement these kinds of requirements.

"How do you monitor it? Are you going to be checking vaccination cards at the door?" said Peacock. "It would be relatively easy if it was just our employees, but we have hundreds of subcontractors coming to our jobsites every day, and then you have vendors making deliveries."

One solution Peacock and others have implemented is Safe Site Check In, a jobsite screening app that workers have used throughout the pandemic, which can be customized to ask about workers' vaccine status. That's what San Jose, California-based commercial contractor Landmark Builders has done. 

"We've got it now so there's basically only two questions: 'Are you vaccinated?', which gives them a yes-no choice, or 'I choose not to answer,'" said Sheri Dizon, Landmark's CFO, who noted that everyone in the firm's offices is vaccinated, “but in the field, it's very different."

The company has been tracking responses from the app on vaccination status, and has seen a 60% vaccinated, 40% unvaccinated rate among its subs, a ratio that aligns closely with construction worker vaccination surveys. "It's a political debate that you’re not going to win," Dizon said. “But if they're not vaccinated, they'll tell you.”

Landmark's clients have also asked for fully vaccinated workers on jobs. But in one case where a well-liked supervisor hadn't been vaccinated, the client allowed him to stay on the project. "They liked him, so they said he was fine," Dizon said.

Contractors such as XL and Peacock said they haven't issued vaccine mandates for their companies at this point, though they didn't rule out the possibility in the future. Instead, they have launched programs to encourage workers to get vaccinated and provided education to help workers decide.

"We brought in medical experts to explain the safety components and answer questions," XL's Guzman said. "We.ve just made an extreme effort of education to try to get as many folks as possible to make that choice for themselves."

Peacock said that while his lawyers have told him he can mandate workers to get vaccinations, there are still issues that have kept him from doing so.

"We are having that dialogue internally, but while everybody says you can legally do it, there's not a lot of case law surrounding it," Peacock said. "There are still some liabilities with that."