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CT Construction Digest Thursday December 8, 2022

Yesterday's DOT Bids

Todays Bond Commission Agenda

State bond commission to consider tens of millions in economic development aid for key projects statewide

Michael Puffer

The state Bond Commission will vote Thursday on hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and funding for efforts and initiatives across the state, including $12 million for the city of Middletown’s ambitious plan to revive its industrial riverfront.

In Middletown’s case, the planned $12 million allocation was teed up by a new “Community Investment Fund” board led by state lawmakers.

The funding is meant to help the city further its plans to transform 220 acres of dormant industrial land along the Connecticut River with new parks, community spaces, restaurants, retail and multifamily development. The city has already spent more than $75 million decommissioning its sewage treatment plant, buying properties and repairing a shuttered riverside restaurant building.

Middletown’s plan anticipates its efforts will spark at least $300 million in private commercial and residential development.

The Bond Commission is scheduled to meet in a special session Thursday. Items placed on the agenda can be generally confident of passage. Aid to projects can additionally be subject to conditions required by the state Department of Economic and Community Development and other agencies.

Other municipalities are in line for big contributions for economic development including, among others:

Waterbury is up for $10 million to support demolition and soils cleanup at the former Anaconda American Brass site along its Freight Street corridor.

Hartford’s Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association is up for $1.2 million for a rehabilitation of the shuttered Aetna Diner.

Hartford’s Colt Gateway is up for $1.5 million for a low-interest loan supporting a $6.7-million conversion of commercial space in the development into 45 apartments.   

 International Hartford is up for $1.1 million to support renovating 681 Wethersfield Avenue into a year-round food truck court.

The North Hartford Collaborative is up for $4.5 million for planning grants to the Blue Hills Civic Association’s build out of a community center ($750,000); Rebuilding Together Hartford’s push for home improvements ($400,000); Upper Albany Neighborhood Revitalization Zone’s redevelopment of a former Salvation Army building ($1 million); and the Hartford Renaissance District’s Barbour Street Corridor home renovation program ($2.3 million).

Hartford’s Sheldon Oak Central Inc. is up for a $3.75 million low-interest loan for its 155-unit, mixed-income reconstruction of the Martin Luther King affordable housing complex.

East Hartford is up for a $2.5 million grant to support its purchase and redevelopment of the troublesome downtown Church Corners boarding house.  

The Capital Region Development Authority is up for $1.5 million for repairs at Rentschler Field in East Hartford and the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford; another $5 million for repairs to its parking garages in Hartford; $2 million more for environmental monitoring and repairs to the Front Street District; and another $500,000 for improvements at the Connecticut Regional Market in Hartford.

With $150 million on the line, CT school districts submit 130 applications for ventilation improvements

Alex Putterman, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

A new grant program has demonstrated widespread demand for funding to improve air quality in Connecticut schools, as experts continue to cite ventilation as a key tool in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne illnesses.

According to the state's Department of Administrative Services, Connecticut school districts submitted 130 applications for a new $150 million school ventilation grant program, established earlier this year to finance air quality projects. Though it's unclear how many grants the state will ultimately distribute, it's likely that only a fraction of the applicants will ultimately receive funding.

A DAS spokesperson said Wednesday he could not provide a full list of applicants to the grant program nor the total value of the requests. The agency will have more information "in late February or March," after reviewing all applicants, he said.

An informal CT Insider survey of Connecticut school districts this summer found that few had taken major steps to improve ventilation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite research showing the importance of air filtration in combating the disease. Those findings were consistent with a 2021 review by the State Department of Education, which revealed that only 40 percent of school facilities for which responses were submitted had central air conditioning for their entire building and only 53 percent had HVAC or high efficiency boilers no older than their expected useful life.

The new grant program, established earlier this year, is designed to address these deficiencies by subsidizing local efforts to replace or upgrade boilers, install air conditioning or HVAC systems or otherwise bolster air quality. To receive a grant, school districts must match the funds offered by the state but are not permitted to use money from the federal American Rescue Plan to do so.

According to the state, the grant awards will be determined based on air quality at the school in question, the age of the equipment being replaced and other similar factors. The application process began in September, with a Dec. 1 deadline for all submissions.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said demand for ventilation projects likely extends even beyond the 130 applications.

"There's probably more demand than has even been reflected because the timelines were a little short, and the inability to use the local ARPA funding as part of the match put constraints on some towns," he said.

Still, DeLong said he viewed the process as a "success story" that legislators can build on during the upcoming legislative session, when lawmakers will decide whether to extend the program.

"There is significant need, it's an important initiative, and I think this was a very, very positive first step," he said.

State Sen. Julie Kushner, co-chair of the state panel tasked with study indoor air quality in schools, said the short turnaround period was meant to get the $150 million out the door in time for the construction season over the summer and hopes this was just the start of a robust ongoing grant program for air quality upgrades.

"I'm really, really hopeful that we as the legislature will make this a priority. I can't imagine anything more worthwhile than ensuring that our students are educated in a safe environment.," said Kushner, who is also the vice chair of the legislature's Public Health Committee.

