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CT Construction Digest Thursday September 17, 2020

 Governor attends Steele Center groundbreaking

Matt Hornick  BERLIN - For Berlin Economic Development Director Chris Edge, organizing the groundbreaking for the Steele Center at Farmington project was a hassle. In addition to the developers and local public officials that he scheduled to attend, he gathered state politicians including Gov. Ned Lamont to the site that will eventually bring 19,000 square feet of medical, restaurant and retail space along with 76 market-rate apartments.

“This is going to give us vibrancy in the Kensington Village,” Edge said. “We can now have a great place for millennials and empty nesters to live. Hopefully they work in New Haven, they work in Hartford. The other piece is we can really have an opportunity for private investment, which in covid is challenging. For us, it’s great for the fact that we have a developer that’s located in Southington. They’re here for the long term and they’re going to be working to really help the area. I think it’s great because we’re going to get some of the things we need [such as] restaurants, retail, medical office, which we are lacking to some degree.”

After rescheduling the event once, Wednesday morning marked the beginning of one of two major construction projects happening in Berlin. That was until some Connecticut residents who are fed up with the governor’s coronavirus precautions arrived to interrupt the event and make their voices heard. The protestors called Lamont “King Ned” in response to Lamont extending his emergency powers until February.

The building that broke ground Wednesday will feature 7,800 square feet of retail space and 16 apartments, and the developers expect to lay the first foundation for that building in the next 45-60 days.

The event featured speakers including Lamont; Berlin Mayor Mark Kaczynski; Tony Valenti, one of the developers from Newport Realty Group; and other public officials.

The entire project will encompass 861, 889, 903 and 913 Farmington Avenue. Wednesday’s event marked construction of a brand new building at 903 Farmington and renovations to the existing building at 861 Farmington. The other plots will be purchased and developed by Newport at a later date as part of the project.

“We’re excited,” developer Mark Lovely from Newport said. “We feel with the train station here, I know there’s covid and everything going on now, but eventually things are going to be back. You’re going to have these apartments here, the restaurants, the cafes, the office space, it’s a great place. Even someone in Hartford could open a satellite business here, they could jump on a train and go to their office in Hartford and be there in 20 minutes.”

The building at 861 Farmington is going to be renovated into a commercial space on the first floor with an apartment on top while retaining the existing facade and historic attributes. 903 Farmington will be the site of a 21,000-square-foot multi-use building with retail and restaurant space on the first floor and 16 apartments on top.

“I think it’s great for the fact that we haven’t had a lot of apartments and now we will,” Edge said. “If you look at our major employers, manufacturing, Comcourse, Eversource, they’re looking for every millennial they can find that’s talented and motivated. This will give those millennials an opportunity to live here in Berlin.”

The development is based around being directly next to the Berlin train station, which gives incredible access for commuters or anyone in need of easy access to the nearby cities.

“I think with the state redoing our train station, it gave us the tools to get this development going,” Kaczynski said. “It took a lot of hard work, but it’s a great piece of land that Berlin has owned for a long time and we were finally able to bring some new development to Farmington Avenue.”

This is the first of two large developments coming to the now in the coming years as Turnpike Ridge, another large development on the Berlin Turnpike, is set to break ground Oct. 2.

“I love private development,” Lamont said. “We’ll do our part. We’ll clean up [with] the Department of Transportation and such, but when you have private developers saying Berlin is a place I want to be, that tells you you have some wind in your back.”

Milling machine collapses underground gas tank in Norwich

Norwich — A paving milling machine collapsed an underground abandoned gas tank on Wednesday at 282 Franklin St.

According to the Norwich Fire Department, the milling machine tipped sideways onto a building, leading to a response of 30 people total from the city fire department, Norwich police, public works and Norwich Public Utilities. Responders evacuated the building and cordoned off the area.There were no injuries or significant building damage, the fire department said in a news release. “We secured all gas and electricity in the area and then assisted removing the milling machine from the sink hole.”

The scene was under control by 10:45 a.m., the release said. NPU was able to replace damaged equipment and restore gas and electricity to the area. Officials from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection responded to the scene, as well, and determined the gas tank needed to be removed.

