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CT Construction Digest Thursday November 17, 2022

New Jersey developer gets tentative nod to build major downtown Hartford mixed-use development

Michael Puffer

A Camden, New Jersey-based housing developer and investor has received a selection committee endorsement to build a mixed-use development worth tens-of-millions of dollars on a 2.8-acre parking lot south of Hartford’s Bushnell Park.

A committee that included Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, along with staff and board members from the Capital Region Development Authority, endorsed The Michaels Organization – a company operating housing in 35 states – ahead of three other companies seeking the right to build on a vacant parking lot at 165 Capitol Ave.

That endorsement is set to be presented to the larger CRDA board Thursday. Attempts to reach a CRDA representative Wednesday morning were not immediately successful.
The four applicants responded to a request-for-proposals in June, seeking a chance to build a portion of a 12-acre redevelopment zone in the blocks south of Bushnell Park. A master plan for the larger redevelopment zone envisions new housing for up to 1,800 residents, along with restaurants, retail, arts and entertainment venues.

The proposals submitted for 165 Capitol Ave. each included about 300 units of multifamily housing and roughly 25,000 square feet of retail space, with estimated costs ranging from $90 million to $130 million, CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said in June. Those plans are not set in stone, however, Freimuth said at the time. More important was the vision and capabilities of the applicants, he said.

Two of the applicants are well-known to the city, having built or renovated hundreds of units of multifamily housing in Hartford. These include Spectra, an offshoot of New York-based Wonder Works Construction, and Norwalk-based Spinnaker Real Estate Partners.

The fourth applicant was Charlotte-based builder LCM, which has subsequently rebranded to Quarterra Multifamily.

After interviews and follow-up presentations, the selection committee ranked Michaels with 12.45 points, closely followed by LCM with 12.275 points, trailed by Spinnaker with 10.025 points and then Spectra/Wonder Works with 9.35 points.

According to its website, Michaels operates about 60,000 units of housing in more than 425 communities in 35 states, along with Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The company says it has built more than 55,000 units of housing.

In Connecticut, Michaels manages four affordable housing communities with a combined 359 units in Meriden and New Haven, according to its website. 

DOT looks for ways to improve I-95 between Branford and Rhode Island

Kimberly Drelich

Interstate 95 in the area of the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge, the span between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, carried an average of 40,000 vehicles a day in the late 1950’s.

That number more than doubled to 97,000 vehicles a day in 2016, and is projected to increase to 126,000 vehicles in 2045.

That is one of the challenges facing state Department of Transportation representatives who have begun a new study of Interstate 95 from Branford to Rhode Island that will help identify both the short and long term solutions needed to address the increased traffic since the highway was built and the anticipated increase in the coming years.

The DOT and CDM Smith, an engineering and construction firm, gave two virtual presentations Tuesday on the I-95 Eastern Connecticut Planning and Environmental Linkages Study, which started this year, and said they are looking for residents’ comments on how they think the highway can be improved.

The study comes at a time when the corridor area is projected to see an 18% population growth and 26% employment growth between 2016 and 2050, a faster pace than Connecticut overall, said Krista Goodin, project manager with CDM Smith.

Goodin said the I-95 corridor from Branford to Rhode Island was previously studied in 2004 and later studied in an update in 2018. Both studies identified the need for additional capacity to address increasing congestion and recommended improvements, including widening in some areas and safety and design improvements at interchanges.

The DOT is now undertaking a Planning and Environmental Linkages study of the corridor, a type of study intended to “consider environmental, community, and economic goals early in the transportation planning process” and “use the information, analysis, and products developed during planning to inform and streamline the transportation project development and environmental review process,” according to the project website. The study also is “intended to provide the framework for the long-term implementation of transportation improvements as funding becomes available.”

Becca Hall, deputy project manager with CDM Smith, outlined issues with the corridor, where many of the shoulders are too narrow, six bridges are in poor condition, and nearly half of the interchanges, including Exits 86 and 87 in Groton, are too closely spaced.

The 59-mile long stretch of highway has 5 left-hand on- and off-ramps, which can lead to slower traffic in the left lane, Hall said. In addition, 70% of the off-ramps and 55% of the on-ramps are too short, which causes drivers to slow down on the highway. In addition, 40 off-ramps and 33 on-ramps have curves that are too tight, and the highway itself has steep grades and seven curves that are too tight.