After initially opposing initiatives to fund air quality projects in schools, Gov. Ned Lamont's administration reversed course in the face of mounting press from legislators and local officials two years into the pandemic, authorizing the state to borrow $75 million toward the effort. Another $75 million from federal pandemic funds would also be directed towards air quality upgrades.

Even amid widespread interest in the program, some town officials have expressed confusion that the state plans to use COVID-relief funds to fund the effort but isn't allowing local municipalities to do the same. Others say they're being left out of the process because their towns can't afford to pay for their half of a major air quality improvement project.

"Those towns are losing out on a significant amount of funding," said Betsy Gara, the executive director of the Council of Small Towns, which lobbies for 118 municipalities in the state. "It warrants a modification to the school construction guidelines."

Kushner said she thinks that towns should be allowed to use their ARPA money to fund their expected contribution to the air quality upgrades, where federal rules apply, and that state rules should not be standing in the way.

"I have heard a lot,  a lot, a lot about abilities to pay and whether or not [town officials] are able to make the necessary upgrades or installations," she said. "I think that is something we need to take into consideration, because I think we have an obligation to make sure every district has the same opportunity for good air quality and good conditions for learning and health in our public schools."

Experts consider air circulation among the most important factors in reducing COVID-19 risk in schools, with one study earlier this year finding that efficient ventilation can reduce spread of the disease by more than 80 percent.

Public park atop Norwalk garage and 420 apartments center of Webster lot plan

Abigail Brone

NORWALK — A project nearly 20 years in the making broke new ground last week as plans were presented for a revamped Webster Street parking lot that include a public park.

At the Dec. 1 meeting of the Common Council’s Economic and Community Development Committee, project designers outlined plans for a 650-spot parking garage and 420-unit apartment complex on the Webster lot property.

The plans are an adaptation and expansion of similar designs set in motion in 2004 and again in 2016, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Brian Bidolli said.

Some of the buildings proposed for the plot will be mixed use and the agency is “trying to get as much affordable and mixed-income housing in the project as possible,” Bidolli said.

“When I came into this role, we wanted to figure out a way to bring it to life and make it real,” Bidolli said of the plans. “What we ended up doing was, we issued a bid for procurement of this lot. We started over the past year with a request for qualifications. We issued that around January and received seven strong responses. We really wanted to see what market we could bring to Norwalk.”

The agency conducted a nationwide search, and selected three candidates, and released a request for proposals for the project, Bidolli said. The RFQ went out last fall. 

The agency settled on development firm Quarterra, Bidolli said. The firm then brought on Antunovich Associates, an architectural firm, to help create the site plans.

“A lot of great work was done since 2004, and even earlier, about this project and we didn’t want to dismiss any of that, so we built upon all that work done in the past and inserted a few major elements,” said Brian Gafney of Antunovich Associates, principal designer on the project. “One of which we know was providing 650 parking spots to replace the surface parking lot, but not have surface parking lot.”

The proposed plan, which is in its infancy and will go through months of public input and changes before the next steps, includes the acquisition of several properties adjacent to the lot, Gafney said.

“The development can stand on its own without the addition of abutting properties, but it would make it stronger and address some of the concerns,” Gafney said. “The development is able to be scaled to stand on its own. We continue to have discussions with all surrounding privately owned parcels to see what is feasible to be added.”

The 650-spot garage will be the first constructed piece of the project, to allow minimal disruption as the surface lot is phased out and construction on the remainder of the site commenced, Gafney said.

A new road will bisect the plot to allow access to the garage, any retail deliveries and to prevent general traffic related to the development from clogging the roadways surrounding the Webster Street lot, Gafney said.

“We will flank or border Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with a series of residential houses set back from the street, as well as allowing the existing sidewalk to be moved to the other side of the existing trees so that we can put in a bike lane along MLK and align with some of the overall master plan for multi-modal development,” Gafney said.

The lot has a troubled history, including frequent flooding seeping into nearby buildings and previous attempts to revitalize the space.

Proposed for the roof of the parking garage is a public park, considered the “jewel” of the project, Gafney said.

“This will be built on top of some of our parking structures and will have, by us building on top of the parking structure, the ability to put green space on top and also spill over the side somewhat, replicating the beautiful landscaping we see on the shores of Connecticut,” Gafney said. “We can make these feel as though the structure isn’t even there. We think it is a really great thing. We can give back this park piece, you may have movie nights, farmers markets, any other type of civic space it can be used for.”

The project is expected to include six to nine months of gathering city input, including holding several open houses, before moving to the next phase of design, Quarterra’s Stamford Vice President of Development Doug Browne said.

Once the public outreach portion of the project is complete next fall, design of the project will take an additional 18 to 20 months before construction will begin, Browne said.

“The timeline is also not set in stone. We will move at a pace that is required for this project. We don’t want to rush this as it is a special project for the city,” Browne said. “We believe we can keep a large majority of the spaces available while building that garage, when it’s available we will move over to other side and start building there.” 