Other details were not immediately available.

Eversource quietly pitches $700M in borrowing to CT

Mark Pazniokas  versource Energy is asking Connecticut lawmakers to authorize $700 million in borrowing to blunt the impact of losses from Tropical Storm Isaias, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rollback of a recent rate increase.

The securitization pitch to Gov. Ned Lamont and select lawmakers comes a week before the General Assembly is expected to convene a special session on bipartisan legislation requiring regulators to devise a new system of performance-based rate-setting. 

“No shot,” Rep. David Arconti, D-Danbury, co-chair of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, said of the Eversource proposal. “For them to even offer that at this time is a joke.”

Arconti said Eversource broached the idea in material sent to him and his co-chair, Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, on Sunday. Jim Judge, the Eversource chief executive, followed up in separate meetings Tuesday with Lamont and the lawmakers.

The theory behind securitization plans is simple: Rather than hit ratepayers with a big increase due to extraordinary losses by a utility, spread out the impact over time through borrowing that Eversource would call “rate reduction bonds.”

But the details are complex, and lawmakers said Eversource’s proposal asks Connecticut’s part-time legislature to take on a task that belongs to PURA, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Such a pitch to PURA would be subjected to a painstaking and public review over months.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Needleman said. “Normally, I would never agree to the idea of taking routine expenses and securitizing them — bonding them. We may be facing extraordinary losses here, but this is not the moment to look at that.”

Eversource did not raise the issue in its testimony last week during a hearing on the proposed energy legislation. “That’s another big issue,” Needleman said.

Arconti said the financial impact of COVID-related delinquencies — Connecticut was the among the states that suspended shut offs due to unpaid bills during the pandemic — is a significant industry-wide issue and one that PURA must address.

“That’s what PURA is for,” Arconti said. “Just to legislate this away, that would set a terrible precedent.”

The legislation references three open cases before PURA, including the regulators’ investigation into how Eversource and United Illuminating responded to the Isaias, the tropical storm that blacked out more than one million customers. Arconti said the legislative language, if accepted, effectively would end the inquiry.

Securitization is a tool already available to PURA, but Eversource said additional legislation was needed in this case. Mitch Gross, the spokesman for Eversource in Connecticut, said the company disagreed with the assessment that the legislation would be prescriptive on PURA, not permissive.

“At the legislative hearings we committed to working on ways to find solutions to the high bills customers are experiencing during COVID. Any such proposals would ultimately need to be filed with PURA for public review and approval,” Gross said. “We will, of course, have additional discussions as appropriate, but legislation is required for securitization.”

Judge, who is based in Boston, spent Tuesday in Connecticut. He and two senior executives met the governor and his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, at the Capitol, then drove to Essex, where the Eversource contingent met Needleman and talked to Arconti via a video call.

In a summary given to the lawmakers, Eversource emphasized the benefit to customers, saying “Securitization of these costs will reduce customer rate impacts by 65 percent over the next six years.”

It was accompanied by 11,200 words of suggested legislative language.

While securitization never was raised by Eversource during either of two hearings recently held by the Energy and Technology Committee, Gross said the proposal was consistent with the company’s promise to work with “legislators and regulators to develop creative solutions to reduce rate impacts on our customers.”

“One possible solution is to take the costs associated with recent, and future, rate increases and spread them over 20 years,” Gross said. “This approach would provide immediate rate relief to customers during this unprecedented time of COVID-19.”

Asked for the governor’s assessment of the proposal, an administration spokesman offered neither praise nor criticism.

“Gov. Lamont received Eversource’s proposal, which was also shared with the leadership of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. “Gov. Lamont remains focused on supporting legislation that holds our utilities accountable and protecting ratepayers.”

Eversource has had a difficult summer, with customers complaining of higher bills and poorer service.

A July 1 rate adjustment coincided with a heat wave and higher residential electricity usage due to people working from home during the pandemic. Residential electric usage increased 36% from May to June and June 2020 was 26% higher than June 2019, and  Eversource said that trend continued into July.

Then came Isaias on Aug. 4. The storm knocked out power to more than 1.1 million customers — with a peak of more than 632,000 outages at one time — and damaged nearly 21,700 locations, including 8,900 fallen trees and 500 miles of downed wires. Some customers were without power for nine days, but Eversource defended its response, given the damage.