Hall said that according to the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, there were 2,925 crashes in the study area from 2018-2020. About a quarter of the crashes resulted in an injury and 19 were fatal. During summer weekends, crashes were 67% higher than the annual average.

The project team said it has gathered and analyzed data of the corridor, but stressed that there are no specific recommendations at this phase of the study. The team said it is looking to hear from residents about their feedback based on their day-to-day experience of I-95.

After the presentation, people asked the DOT questions.

In response to questions about bottlenecks on I-95 in East Lyme, Scott Harley of CDM Smith, said the team noted a number of issues in that area, including narrow shoulders, steep vertical grades, and very close spacing between the Exits 74, 75 and 76 on- and off- ramps. The northbound Exit 76 off-ramp is on the left side, which is opposite of drivers’ expectations as most off-ramps in Connecticut are on the right side.

Harley said next spring the DOT plans to begin a project centered around the reconstruction of the Exit 74 Interchange and includes the replacement of the bridge carrying I-95 over Route 161. He said the design team also will continue to investigate solutions to reduce congestion and improve safety in this section of I-95.

The DOT asked residents to comment on the Draft Purpose and Need statement for the corridor and what they think needs to be improved based on their day-to-day experience. The formal comment period ends Nov. 30, though the DOT said it will welcome comments throughout the project.

According to the DOT, comments can be submitted on the study website, by email to info@i95EasternCT.com, or by mail at I-95 Eastern CT PEL Study Team (CDM Smith), 77 Hartland Street, Suite 201, East Hartford, CT 06108.

More information is available at the project website at https://www.i95easternct.com. There is also an online survey on the website.

A final report is slated to be completed by the fall of 2023, Goodin said.

Developer looks to build large mixed-use project on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield

Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — A new proposal seeks to build a large, mixed-use development on Black Rock Turnpike, that would add thousands of feet of co-working space and nearly 250 apartments.

Post Road Residential is asking the Town Plan and Zoning Commission to conduct a non-binding pre-review on its plans for a five story building with 243 residential units, a 10,000 square foot amenity space and a 6,000 square foot co-working space at 81 Black Rock Turnpike, also known as the Reiner Property

According to town documents, the approximately five-acre site would host a 300,000-square-foot building that also has parking, courtyards and roof decks. The documents report the building would be 61 feet tall, have a parking garage with 232 spaces and a parking lot with 102 spaces. It notes most of the property's frontage would be on Ash Creek Boulevard. 

"The proposed use will also be a tremendous support to nearby commercial businesses, including the brewpub and other retail stores on the northern side of the train tracks," it said. "The rehabilitation of the site will turn the property from an economic drain to an economic boost for the neighborhood and the town of Fairfield."

The site is currently vacant.

Chris Russo, the attorney for the developer, said the property is currently an eyesore and the proposal will completely turn that around. He said it has been designed in a way that is in line with the town's transit oriented development study. 

Russo said the pre-application process allows the developer to show the plans and get feedback from the commission before it begins the formal process. 

The developer, Andrew Montelli, said his team built The Anchorage, an apartment complex on Unquowa Road, as well as other large residential facilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He said the site for the development, which is industrial, does not have any neighbors who would be opposed to its construction.

"It's a very insulated project," he said. "What we're moving towards is going to be a great building if we get permission to do it."

Montelli noted there are contaminants on the site, which will take millions of dollars to cap with concrete, adding they have state approval to do so.

Commission Chair Thomas Noonan asked if the developers were aware of the Fairfield Metro development breaking ground nearby, and if they plan to complement it. The developer's team said they looked at those plans. 

Commissioners questioned the development team on topics such as parking, aesthetics, pedestrian pathways, and whether solar panels could be installed in the project. Noonan said the commission was interested in more details going forward and was looking forward to working with them.

Quinnipiac University wins critical town approval for new south quad

Meghan Friedmann

HAMDEN – Quinnipiac University has won a controversial zoning approval, a critical step in its plans to construct three new buildings in an area traditionally zoned for single-family housing.

Hamden’s Planning & Zoning Commission voted to designate Quinnipiac’s Mount Carmel Campus as a Planned Development District, according to Mayor Lauren Garrett, who said four commissioners voted in favor while three abstained.

A PDD is an independent zoning district that lends projects flexibility by allowing modifications to bulk zoning regulations. In Hamden, they can be established in mixed-use zones and properties owned or operated by universities.

