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CT Construction Digest Thursday January 13, 2022

Bethel approves last piece of funding for $1.5M expansion of Clarke Business Park

Kendra Baker

BETHEL — If all goes well, town officials say the long-awaited Clarke Business Park expansion project could be completed as early as next fall.

Six months after securing state funding, Bethel’s Board of Finance voted Tuesday to approve the use of general fund money for the town’s contribution to the project — the cost of which is now estimated around $1.5 million.

“This is a project that has been about 20 or 25 years in the making,” First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said.

The town has wanted to expand the industrial park for years but has had to put it on hold.

“The park was never fully built out from its original plan for a number of reasons, one (of which) was lack of water,” Knickerbocker said.

After roughly six years of work revamping the water system, the Eureka Lake water storage tank project was completed in 2016.

Knickerbocker said the “last part of the puzzle” was obtaining funding from the state, which happened last July when the state Bond Commission approved a $635,000 grant-in-aid for the town to move forward with the Clarke Park expansion.

Local officials say expanding the park would not only allow existing businesses to grow, but could attract new ones — resulting in more job opportunities and potential grand list growth through new tax revenue.

The plan is to add four commercial lots — totaling 13.2 acres — to Trowbridge Drive, as well as a cul-de-sac on the southern edge of the park and infrastructure like water and sewer to the new lots.

“Because the town of Bethel is the developer, we have to put the infrastructure in place before we can sell the lots,” Knickerbocker explained.

Economic Development Commission Chair Mike Boyle said the hope is to have site work commence sometime in the late spring.

“If all goes well and we get the project completed by the late fall, we can have the lots ready and hopefully secure some sales before the year ends,” he said. “That would be the ideal situation.”

Boyle said the town got bids on the project before COVID, and the application for the state grant it later received was based on those original cost estimates.

After the original low bidder fell through, the town went out to bid again.

A request for proposals went out in August to get bids and construction estimates from contractors interested in doing the expansion work, and Bethel’s Procurement Committee picked excavating contractor TD & Sons, which had the low bid of $1.2 million.

Due to increased labor and construction costs, the expected cost of the expansion project is more than originally estimated.

“Right now, we have a state contribution of $635,000 and we’re looking for a town contribution of $872,633 — bringing the total project cost to $1.5 million,” Boyle said.

Even though the cost has gone up, he said the town would still make a profit off the Clarke Park expansion.

The town has expected to sell the property’s four lots for a total of $1.65 million. With the increased estimated project cost, Boyle said the town could be looking at a profit of about $777,000.

Boyle said a number of companies — including a manufacturer in Danbury — have expressed interest in the proposed lots.

“There are people interested in buying, and we haven’t even published a price,” he said.

Expansion of the industrial park will not only enhance the “tremendous asset” Clarke Park already is, Boyle said, but grow Bethel’s tax base and grand list.

“This is an investment that’s been a long time coming that we’re very excited about,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a home run.”

CT regulators OK expansion of Wheelabrator’s ash landfill over objections from environmentalists

John Moritz

A proposal to more than double the size of Connecticut’s only ash disposal landfill was approved by state regulators despite objections from environmentalists who say there is a risk that contaminants at the site could leak into local groundwater sources and the Quinebaug River.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issued its final decision Dec. 14 to allow the Wheelabrator ash monofill in Putnam to proceed with its planned expansion from 60 acres to nearly 128 acres, while also granting modifications to the company’s existing solid waste and discharge permits.

The expansion will also allow the landfill, which opened in 1999 and is approaching capacity, to expand its life cycle by another 30 years of accepting millions of additional tons of ash from trash incinerators in Connecticut and New York.

“The life expectancy of the current facility is expected (to) be reached in 2022,” DEEP hearing officer Kathleen Reiser wrote in a proposal outlining her final decision. “If no other disposal is developed by that time, there will be nowhere in this region for disposal of the ash material.”

DEEP granted preliminary approval for the expansion last summer, however opponents of the project successfully petitioned for a public comment hearing in October, delaying final approval.

During that meeting, conservation groups urged regulators to deny the expansion permit. Any break in the landfill’s protective lining, they said, which would send harmful contaminants into the nearby Quinebaug River, which flows into the larger Thames River and eventually into Long Island Sound.

The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation also attempted to intervene against the Wheelabrator’s permit request, saying the landfill expansion was unnecessary due to plans to close one of the largest incinerators sending ash to the site. DEEP denied the group’s bid to intervene, though its staff was allowed to submit testimony during the public comment period.

Kevin Budris, a staff attorney for CLF, said Wednesday the group was pleased that DEEP incorporated some of its concerns into the final permit approval, including a requirement that Wheelabrator monitor local groundwater for any contamination by a toxic group of chemicals known as PFAS.

