CT Construction Digest Tuesday December 24, 2019
Passenger tolls will be off the table for good when the state legislature begins 2020 by revisiting the great unresolved question of 2019: How to pay for a transportation overhaul?
So said the State Senate’s leading Democrat, President Pro Tem Martin Looney, and leading Republican, Minority Leader Len Fasano.
The pair offered listeners a status update on the Great Transportation Fix Quest during a joint appearance Monday on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”
Gov. Ned Lamont started the year by calling for highway tolls for both passenger vehicles and trucks in order to fund an overdue $21 billion 10-year rebuilding of roads and bridges and the rail and (allegedly) bus systems. That didn’t fly — in part because only months before he ran for office claiming he would never, ever seek passenger tolls. Just truck tolls.
So Lamont ended his first year without being able to convert his first-year-in-office political capital into passing difficult big legislation. Now, before the calendar gets too near the November elections, Democrats are seeking to pass some form of a transportation plan in a January special session.
Fasano said on “Dateline” that people have lost confidence in government to spend money the way it promises, and therefore won’t trust government to use toll money long-term on transportation rather than divert it to other uses. “The lottery was going to be for education. Casinos were going to be for municipal aid,” he said. “Promises were made that never came true.
Looney embraced Lamont’s latest plan to fund the 10-year transportation plan — now pegged at $19 billion — with the trucks-only tolls on bridges. He argued that a constitutional amendment created a transportation “lockbox” can provide the guarantee needed for toll receipts to be spent as promised.
Fasano said he agrees with the goal of finding the money (he pegged the figure at $18.6 billion) for a 10-year transportation fix. His caucus has produced an alternative plan that avoids any tolls. He noted that Rhode Island passed a trucks-only toll plan — and that is currently mired in a protracted legal challenge. Why pass a plan that might turn out to be illegal and need to be cashiered, he asked? The Republican alternative plan would remove $1.5 billion out of the state’s rainy day fund, use the money to pay off some of the state’s pension debt, then devote the subsequent savings on annual debt service payments to fund the transportation plan.
Looney countered that he believes the Rhode Island plan will survive the court challenge, and argued that it would be a mistake to raid the rainy day fund. The state has worked hard to build that fund back up to 12 percent of the budget; analysts have rewarded the state with ratings upgrades.
“It is important to preserve that rainy day fund until we get to 15 percent,” Looney argued.
The Republican plan has also raised concerns about the state’s ability to address an expected recession in the near future.
Fasano countered that the fund would still have $1.2 billion in it. That’s far more than the state has needed to draw down in past economic downturns, he said. And he predicted that the for self-interested reasons, politicians in Washington will not allow a recession to begin taking hold at least through the 2020 election season.
As Hartford’s top legislative Democrat and Republican, Looney and Fasano have forged a cordial and productive working relationship that stands in contrast to the national political moment. They are able to disagree respectfully, continue to negotiate, and find common ground — especially on health care legislation. They have shepherded to passage bipartisan measures addressing medical office “facility fees” in the past. The two predicted that the 2020 legislative session will see more bipartisan health care legislation. They said they’re open to laws allowing the import of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, or instance, and the funding of “navigators” to guide patients through the ever-more-complex health care system.
The senators have played an influential role in the debate over proposed expansion of the runway at Tweed-New Haven Airport. Looney and Fasano represent the sections of New Haven and East Haven, respectively, that house the airport. “There is a path to making Tweed more of a viable airport,” Looney said Monday. For that to happen, he said, Tweed must produce more “community benefits” (like more home soundproofing) for East Shore neighbors and shift its entrance to the East Haven side so travelers would drive there along commercial Hemingway Avenue rather than the residential Annex and Morris Cove. Fasano predicted that a state study will show that it makes more sense to expand commercial service at Sikorsky Airport rather than Tweed. If Tweed is to expand, he said, corporate interests pushing the expansion should foot the bill. “Yale and Yale-New Haven talk about the need for this. They have the money,” he said. “They should put the money where their mouth is.”
The Downtown Highway That Could Drive Hartford’s Comeback
HARTFORD, Ct.—If Connecticut’s capital city was looking to adopt a theme song, Elton John’s hit single “I’m Still Standing” would be a fitting anthem.
