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CT Construction Digest Tuesday August 3, 2021

Senators say trillion-dollar infrastructure bill will be 'transformative'

Ken Dixon

Connecticut’s two U.S. senators anticipate major investment funding will be coming to Connecticut, including rail, highways, bridges, coastal resiliency and Veterans Affairs programming, in the pending trillion-dollar infrastructure compromise bill they expect to vote on by the end of the week.

During a morning virtual news conference from Washington, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy said that once President Biden’s infrastructure legislation is passed in the Senate and House of Representatives, an even larger follow-up will be pursued by congressional Democrats under so-called budgetary reconciliation rules.

“This bill will be transformative for Connecticut,” Blumenthal said of the trillion-dollar package. “It will mean billions of dollars that make our roads, bridges and rail so much better.”

While funding numbers are subject to change this week during the Senate’s amendment process, the legislation released Sunday night would give Connecticut about $30 billion over five years for repairs to rail lines, and a $106 million increase for New York and Connecticut’s Long Island Sound water quality programs, including cleaning rivers and coastal restoration projects to prepare for climate change.

“Our goal is to finish this bipartisan proposal by the end of the week and then very, very crucially move to a second package,” Blumenthal said, describing the follow-up legislation as “much bigger and broader.” He noted that transit infrastructure has been deteriorating for decades, stressing that the first round of funding does not include the $117 billion needed over 15 years to upgrade the Northeast Corridor for high-speed rail.

“The best way to view this bipartisan proposal is that it is a very profoundly significant down payment,” Blumenthal said. “It’s a start. A good start, but only a first step.” More funding for day care, continuing the child tax credit and funding free community college will be the focus of the follow-up legislation. “We have a once in a generation opportunity,” Blumenthal said. “We are under a moral and historic imperative to move forward with these two tracks.”

“We have the chance to do something historic this week,” Murphy said, adding that he would spend most of Monday reviewing the trillion-dollar compromise agreed upon by five top Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. “This bipartisan bill represents the biggest one-time investment in infrastructure in this country’s history, and we should get it done. This infrastructure bill has a potential to be an economic game-changer for Connecticut.”

He and Blumenthal agreed that the $30 billion rail investment, including $24 billion for the joint federal and state partnership on train tracks in Connecticut, plus $6 billion for Amtrak, is no where near the commitment needed for high-speed regional rail service.

Murphy recalled that not that long ago, Connecticut would get about $4 million a year for Long Island Sound projects. In recent years it has increased to $30 million. The additional $106 million over five years would improve water quality while funding storm-surge, coastal-restoration, sewage treatment and storm water runoff projects on both the New York and Connecticut sides of the Sound.

The U.S. Coast Guard would get about $50 million in new investments, including $6 million to improve the home of the historic cutter Eagle at the City Pier in New London.

Murphy and Blumenthal said they expect proposed amendments to take most of the week, unlike the period where the former Republican majority, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, offered little chance for changes to legislation.

“This is a bill that has been under negotiations for over a month,” Murphy said in response to a question. “The broad outlines of the bill are widely known. I don’t see any reason why it won’t be a big bipartisan vote at the end.” Blumenthal said that the legislation stands a better chance for passage because states around the country would similarly benefit.

“Obviously we can’t disregard the fact that Mitch McConnell has said he is 100-percent focused on making Biden fail,” Blumenthal said. “That’s a reality of our lives here. There are areas where we can come together. This one is perhaps the best example, because every state - red or blue - has roads, bridges, rail, ports that need upgrading and modernizing, and there is a core of Republicans who want to get that job done.”

During an unrelated, ceremonial bill signing at the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Base in Groton on Monday morning, Gov. Ned Lamont pointed to the nearby Gold Star Bridge in the distance - carrying Interstate-95 traffic over the Thames River, calling it a big priority.