The Energy and Technology Committee’s proposed energy bill, among other things, would set standards for compensating customers after blackouts.

Needleman said the measure is bipartisan, supported by the committee’s two Democratic co-chairs and its two ranking Republicans, Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme and Rep. Charles Ferraro of West Haven. Needleman said he will resist any amendments that would be unacceptable to his GOP colleagues.

“I have great respect for the chairs for that,” Formica said of the bipartisan approach. “We’ve been working that way for while.”

But Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he was wary of taking up an energy bill that was inspired in large measure by outrage over a blackout.

“What gives me concern is this is a knee-jerk reaction to an issue. Whenever we do a knee-jerk reaction, we never get it right,” Fasano said. “I understand people want to have a vote on it, so they have a flag to wave in the election.”

Lamont is expected to issue a call for the special session by Friday. It will not include the issue of police accountability, despite Republican calls for a wholesale rewrite of the law passed in special session in July, as opposed to minor revisions sought by some Democrats.

School construction financing and absentee ballots also are expected to be on the agenda.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said registrars of voters are looking for new rules on when ballots can be counted, given the high percentage of votes expected to be cast by absentee due to the COVID pandemic. The caucus leaders have agreed to consider changes.

“We’ve been contacted by registrars concerned about the amount of absentee ballots received under the current rules,” Aresimowicz said. “We’ve been trying to figure out as leaders what kind of relief we can bring to them.”

Large development on New Haven’s Coliseum site tabled for a public hearing

Mary E. O'Leary  NEW HAVEN — After an hour of discussion, the City Plan Commission Monday agreed to table a decision on the first phase of a major development on the site of the former Coliseum and to hold a public hearing in two weeks, given the significance of the project to New Haven.

It also voted to table a request from Murphy Road Recycling to add household garbage to the material it would accept at its transfer station at 19 Wheeler St. in the Annex neighborhood since staff had not yet received a technical review of those plans by engineering consultant CDM Smith.

The hearing on a Spinnaker Real Estate Partners proposal to develop the five acres at 275 South Orange St., once home to the Coliseum but for years now the site of a large parking lot, will be Oct.7, while the recycling center review is set for Oct. 21. Both plans have generated considerable opposition.

Spinnaker is proposing to build 200 units of housing, 20 percent of which will be affordable on the prime property at the entrance to the city off two major highways downtown, as well as retail space and a public plaza in the initial phase of a development that will take years to complete. The requests for a public hearing came from the Downtown Wooster Square and the Hill South management teams, as well as several alders, who said more discussion was needed given the proposal’s impact on the city’s transportation system, street safety, affordable housing, construction and permanent jobs.

“Our purpose and goal is to advocate on behalf of its residents to ensure the development projects match their needs and vision for their communities,” Sarah Mclver and Caroline Smith wrote.

There was no disagreement on tabling Murphy Road Recycling, a project that has been discussed over several years, but the commission voted 4-1 to hold a public hearing on Spinnaker, with Commissioner Leslie Radcliffe arguing the developer has “extended themselves significantly” for multiple discussions on their plans already.

Radcliffe said, in her opinion, there was very detailed response to the questions posed over time at six meetings. Aside from that, Radcliffe said those seeking a public hearing were not specific as to their concerns.

There seems to have been opportunity for meaningful community input, she said. Whether or not the community feels it was responsive is a whole different matter and is not something the commission can decide, she said.

Radcliffe added that the decisions on affordable housing and jobs are not within their purview. Rather than being part of the zoning code, they are included in a land disposition agreement with the city.

Those issues, particularly affordable housing, dominated at the public sessions sponsored by the community management teams.

“ ... I don’t see a merit in having a public hearing,” Radcliffe said. She said input from the community “is a courtesy and not a right.”  Alder Adam Marchand, D-25, a commission member, told the board that as laudable as the community management team members and the alders’ concerns are about the amount of affordable housing and the degree of discount, as well as labor considerations, they cannot be the basis for a decision on the site plan, although he was in favor of a public hearing.