Battered by population loss and the departure of manufacturing and corporate anchors, Hartford has been on the brink of bankruptcy for several years. In response, the city has taken a sophisticated multi-pronged approach in plotting its post-industrial future: It’s implemented a series of zoning and land-use reforms, encouraged adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and improved mobility with new transit and better facilities for bike riders and pedestrians.
But in an illustration of how a mid-sized legacy city can work smart and still face existential challenges, Hartford finds another monumental task in its way: a crumbling piece of 20th-century infrastructure, a stretch of the Interstate 84 viaduct adjacent to downtown that is well past its expiration date. Completed in 1965, the elevated thoroughfare was part of the national urban-renewal campaign to ram freeways through downtowns, and it did extraordinary damage to Hartford’s urban fabric. The ideas for what to do with it now range from a plain-vanilla rebuild to a tunnel system more elaborate than Boston’s Big Dig.
Ultimately, the choices ahead will hinge on how much the state, and even more so, the federal government, is willing to invest. It will also be a test of the belief that a megaproject will truly save the day—or whether a more frugal and incremental solution would be the wiser path.
Through the turn of the last century, manufacturing and innovation was robust—Hartford gave the world firearms, typewriters, sewing machines, bicycles, and one of the nation’s first electric cars. The city also surged in the finance and insurance industries, earning the sobriquet as “the nation’s filing cabinet.” But the hard times arrived in the postwar period through the 1960s to 1990s, with a real estate collapse, a restructuring in finance and insurance, and a downsizing of defense contracts that accelerated manufacturing decline.
Despite 11 years of economic expansion nationally, unemployment remains stubbornly high—11 percent at last check. Property tax revenue—the foundation of municipal fiscal health—has declined as the cost of city services increased. Hartford considered filing for bankruptcy in 2017, saved by effectively a state bailout on some debt. More support is unlikely as Connecticut struggles with fiscal woes, exacerbated by the departure of major companies like General Electric, which is moving from Fairfield to Boston.
Orchestrating a comeback has taken different forms. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge promotes worker retraining and education to develop appropriate skills in the transition to a more technology-based economy. City leaders also tried some standard economic development pump-priming—a César Pelli-designed science center that opened in 2009, a small reclamation of the Connecticut River, a convention center and hotel. In the late 1990s, Hartford almost became home to the New England Patriots, but the team withdrew its proposal and got a new stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
In the past few years, however, the thinking has shifted away from such silver-bullet schemes and more towards laying the foundation for more incremental, entrepreneurial development.
Zoning reform is just one part of a broader planning effort. The city recently kicked off a new comprehensive planning process called Hartford 400—a reference to Hartford turning 400 years old in 2036. Surveys posed big questions to the citizenry about what the city should look like by that time. The Capitol Region Council of Governments, representing 38 communities and a population of nearly 1 million in the metropolitan region, started using the cutting-edge practice of scenario planning—making multiple projections into the future, to manage uncertainty and be more nimble in setting policy prescriptions or plunging ahead with physical interventions.
Amid all that earnest activity, however, the nagging question remains: what to do with the two-mile section of I-84 just outside downtown, which in an ironic reference to past glory is known as the Aetna Viaduct. Its projected lifespan ended in 2005, and engineers are now worried about catastrophic failure.Replacement options under consideration include just fixing the viaduct so it is in a state of good repair ($2 to $3 billion), or lowering the highway with a series of decks ($4 to $5 billion). A study commissioned by the city calls for a more artful integration of the urban streetscape and the area’s existing rail and bus rapid transit system, known as CTfastrak.
From there, things get more creative. Connecticut Congressman John Larson seeks to bury not only I-84 in a tunnel, Big Dig-style, but also I-91 just to the east of downtown, in the process reclaiming waterfront property along the Connecticut River. The estimated price tag: at least $10 billion.
Yet another proposal would take the need to rebuild I-84 and combine it with the ultimate in big plans: a re-routing of Amtrak’s Acela through New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester. Linking those post-industrial cities to New York and Boston via the Northeast Corridor’s popular high-speed rail service would open up economic development opportunities all along the way. Vehicular and rail traffic could be combined in a multi-level tunnel through Hartford, similar to Boston’s never-built North-South Rail Link, which was proposed to be bundled with the Big Dig.