“I know how important that is to Electric Boat,” Lamont said. “I know trucks can only go over it in one direction when they’re fully loaded. I know we want to get the railways speeded-up in any way we can. I want to fix those bridges that are not in a state of really good repair and at least make sure they are safe. Those are some of the real priorities we have.”

Developer plans retail-and-hotel project across from Clinton Crossing outlets

John Moritz

CLINTON — The developer behind a mixed-use, retail and hotel project across from Clinton Crossing Premium Outlets said Monday that he hopes to complete the first phase of the development around the end of the year.

Ken Navarro, a partner at Greylock Property Group, said construction of the firm’s Indian River Shops at Clinton project has continued during the pandemic, despite the disruption it caused to the retail market. The project’s anchor, a Big Y World Class Market, is currently finishing interior work and could open before New Year’s Day, Navarro said.

The project’s only other named tenant , a Starbucks, could open in early 2022, Navarro said. Crews are laying the foundation for a third building that is part of the first phase of the project, which will be home to several shops.

While the first phase of the project contains about 75,000 square feet of retail space, Navarro said that planned later phases of the development could push the total size to around 200,000 square feet, including six additional buildings housing shops, restaurants and a hotel.

Still, Navarro said the development is expected to be “complementary” to the existing outlets at Clinton Crossing, which draw millions of shoppers each year to its dozens of stores.

“From a size and development standpoint, they’re very much the anchor, not us,” Navarro said.

John Allen, the chairman of the Clinton Economic Development Commission, said Monday that town officials viewed the Indian River project as an opportunity to keep out-of-town shoppers in Clinton longer, allowing them to spend money at restaurants or even on a hotel room.

“It really does make that area north of [Interstate 95’s] Exit 63 a destination,” Allen said.

The property, which is formerly the site of Clinton’s Morgan High School, was sold to Greylock last year after an earlier planned development of the former school grounds fell through, the news site Zip06 reported.

Navarro said the developers had reached a “handshake deal” with a potential hotel operator around March of last year, before the pandemic prompted the unnamed group to back out of the project. More recently, Navarro said there has been some renewed interest in the hotel portion of the site, which Greylock hopes to sell to a “mid-priced” national hotel chain that would build and operate the hotel.

Greylock is engaged in conversations with other potential tenants interested in signing leases for the first phase of the project, Navarro said. That phase will also include site upgrades and landscaping work throughout the former school property.

“With COVID and all that, retail development has been an adventure to say the least,” Navarro said. “We’ve had a fair amount of interest.”

As part of the project, Greylock agreed to build a park and nature trail along the Indian River that the company will then donate to the town, Navarro said.

Navarro said the group is still engaged in discussions with town officials over the replacement of traffic lights at the entrances to the development site along Route 81, as well as road enhancements and re-striping at both entrances. Greylock is also seeking permits from the state Department of Transportation for that work, Navarro said.

In a press release from Big Y announcing its intent to anchor the project last year, the Springfield, Mass.-based company said it planned to employ 150 full and part time workers at the store.

CT Supreme Court to hear land use lawsuits against Stamford's Board of Representatives

Verónica Del Valle

STAMFORD — This fall, the Connecticut Supreme Court will take up two of Stamford’s land use-related lawsuits, signaling a new phase in the local battle over who builds what and where in the city.

Board of Representatives Attorney Patricia Sullivan of Cohen & Wolf said that the cases, one involving a potential Life Time Fitness gym and the other about a parcel in the South End, will skip the appellate courts. Instead, Connecticut’s top legal authority opted to hear arguments during its next session, which starts Sept. 7 and runs until Sept. 17.

“The matter is tentatively scheduled,” Sullivan told the board. “And I say tentatively, because the Supreme Court will put matters on its agenda, and then, depending on how many matters are ready, you know you might get heard during that session and you might not.”

Sullivan announced the move last week at the first Outside Counsel Committee meeting in a year and a half before the committee retired into executive session, which state statute explicitly allows for the board to discuss “strategies and negotiations about pending claims or pending litigation.”