The proposal sparked hours of public debate and intense pushback from residents, some of whom said they believed allowing Quinnipiac to designate its campus as a PDD was an overreach.

Others worried there was too much uncertainty as to how the regulation would play out, since Hamden only implemented the PDD zoning mechanism this year.

Meanwhile, Quinnipiac said the project will benefit the larger community by supporting “a long-term goal to decrease the number of students living off campus, while also creating economic growth for the town of Hamden through permitting fees, job creation and contracts with builders and construction suppliers in the region,” according to a university statement provided Wednesday by spokesperson John Morgan.

The construction project, which the university estimates will cost $293 million, will include a new 417-bed residence hall, a school of business and an academic building, Morgan said.  

“This $293 million investment in new facilities will enhance our students’ living and learning experiences while ensuring that QU remains a distinctive and transformative life experience for future learners of all ages,” Quinnipiac’s statement said.

Quinnipiac was required to submit an initial development concept plan with its application. Now that the PDD has been approved, the university will have to submit a final development plan for review, according to a copy of the town’s PDD regulations.

If the final plan were to differ significantly from the concept plan, the Planning & Zoning Commission could choose to hold a public hearing.

The PDD covers a 223-acre area that includes some Quinnipiac properties not located on its Mount Carmel campus, although the “south quad” project is slated for construction on the campus’ existing footprint.

The district will require front yard setbacks of 40 feet from public streets and 50-foot setbacks from abutting properties, according to Quinnipiac’s application, which is available on the town website.

It allows a maximum building height of between 35 feet and 60 feet, depending on where the building is in relation to the setback lines.

The town estimates the construction would bring in about $3 million in revenue through building permit fees.

Grievance against Lamont officials from embattled former official dismissed

Dave Altimari, CTMirror.org

The state Employees’ Review Board has dismissed a grievance filed by Konstantinos Diamantis, ruling that it had no jurisdiction to hold a hearing on his case because he wasn’t an employee of the state at the time he filed it and they had no authority to rescind his resignation.

In a six-page ruling, the three-member board made it clear it sided with the state’s analysis of the grievance: that Diamantis voluntarily resigned as deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management in October 2021 — when he learned he was going to be placed on administrative leave while a federal investigation of the state’s school construction grant program was underway — and therefore had no standing to try and get his job back. Diamantis was also the head of the school grants program at that time.

“During his employment, [Diamantis] filed no appeals with the ERB. Only a month after his resignation did he raise a multitude of allegations in his appeal, some of which may have been viable at the time of his employment,” the decision states.

At a hearing in September before two members of the board, Diamantis’ attorney, Zachary Reiland, argued that the governor’s top lieutenants created an unbearable working environment for him and “set a trap” that forced him to retire rather than fight an investigation into the school construction grant program that he oversaw.

 “Mr. Diamantis is claiming that he was constructively fired from his position because a situation was created in which his working conditions were so confrontational, so unbearable,” Reiland said.

But the board rejected Diamantis’ claims of a “hostile work environment.”

“[Diamantis’] claim of a hostile work environment, even if filed with ERB while he was employed, would be invalid,” the decision states. “The ‘hostility’ … was directed at the Secretary of Policy and Management [Melissa] McCaw, an African American, and not [Diamantis]. He was not even in the ‘protected class’ (race). He claims to have been ‘disturbed’ by the alleged racism. This ‘hostility’ does not rise to the level of a ‘constructive discharge’ as a cause for his resignation.”

“We have the ability to appeal to the Superior Court, and I am discussing those options with Mr. Diamantis,” Reiland said.

The Employees’ Review Board was Diamantis’ last option under the state contract.

Documents obtained by the CT Mirror show that Diamantis’ grievance had already been denied in two other closed sessions, before a DAS human resources officer and an arbitrator.

On Oct. 28, Gov. Ned Lamont removed Diamantis from his appointed position as undersecretary at the Office of Policy and Management and suspended him with pay from his position as the director of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review, a classified job with civil service protections.

The move came shortly after reports surfaced that Diamantis’ daughter had gotten a job at then-Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo’s office at the same time that Colangelo was seeking Diamantis’ help in getting raises for himself and other state’s attorneys. A federal investigation into the school grant program that includes projects in Enfield, Manchester, and Tolland, was also underway.

Rather than accept the suspension, Diamantis retired.

Within hours of retiring, Diamantis tried to rescind his retirement, only to have then-DAS Commissioner Josh Geballe deny it because he had resigned “not in good standing.”