However, Budris criticized DEEP’s overall decision to approve the landfill expansion as a contradiction of the state’s commitments to reduce waste generation, which he said would likely result in the closure of all waste incinerators over the next 20 years.

“DEEP is opening Putnam for ash disposal of all of New England,” Budris said. “It’s inappropriate for Putnam residents to have to shoulder the burden of this ash disposal, especially when so much of it is coming from out of state.”

Wheelabrator Vice President Don Musial, however, said the company has no plans to close its nearby waste-to-energy plants — including its large facility in Bridgeport — regardless of whether its permit to expand the landfill were approved.

In its final decision to issue the permit, DEEP noted that transporting ash longer distances to out-of-state landfills would result in more carbon pollution from trucks. The agency also said past monitoring of the Putnam landfill site has not shown any previous issues with the protective lining.

“As a company, we’re excited for the decision; this has been a 10-year process,” Musial said Wednesday. He added that the public’s feedback ultimately led to amendments to the permit that the company supported, including the requirement for PFAS monitoring.

“As these standards are developed, we will be at the forefront of any facility that’s required to monitor for PFAS,” Musial said.

Despite some local opposition, the expansion plan earned the support of Putnam’s elected town leaders, who pointed to the nearly $60 million the town has received in host fees during the two decades that the landfill has operated. Those fees have helped the town stabilize its tax rate, and even contributed toward capital projects such as the construction of a new municipal building, officials said.

“They’ve been a great company to work with,” Putnam Mayor Barney Seney said Wednesday. “They’ve been helping our town with their donations and the money they put toward our budget.”

With regulatory approval in place, Musial said the expansion project will begin this spring with the installation of another 14 acres of protective lining.

Once that lining is in place, he said the landfill will gradually expand in four phases over the next 20 to 30 years. During the landfill’s extended operation, Musial predicted that Wheelabrator will pay another $100 million in fees to the town of Putnam.

Middletown bridge project aims to reduce Route 9 on-ramp crashes

Cassandra Day

MIDDLETOWN — Transportation officials are nearing the final design stages of a project intended to alleviate the large number of crashes occurring at an on-ramp to Route 9.

State Department of Transportation crews will be widening the bridge that carries Route 9 North over Union Street to provide enough room for an adequate acceleration lane to replace the “stop-controlled” intersection approaching the highway, DOT Project Manager Salvatore Aresco said.

Although there is a yield sign, motorists must crane their necks to determine how fast vehicles are traveling through the curve as well as watch for cars switching lanes.

That area has experienced a high number of motor vehicle crashes over the years. The state’s latest traffic study examined three-year crash data between Jan. 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2020, within the limits of Project No. 82-316. There were a total of 340 crashes with 60 injuries during that period, Aresco said.

A total of 49 motorists were injured in 249 accidents at the stop-controlled interchange, the data shows. Of those, 244 were rear-end crashes, according to the data.

The 2021 data was not included to avoid the potential for reports that were still pending, Aresco said.

A second Route 9 project involves the removal of stop lights downtown between exits 14 and 16, a years-long effort. Because of the pandemic, public participation has been delayed, Aresco said.

The purpose is to improve safety and reduce congestion.

“We’ve been trying to do multiple smaller public outreach events, but COVID put a wrench in that, so we’re trying to do things digitally now,” he added. There is now a DOT landing page dedicated to the project, and the city is expected to conduct a social media campaign asking for citizen feedback.

Those designs will be finished some time this year, with construction expected to be done by 2023, he said.

The state is also in the process of renumbering exits in Middletown, Cromwell and other towns. Sequential exits will be converted to a mile-based numbering system this year to correspond with highway mile markers.

For example, in Middletown, Exit 14 will eventually become 32B. Interim signs, which list both the new and old exits, can also be seen along Route 8 from Bridgeport through the Naugatuck Valley.

“By renumbering exits in relation to the distance from the state’s border, these upgrades will provide conformity with other states, improve navigation for motorists and in the response to emergency highway situations,” DOT Director of Communications Kafi Rouse said.

The new numbering system upgrades, which will be implemented over the next 10 years nationwide, are rolling out as part of existing construction projects, and as signs have reached the end of their useful life, she added.

The benefit of the mileage-based exit numbering system is markers help travelers know how far they have driven, and making it easier to report and respond to highway emergencies, Rouse said.

The signs are expected to be completed in 2030.

To comment on or ask questions about the project, visit portal.ct.gov/DOT and click on “feedback,” or email Salvatore.Aresco@ct.gov.

Bridgeport scrambles to salvage state funding for Bassick High

Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — The delayed effort to move the nearly 100-year-old Bassick High School from the West End to a new South End building is facing another setback.

City officials are counting on state lawmakers to reauthorize tens of millions of dollars in reimbursement for the now more expensive project during the the Connecticut General Assembly’s upcoming session.