“We all know cities are where young talent wants to live, and these cities in Connecticut have great bones,” Yaro says. Re-routing Acela through Hartford could cost up to $100 billion, and combining the rail with the I-84 reconfiguration would require billions more. But the payoff, he believes, would be activating a megaregion to its utmost potential. “The combined economy of New England and the New York metro region is $3 trillion—making it the fifth-largest economy in the world, larger than California’s. If the U.K. can afford to make this investment to rebuild its infrastructure and economic potential, why can’t we?”
So go big with a transformative megaproject, or find creative ways to make more incremental progress, similar to the successful efforts in zoning reform? That is the decision confronting one legacy city in its ongoing quest for regeneration. Planners are going to have to bring their best game to study the scenarios and keep the hope alive.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s 10-year, $21-billion transportation plan announced in early November included funding for two new Hartford Line train stations in Windsor Locks and Enfield, which are seen as key to driving transit-oriented developments in those two northern Connecticut towns.
But while funding for those stations could be in jeopardy after Lamont failed to garner political support for wide-scale tolling, those communities and others hoping to one day land a train station have already kick-started plans to build apartments and other mixed-use developments that could thrive with easy access to rail service.
“We’re actually doing things,” said Chris Bromson, town manager of Enfield, which plans to spend up to $4.2 million for a train platform if state funding for a $50-million train station doesn’t materialize. “We’re not waiting, we’re not sitting on our hands with our hand out.”
Lamont’s CT2030 transportation investment plan, which included tolling cars and trucks in 14 locations, was soundly rejected by Republicans and Democrats, forcing the governor to support a scaled-down, trucks-only tolling option he says would raise $187 million in annual revenue, helping to finance $19.4 billion in transportation improvements over a decade. A spokesman for Lamont said the administration still views the train stations as a critical investment, but stopped short of guaranteeing funding for them under the trucks-only tolls plan.
Investments in new mixed-use developments near existing or proposed Hartford Line rail stations have totaled approximately $430 million, according to Judd Everhart, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
Those projects, which encompass 1,400 residential units and 242,000 square feet of commercial and office space, date back to at least 2010, years before the Springfield-to-New Haven line expansion debuted, but in anticipation of its potential impact.
In Berlin, for example, there is an $18-million plan to build a mixed-use village with 76 apartments and 19,000 square feet of medical office and commercial space on a four-acre parcel near the town’s recently built train station at 51 Depot Road.
Lamont’s transportation plan originally chose Windsor Locks and Enfield as winners, though that funding now remains uncertain.
Regardless, most of these towns are still moving forward with transit-oriented development plans, hoping that stations or platforms will one day be built in their backyards.
Enfield has long lobbied for a train station in its Thompsonville section, Bromson said. That desire played a large role in recent development in the area, like the conversion of the former Bigelow-Hartford Carpet Mills factory on North Main Street into a 471-unit apartment complex adjacent to where the train station or platform will go.
West Hartford was hoping for a train station near its CTfastrak busway stop on Flatbush Avenue, said Kristen Gorski, the town’s economic-development specialist.
A rail stop would bolster efforts the town has made to attract developers to the New Park Avenue corridor, and make the area less car-centric, Gorski said.
In 2015, the town amended zoning regulations to allow for mixed-use development in the New Park Avenue district, which is home to several key manufacturers like Colt, to allow for residential as well as industrial development.
West Hartford and Department of Transportation officials were relatively early in the planning stages for the train station when funding was cut, Gorski said. But she believes development that has already occurred near the CTfastrak station at the intersection of New Park and Flatbush avenues demonstrates the likelihood of further development benefiting Hartford as well as West Hartford if the train station were built.
“We were incredibly disappointed as a community to find out that funding was cut,” Gorski said. “I think the Fastrak stations have helped us a great deal in terms of increasing transit-oriented development and having conversations with prospective developers who may now have interest in that area where they may not have before.”
Windsor Locks already has a Hartford Line rail platform, but the town wants to build an actual station on Canal Bank Road.
“The Montgomery Mill is a perfect example of a transit-oriented development project, a catalyst site,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve had an uptick in small businesses on Main Street, we have more inquiries than we have space right now, so we’re hopeful that more new construction proposals will come in the near future.”