“Mr. Diamantis wasn’t demoted. He was not suspended, and he was not dismissed,” Garelick said during the September hearing. “He was placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation. He has not been aggrieved as a result of alleged unlawful discrimination. He chose to resign immediately. That was his decision. In fact, he had been noticed that he could remain on the payroll on paid administrative leave,” Garelick said.

Garelick also said that the state denies all of Diamantis’ allegations of racial discord within the administration or that anyone made his work place “unbearable.”

“If Mr. Diamantis had believed that there was a violation of any sort of workplace rules or regulations or statutes, he could have filed a complaint with the Employees’ Review Board at any point, and he didn’t,” Garelick said. “Instead, he waited until 30 days after he was removed from his appointment as deputy secretary and placed on paid administrative leave.”

In his grievance, Diamantis alleged that then-DAS Commissioner Josh Geballe and Chief of Staff Paul Mounds held a grudge against him for speaking out about the way they and other commissioners treated McCaw. (Geballe’s mother, Shelley Geballe, a lawyer and professor of public health at Yale, is a founding board member of the nonprofit Connecticut News Project Inc., operator of CTMirror.org.)

McCaw has since left her OPM job and is now the town of East Hartford Finance Director.

Diamantis describes secretly listening, at McCaw’s request, to Zoom meetings with other commissioners and state officials so he could “witness the treatment she was receiving.”

The grievance describes another Zoom meeting among state commissioners where McCaw addressed an unnamed commissioner’s “abusive and disrespectful behavior toward the Secretary” and charged it “was rooted in racial discrimination/animus.”

Diamantis’ initial complaint goes into detail about his last day as a state employee — Oct. 28, 2021.

Diamantis said he was at the UConn Health Center with his gravely ill mother when McCaw called and asked him to come to her office. When he arrived, McCaw informed him that he was immediately terminated from his appointed position as OPM’s deputy secretary and that he was being placed on paid administrative leave from his classified position as director of the Office of School Construction Grants pending an internal investigation.

Diamantis had held the dual positions for nearly two years.

McCaw told him that the misconduct investigation pertained to his daughter’s hiring as an executive assistant to the Chief State’s Attorney and that it was an “improper quid pro quo” arrangement, in which the Chief State’s Attorney would receive approval of a beneficial salary action by OPM and his daughter would receive the executive assistant position. Diamantis claims the combination of his mother’s illness, the accusations made against him and his potential termination left him distraught and emotionally compromised.

An hour later, he met with OPM’s human resources officer to discuss which retirement benefits and possible payouts he would be owed depending on whether he retired or was fired.

At the same time Diamantis was reviewing his retirement papers, he received a letter from Lamont informing him he was relieved of his appointment at OPM. Diamantis then signed a letter of resignation and his retirement papers, according to the complaint.

The grievance said the decision to resign “cannot be separated from the surrounding circumstances. He was distraught, confused and overwhelmed by the fact that his 25 years of public service had inexplicably unraveled in less than two hours.”

State-funded $3 million upgrade to one of New Britain's most-traveled roadways is on horizon

Erica Drzewiecki

NEW BRITAIN – A highly-anticipated and state-funded $3 million upgrade to one of the city’s most well-traveled roads is about a year away.

Among the largest commercial and light industrial centers in New Britain, John Downey Drive was selected by the state to receive roadway and pedestrian improvements, Mayor Erin Stewart told the Herald Wednesday.

“This project we are embarking on is 100% funded by a LOTCIP construction grant (Local Transportation Capital Improvements Program) and it involves a Complete Streets upgrade to the entire 1.2-mile length of John Downey Drive,” Stewart said.

City Public Works and Engineering staff are designing the project in-house and will be seeking input from impacted stakeholders and business owners beginning in Jan. 2023.

“This project is a priority for us,” Stewart said. “We know that it’s a longstanding concern for that area of town and it’s important for us to support our business community especially as businesses in the corridor continue to grow.”

The entire roadway will be repaved with new curbing installed, in addition to drainage and pedestrian improvements to meet ADA standards. A new sidewalk will be installed all along the road’s west side and a multi-use trail will be built on the east side. The design will include the replacement of the traffic signal at the intersection with South Street as well.

The roadway itself is currently 48 feet wide from curb to curb and the shared-turn lane down the center of it will also be eliminated.