But the simplest route to those funds — getting Bassick on the priority list of school construction projects issued in December — may be out and separate, Bassick-specific legislation instead required.

“We’ve been working for a resolution that doesn’t require special legislation. However it seems like it’s headed that way,” state Rep. Antonio Felipe, whose district includes the South End — the new Bassick’s future home — said Tuesday. “We’re still looking to get it on the priority list (but) I know (Bridgeport state Rep.) Steven Stafstrom, myself and the mayor are absolutely dedicated to getting it done one way or the other.”

The Bridgeport City Council is doing its part. On Monday that body’s budget committee, as recently requested by the state’s school construction grants division, approved the city’s new share of the full $129 million Bassick cost — $32 million versus the previous $28.5 million figure — and authorized Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration to borrow that money over the next two years.

The full, 20-member council is expected to vote on those items at its next meeting.

Bridgeport Finance Director Kenneth Flatto explained to the budget committee during Monday’s teleconference that “the state last month said in order to consider funding (Bassick) the state needs the city to amend the amount of the city’s share of the project.”

The fact that Bridgeport needed to seek reauthorization of state dollars was not a secret, but Bassick being excluded from the priority list was unexpected.

When in 2019 Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and the General Assembly agreed to spend $90.8 million on a new Bassick, it was to be built in the same West End neighborhood for $115 million.

Then in summer 2020 the city made the abrupt decision to instead relocate Bassick to the South End on property Ganim’s administration purchased from the University of Bridgeport for $6 million. Last year that plan was further expanded to include the Bridgeport Military Academy.

But that South End site is in a water-logged area of the city requiring necessary flood-mitigation work — mainly elevating the property. While a slow-moving, federally-funded, state-managed initiative to alleviate storm water damage in the South End would eventually encompass the Bassick acreage, city officials do not want to wait.

All of the above changes to the original, West Side-based proposal, coupled with inflation in building supplies, boosted Bassick’s total price tag to $129 million. Those substantial alterations to the plan’s scope and costs, along with the fact that little progress on Bassick had been made as the state’s two-year deadline for starting work approached, resulted in the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review last spring recommending Bridgeport reapply for the state money.

On Tuesday Stafstrom, who was instrumental in securing the initial $90.8 million commitment, said city officials were caught off guard in December when the state issued the school construction priority list ahead of the General Assembly’s Feb. 9 start date and Bassick had not made the cut.

“We had thought it was going to be on that list,” Stafstrom said. He said the city subsequently learned that first the council was expected to authorize spending Bridgeport’s new, $32 million share, resulting in Monday’s budget committee vote.

“I think there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding,” Stafstrom said. “Who had to do what, first, basically. I think everybody is kind of on the same page now.”

Flatto also, without going into specifics or names, briefly referred to recent changes in personnel within the state’s school construction grants office. Late last year Kosta Diamantis, director of the school construction grants division and Bridgeport’s point person on Bassick, was suspended with pay and, instead, retired. It was subsequently reported that Lamont’s administration has hired a Stamford law firm to conduct an investigation into the hiring of Diamantis’ daughter by Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr.

“So the unit ... has different leadership,” Flatto told budget committee members Monday.

Flatto added that the grants office is supportive of the Bassick effort. Officials at the grants office could not be reached for comment.

“There has been a dialogue over the last three or four weeks,” he said. “They’re moving forward. They’ve said they’re supporting the project wholeheartedly (and) want to help with this reauthorization.”

Like Felipe, Stafstrom Tuesday also acknowledged Bassick may not make it into the school construction priority list. He said it may be possible to amend that list during the upcoming session or, as Felipe explained, instead submit special legislation for Bassick.

“This is obviously a huge priority for the (Bridgeport legislative) delegation this session,” Stafstrom said. “It’s a project that is long overdue and I would submit probably the single biggest-need school construction project in the entire state of Connecticut. ... We’re just gonna have to do our work this legislative session to get it passed.”

Hamden grants third contract extension to developer of abandoned property

Meghan Friedmann

HAMDEN — As the town weighs whether to move forward with the project or seek a new developer, the Legislative Council has granted another contract extension to the Mutual Housing Association of South Central Connecticut, the local nonprofit slated to build 87 units on the site of Hamden’s abandoned middle school.

Approved in 2015, the original agreement set aside the large swath of town-owned land at 560 Newhall St. for Mutual Housing, which operates under the moniker NeighborWorks New Horizons.

But the contract’s expiration in July put the future of the site, abandoned years ago due to contamination, in limbo. In order to reevaluate the plan, the council granted Mutual Housing two three-month extensions, one in July and one in October.

Then, on Monday, the council granted its third extension in six months, postponing a decision until April.