He said there is enough back and forth on traffic concerns and some of the site plan details to justify hearing from the public.

Commission Chairman Edward Mattison also weighed in.

“This is probably the most significant and among the largest projects that will ever happen in the city of New Haven,” he said. Having been vacant land for a long period of time, Mattison said this proposal by Spinnaker seems to be “plausible for development.”

He said changes have been made in discussions with staff and more are likely. Mattison felt the commission “would be abdicating our responsibilities” if it failed to give the public a chance to speak about it.

Spinnaker Real Estate Partners recently modified the income range of tenants who would qualify for the affordable units in the development. It ranges from 50 percent of area median income to 100 percent of area median income, down from 120 percent.

It is mandated to offer 20 percent of the units as affordable, but Frank Caico, vice president for development at Spinnaker, has said “we hope to do better” and they hired a consultant on the affordable component.

At the full build-out of 700 apartments, there would be 140 units of affordable housing, with 40 in the first phase of 200 apartments.

Other partners working with Spinnaker include the Fieber Group and KDP. They took over the large project from Live Work Learn Play of Montreal when it could not advance the project after five years given complications on a proposed hotel and potential relocation of utilities.

‘Cruise ship on land:’ Resort-style complex, other development projects take shape in Trumbull

Donald Eng TRUMBULL — Traffic problems on Strobel Road, Spring Hill Road and along Route 111 could be easing relatively soon, according to a review of some of the infrastructure improvements around town.

The updates were unveiled as part of a virtual town hall-style meeting Tuesday.

Traffic engineer Fred Mascia told town officials and members of the public that the construction work along Strobel Road was running well ahead of schedule and could be wrapped up by Thanksgiving, months ahead of projections.

“We had a mild winter last year, and the contractor never stopped work for the season,” he said. “Then, almost as soon as the winter ended, the pandemic struck, and the schools closed.”

With Trumbull High closed from March to September, work on Strobel Road proceeded almost without interruption, Mascia said. As a result, the project is “on track and way ahead of schedule,” he said.

Other road and infrastructure projects also are proceeding, Mascia said. The improvements to Route 111 near the Monroe Turnpike Plaza should be completed within about a year, he said.

The plan is to widen Route 111 as it approaches the shopping center and install a traffic light just to the north of Old Mine Road. The wider road will allow for two travel lanes in each direction, with dedicated turn lanes. The shopping center has long been the subject of complaints.

Mascia said the plans for the intersection would be ready for state DOT review within a week, and he expected to review bids starting in January, with work beginning in April.

“Hopefully, it will be wrapped up by this time next year,” he said.

In the private sector, there is more than $170 million in construction underway in town, according to Economic and Community Development Director Rina Bakalar. In Trumbull Center, a new CVS with a drive-through pharmacy is open, as is the new Starbucks that has relocated across White Plains Road from its old location.

At the former Marisa’s site on Main Street, work continues on a 16,000-square-foot retail space that will house a new restaurant, a renovated Dunkin’ and a new salon. The tenants should be able to begin moving in by late spring or early summer, Bakalar said.

Several residential projects also are open or bearing completion, Bakalar said. In the Lindeman Drive corridor, the Ten Trumbull apartment complex on Oakview Drive is nearly complete.

“This is a 202-unit complex consisting of one- and two-bedroom apartments with a clubhouse and a pool,” she said. Two buildings are still under construction, but the complex as a whole is 70 occupied, she said.

“It appears the residents living there are enjoying the experience,” she said.

The nearby River Valley Retirement Resort Community, a 55-and-older complex, is anticipating its first tenants moving in starting in April. The development is owned by Nebraska-based Resort Lifestyle Communities, which describes its properties as offering “all-inclusive, resort-style” living with housekeepers, on-site chefs and salons, concierge service and more.

“The description I’ve heard is that it’s sort of like a cruise ship on land,” Bakalar said.

On Reservoir Ave. the Woodside Development townhomes complex is on track to begin accepting tenants in the spring.

Bakalar said the new developments had also helped business development in town. Dan Onofrio, president of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, which includes the Trumbull Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

“The ecosystem being created is creating the development of smart growth,” he said. “It’s a wonderful transition to see.