Torrington schools need $32 million in repairs, upgrades, engineers say

Emily M. Olson

TORRINGTON — A recent review of the city's school buildings revealed an estimated $32 million needed for repairs and upgrades at Vogel Wetmore, Forbes, Torringford, Southwest and Torrington Middle School.

The estimate was presented by the Board of Education to the City Council this week. Petrucelli, Silver and Associates, an engineering firm employed by the school board, gave a review of each building and its needs, giving the council an idea of the state of the four elementary schools and middle school.

Included are heating and air-conditioning work, plumbing repairs, roof repairs and renovations to various areas of the buildings. Much of the needs are maintenance-related, according to Petrucelli, Silver and Associates. 

"We did this because we haven't had the opportunity to look at all our buildings," school board Chairwoman Fiona Cappabianca said of the facilities study. "We wanted to map it all out. It's really important that we know what's coming down the pike, and prioritize (these needs) over the next 10 years. We're sharing this with the (City Council) to help understand the issues of each of the buildings.

"It's important that we know what's wrong, and wanted to share this study," Cappabianca said. 

Councilman Paul Cavagnero wanted to know why his board was involved in the discussion. "Why are we being involved with this, trying to address these problems?" he asked.

In response, Mayor Elinor Carbone reminded the council that any spending decisions, ultimately, must be made by that body. 

"We've discussed ... control over these facilities," she said. "The city owns these buildings, and the council controls decisions on (future) referendums (on spending for school repairs), should there be another discussion."

Torrington recently broke ground for construction of a new middle-high school. Voters in November 2020 approved building a new middle-high school and administrative offices for $159 million. Earlier this year, the state legislature announced that instead of 65 percent reimbursement for all eligible costs for the project, that amount would be increased to 85 percent.

Residents voted in favor of spending $159.6 million, with the expectation that, with about $85 million in state reimbursement, the city’s share would be lowered to $74.6 million. With the higher reimbursement, the city’s share has been reduced to $28 million.

Torrington residents will see increases in their tax bills when the bond repayment schedule begins next year. "We just went through a referendum for a new middle-high school," Carbone said. "But when the debt service for the high school project starts to decline, do we go back ... and consider some of these big-ticket items, for improvements to the buildings?

"That's why it made sense to me when the Board of Education asked to make this presentation to the council," the mayor said. "It continues to make sense to me. The council will know what's going on."

 The city is conducting a similar review of its facilities, Carbone said, with a team that includes Public Works Director Ray Drew. 

Councilwoman Ann Ruwet thought the school facilities review was a good idea. "This is the city's real estate, that educates our children," she said. "This is communication between the City Council and the school board."

Lack of bidders delays Norwalk's historic Lockwood-Mathews Mansion renovation project

Abigail Brone

NORWALK — Extensive renovations on the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion hit a roadblock when nine aspects of the project received no bids for the work.

The city will resubmit a request for proposals for contractors to conduct work on the historic mansion after an RFP from October garnered too few bids, officials said.

In May, the mansion released plans for a $13.5 million renovation that will include some modern technology in the historic home. The bulk of the renovation is to upgrade the mansion's technology and utilities, according to Patsy Brescia, vice chair of the mansion’s board of trustees.

Now, the renovation timeline is changing, as the RFP, released in early October and closed Oct. 28, yielded few responses, Brescia said. During last Wednesday’s Historical Commission meeting, the group voted to move forward with the release of a new, revised RFP for the project.

“The contracts were broken down pretty much into real biddable sections. We thought that would attract more bidders because it’s such a complicated project and we thought that might work,” Brescia told the commission.

The contracts were divided into 20 different bid requests, ranging from spray on fireproofing to storage and mobile shelving, according to the bid documents.

Nine of the categories received no bids, Brescia said.

“One of them was plumbing, the protection plan, which is super important to us for installing protection on all of the walls on first and second floor and grand staircase,” Brescia said. “It’s an amazingly complicated bidding process and with everything going on, so much construction, the bidders were saying, ‘We got a lot of work. We need more time to put our bids together.’”

There were also no bids for the building’s HVAC work. Several factors contributed to the lack of bids, including the length of the open bid, the expertise required for the project and other opportunities, Brescia said.

“One of the bidders who had worked on the mansion previously was called back because they didn’t bid, although took out the documents and we thought they would. We learned after they had just been awarded a bid for The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, so they were in middle of that in our bid process,” Brescia said. “Our consultants have gone back to everybody in the trade and learned reasons why people didn’t bid, so we are now trying to structure a bid package that will respond to those issues.”

Initially, the work was set to begin in January and run until about May 2024, according to the bid documents.

The new RFPs, however, will go out around the start of the new year, Mansion Board of Trustees Chair Doug Hempstead said.

“We are going to have to go out and re-bid again through the process,” Hempstead said. “Our timeline has changed. We’re staying flexible. It’s anticipated right after the first of the year we will go out to bid again with the city. We will allow three to four weeks this time around to respond, give them enough time.”

The gathering and sifting through of the bids, along with the contract approvals, is expected to take several months, with construction not likely to begin until June or July, Hempstead said.