“The council is still weighing whether or not the Mutual proposal is the direction that they want to move forward,” said Town Planner Erik Johnson.

A request for comment was left Tuesday with NeighborWorks president and CEO Tom Cruess.

As Johnson sees it, officials must answer two primary questions in the coming months. The first concerns whether Mutual Housing’s plan represents the best use for the site. The second concerns the abandoned gymnasium that is part of the complex.

When it brought the project to the town, Mutual Housing proposed repurposing the gymnasium into a community center. But as officials have reconsidered the agreement, Mutual Housing has put forward two new options.

“Mutual has put forward a proposal that said they would tear the gymnasium down and replace it with a smaller community center,” Johnson said in describing one of those options.

Under the other proposal “mutual would buy the entire property from the town and then ground lease the gymnasium back to the town for it to renovate and then operate,” he said, adding that the cost of the property transfer would be $1.

The history of contamination on the site decreases its market value, according to Johnson, who said transferring the property to another entity will minimize potential liability for the town.

In that scenario, “the town does not have any ongoing environmental liabilities associated with the property. All those liabilities get transferred to Mutual Housing,” he said. The “contamination’s been remediated, but the town is trying to protect itself from having any contingent liabilities.”

If the town strikes a new agreement with the nonprofit, the development will look slightly different than first planned, according to a terms sheet provided to the Legislative Council in October.

The property would include 87 housing units instead of 99, the document shows, and 69 of them would be affordable.

Over half of those units would be in the middle school, which Mutual Housing would repurpose, Johnson said.

The new terms also include a more specific timeline for construction. Johnson said that timeline has been adjusted since October.

“At the end of April there’ll be a vote to either continue to move forward with Mutual Housing or not,” he said.

If the council approves the project, it will likely need one more extension and use the time “to draft a new land use disposition agreement” reflecting the modified terms, Johnson said.

Deal to redevelop former Meriden hospital ends, old bank to be razed

Mary Ellen Godin

MERIDEN — The city’s development deal with One King LLC ended three months ago, when the developer and city officials mutually agreed not to seek another extension. 

One King LLC had a contract to be the preferred developer for One King Place, the site of the former Meriden-Wallingford Hospital, which has been vacant for 24 years. A similar agreement with One King to rehabilitate a former medical office building at 116 Cook Avenue has also ended. The contract for the hospital site was negotiated in 2016.

One King LLC had sought a series of extensions on the contract, but after several sources of financing fell through and the pandemic brought construction and other financial challenges, the parties agreed to end the deal, said city Economic Development Director Joseph Feest. 

“There was no request for an extension this time,” Feest said. “It was a mutual decision between the city and the developer. COVID definitely had a role in it. There was no fault of the city or the developers.”

One King had a promising $33 million proposal for the hospital property that included a senior citizen lifestyle campus consisting of small apartments, medical offices, grocery and book stores. There was even talk of possibly moving the Meriden Senior Center to the campus. 

The end of the agreement returns the city back to square one, but $4 million in city and state dollars spent on remediation work already could be attractive to a new developer, city officials said. 

“There is always talk about what we can do and options,” Feest said. “Everything is on the table. Both of them need extensive work and gutting both buildings to change usage. One King is a lot further along in remediation than 116 Cook Ave.,” Feest said.

The property at 116 Cook Ave. is also in a flood plain that saw severe flooding during a heavy downpour over the summer. To help prevent damage to businesses and homes in the area last month the city purchased 100 Hanover St., the former Castle Bank building, for demolition. The city received some state funding to help pay the cost of the land.

The demolition will pave the way for deepening and widening the channel of Harbor Brook that flows under the former bank. The section of the brook is a significant choke point that permits water pooling on Hanover Street and Cook Avenue.

“We are getting ready to send out the demolition specs and get it done,” Feest said.  “That is one of the bends that causes the back up. By taking it out we’ll be lessening the curve.”

The channel goes down and around 116 Cook to the Cooper Street bridge, now under construction.  The construction also means improvements to the driveway to Hanover Towers that are in need of repairs, said City Councilor Michael Rohde, who chairs the Economic Development Housing and Zoning Commitee. 

“Downstream there are some issues coming though the area where the bank is," Rohde said. "We are also going to redo the driveway to Hanover Towers because it's kind of awkward. It's going to be an upgrade to that whole area."

The upgrade could help attract investors to the two blighted buildings.

The demolition opens up landscaping and beautification opportunities along the city’s linear trail system. The former Factory H site behind 116 Cook Ave. is currently being eyed for future recreation uses and a possible skate park.

“Each project doesn’t take us completely out of the danger of flooding, it reduces its severity,” Feest said. “We seem to be getting a heavier amount of rain over shorter periods of time.”

The Economic Development Department will make 1 King Place and 116 Cook Ave. a development priority in 2022, Feest said.