In both cases, the Board of Representatives backed resident-led petitions against developers looking for a variance to build denser buildings than the statutes allowed, something neighbors claimed would erode the character of their neighborhoods.

And in both cases, real estate firm George Comfort & Sons and developer Building and Land Technology respectively argued that the representatives lacked the authority to acknowledge and act on the petitions.

George Comfort & Sons, owner of High Ridge Office Park, sought to build a 100,000-square-foot, indoor-outdoor facility for gym chain Life Time Fitness on a parcel once occupied by Frontier Communications. While the city’s Zoning Board appeared to look favorably on adapting one of Stamford’s vacant office parks for new tenants, homeowners in abutting Turn-of-River took issue with what they said were the disruptions a building of that magnitude could create.

A legal back-and-forth between the property owner and the board, bolstered by residents’ concerns, ensued. Finally, the challenges culminated with a state Superior Court judge deciding the residents’ petition was void, in part because so many of them live in condominiums and the rules governing petitions are very specific.

All owners of a property must sign a petition to be legally valid, Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger maintained. If two people own a house, both people must sign the petition. They count as one signatory. If 50 people own condos on a property, all 50 people must sign the petition. They also count as one signatory, according to Berger, an assertion backed up by legal precedent.

The Board of Representatives is looking to challenge that precedent and ask whether condo owners are considered landowners and whether the board has the power to verify protest petitions.

The battle over the former B&S Carting site was similar.

The Planning Board in 2019 approved changes to the Master Plan — Stamford’s governing planning document — that would allow BLT to put up more than 650 units on a South End block between Woodland Avenue and Walter Wheeler Drive.

The move garnered fierce pushback from some South End neighbors, who filed a petition that the Board of Representatives ultimately affirmed. Like George Comfort & Sons, BLT upheld that not enough neighbors signed the document to make it valid. In BLT’s case, Judge Berger also decided that the board lacked jurisdiction over whether petitions are valid or not.

The city has appealed both decisions.

Even though the legal challenges are still pending, the Zoning Board in November 2020 approved a high-rise for the Woodland Avenue parcel. The proposed building would be 25 stories at its tallest point. If the state Supreme Court agrees with the lower courts, BLT can move forward with construction.

The lawyers for the Board of Representatives, BLT and George Comfort & Sons could not immediately be reached for comment.

Waterbury spends $523,000 for study of needed school construction and upgrades

Michael Puffer

WATERBURY – City officials have agreed to pay a consultant $523,000 to, among other things, develop a plan outlining which schools need renovations and how many buildings should be added to the district.

The Board of Aldermen approved a contract with the SLAM Collaborative on July 19. The contract gives the Glastonbury-based firm a little more than eight months to deliver.

Waterbury public schools could use a portion of $131.2 million in pending COVID-relief and economic recovery funds to further building plans. Superintendent Verna Ruffin said district officials were considering a facilities study even before this huge influx of federal dollars.

“Even before ARP and ESSER II (the new federal funds), my staff and I talked about the need to discuss how we could use our space and put together a schedule of preventive maintenance and long-term projects that we knew would be very costly,” Ruffin said.

The study will help the district make the best use of available space in its 32 schools, and decide if more buildings are needed, Ruffin said. Among other things, this could help officials decide if they want to continue creating more pre-kindergarten through eighth grade schools, she said.

SLAM will study the district’s current buildings, develop enrollment projects and factor the district’s educational programs into the final plan.

The last “school facilities study” undertaken in Waterbury – completed in 2004 – resulted in a proposal for a $1.4 billion construction plan. That ultimately failed, with residents and officials opting to perform school construction project in smaller bites stretching out to the present.

The city has spent hundreds of millions, mostly provided by state assistance, on building renovations and construction in the past 15 years. In that time it renovated portions of its three comprehensive high schools and put on additions of various sizes. It built a new technical high school, renovated an alternative education center and built five new pre-kindergarten through eighth grade schools.

The city bought the former Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School last December. It will open later this month as a new elementary school.