“We need to rethink the size of the road and the type of turn lanes in the road itself to address the safety and security of driving down John Downey Drive,” Stewart said.

Her office has received lots of calls about the condition of this particular thoroughfare. Stewart also heard from people advocating for improvements during a Mobile Mayor’s Office this past summer at Alvarium Brewing Company, a popular destination along the roadway.

In addition to housing many large businesses and manufacturers, John Downey is also home to Lincoln Technical Institute and the Solterra Academy.

“The occupancy rate along the street is over 90% and it has an average daily traffic count of almost 7,000 vehicles,” Stewart said. “It’s a very busy thoroughfare and it’s only continuing to grow…that has really driven the need for this project. It’s going to take a lot of work to make sure it’s done and done correctly. We hope to break ground about a year from now.”

Check back in the Herald for updates on stakeholder meetings within the next few months.

Road construction causing headaches in downtown Meriden

Mary Ellen Godin

MERIDEN — It’s been a rough week for people traveling downtown with signal changes and repaving operations clogging West Main Street and over the railroad tracks.

“The traffic is pretty bad,” said John Benigni, executive director of the YMCA. “They’re not coming down. They’re avoiding downtown. Our numbers are dropping because people are skipping their workouts because it’s too congested. And parking (on Butler Street) is a nightmare.”

The repaving project has closed one lane of traffic along West Main Street and side roads allowing motorists to crawl along West Main from East Main to Cook Avenue. The repaving work began last Wednesday and West Main could be completed as early as today, according to the city.

“Obviously it’s congested like any paving project,” said Meriden Public Information Officer Darrin McKay. “We were having issues with people stopping on the railroad tracks.”

McKay said the city worked with Amtrak and its Engineering Department to hire an additional flag person to clear the tracks when the trains approach Meriden Station.

McKay said motorists were trying to get as far up as they could on West Main Street but not leaving a gap for the trains. Some out-of-towners can be unaware of the frequent train traffic in the area.

“Obviously, you’ve got to keep that gap,” McKay said. “We anticipate West Main being completed today or tomorrow. Anytime you do a major paving project, you’re going to have congestion.”

Mayor Kevin Scarpati said he’s heard a few complaints about the overall inconvenience of traveling downtown, but more people are glad the roads “are finally being paved.”

Two-way traffic

Scarpati is more concerned about the proposed two-way traffic plan that will follow the repaving work.

“There’s confusion,” Scarpati said. “We’re going to have to do a lot more educating on what it’s going to look like and what the final result will be. It’s more confusing to explain it than to drive it. It’s certainly going to be a learning curve for people getting downtown.”

Scarpati said the city will begin an informational campaign that he hopes will encourage people to return.

“The more we can get people to come downtown the better for our businesses,” Scarpati said. “We want to show we’re trying to make it easier to navigate downtown but it’s only going to work if people know what to expect.”

That project will converge with another project, which has been ongoing — the installation and activation of the first set of six new traffic signals along the spans of West Main and Hanover, according to Associate City Engineer Emile Pierides.

New signals will be activated at those streets’ intersections with Cook, Butler, and South Grove.

The lights will first be activated under the existing traffic configuration. Then they will be converted to new traffic flows.

Pierides told the Record-Journal earlier this month the work is a two-step process, first to ensure that the traffic signals are operational. The lights won’t be turned on until Eversource activates power to them.

“Once they make sure all the signals are working, then they will start turning over to the two-way conversion,” Pierides said.

Easier, eventually

Pierides outlined the planned redirection of traffic.

“So Cook Avenue is going to be a two-way. Butler Street is going to still be a one-way, but will be a reverse direction — one way heading north,” Pierides said. Traffic on that road currently travels southbound.

“South Grove is going to be changed to two-way,” he said. “Hanover from South Grove to Cook is going to be two-way as well. So when we’re done it should be a lot easier to get through downtown.”

Benigni, of the YMCA, said that while he appreciates the final result, the work has taken a toll on downtown businesses.

“It forces a business like the Y in a difficult position,” Benigni said. “I understand this is a process. Ultimately at the end, I endorse where they want to go. But it’s very inconvenient for our members and our business.”

Even before the change in traffic patterns it’s not unusual to see motorists going the wrong way on Butler or West Main streets, Benigni said. He said he agreed with Scarpati that the new traffic pattern will mean a re-education for everyone.

When informed that West Main Street could be completed by Wednesday, Benigni quipped, “Great, you got any more good news for me?”