Additionally, the town recently selected a development group — Windsor Locks TOD LLC, led by project manager Todd McClutchy of Stamford-based JHM Group of Cos. — to lead the conceptual planning of a mixed-use development on Main Street near where the train station would be built. The area is known as Windsor Locks Commons.
The development group proposed a multi-phased project that would include construction of one or two four-story buildings with 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 70 residential units.
The zone would make transit-oriented development possible, said Andrew Brecher, the town’s economic-development director.
Brecher said a train station in Newington would be good for the town, and the Hartford Line.
“This Newington station has the greatest potential for any [proposed station] along the Hartford Line,” Brecher said
North Haven First Selectman Michael Freda said his town is an attractive place for a train station because of recent development that’s been done near the proposed site off the Route 40 connector, which is also accessible to Hamden and Cheshire residents.
The spot abuts a 144-unit apartment building, and medical facilities that employ about 400 people, Freda said.
The train station could also be a catalyst for redeveloping the vacant Pharmacia and Upjohn Company LLC site on Stiles Lane, but without state funding, North Haven can’t muster the funds necessary for the project, he said.
“The unknown is when the state transportation fund will have enough funding in it to get this project under construction,” Freda said. “So where it leaves us right now? We’re in a pause phase, we’re on hold.”
The ‘godfather’ of implant dentistry eyes $20M-plus hotel-event center in Bristol
Dr. Gerald A. Niznick is considered a pioneer in the dental implant business, but he’s a relatively unknown name in Connecticut.
That could soon change.
Niznick, who by accident became the owner of the city of Bristol’s only hotel, has a grand vision to build a second nearby hotel and an accompanying 35,000-square-foot event center that he says will become a first-class destination wedding venue unlike anything that exists in the state.
“I’d like for this to be a wedding destination where people come from all over the place,” Niznick told Hartford Business Journal in a recent interview. “It will be a hotel, banquet facility and reception hall all in one place.”
The hotel would connect to the event center and current DoubleTree hotel. There would also be a 400-space underground parking garage.
Niznick said he’s going to pay cash to finance the project so funding is essentially in place. He wants to break ground in May, but he’ll need to go through a city approval process.
Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said she supports the project.
Niznick said his DoubleTree hotel hosts a lot of wedding parties but not actual weddings. He wants to capture that business by offering a first-class facility that competes with the likes of the Aqua Turf in Southington and other nearby venues. The hope is that the venue, which would also play host to banquets, corporate and other special events, will feed the hotels and vice versa.
“I’m just betting putting a second hotel there will create a critical mass,” Niznick said.
Zoppo-Sassu said the project was brought to her attention about six months ago and she met Niznick over breakfast at the end of the summer to discuss it.
Amazon, which has a package-sorting facility in the city, is currently using the DoubleTree hotel for employee training, she said.
“We look forward to any partnership and expansion opportunities that he continues to explore knowing that the end product will be very high quality,” Zoppo-Sassu said.Starting and selling
Niznick was born in Canada, went to dental school to train as a prosthodon
tist and then became a pioneer and serial entrepreneur in the dental implant field, having amassed a few dozen patents and founded and sold multiple companies.
Niznick is no longer in the dental implant business, but he’s been spending his money on new business ventures.
For example, he now owns Acromil Corp., a California-based aerospace company whose customers include Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, Kaman Corp. and Barnes Aerospace, according to its website.
“I get into ventures that I like to play at,” said Niznick, who is an aviation buff and has a pilot’s license. “It keeps me busy.”
“It was such a dump I couldn’t do anything with it,” Niznick said.
So instead, he decided to make it an investment property. It remains the only hotel he owns.
In 2013, the hotel changed flags, converting from a Clarion to a DoubleTree by Hilton, following a 13-month, $20 million makeover.
Upgrades to the 141-room hotel, which Niznick said has become a cultural center of Bristol, have included a renovated lobby and a new five-story, 19-suite tower with a separate, private entrance for guests. Elsewhere on the property, two dining areas are available, including The Willows restaurant and TimeOut Sports & Pizza Bar.
His planned Home2 Suites by Hilton would be an extended-stay hotel, which Niznick said is growing in popularity. There is an extended-stay Homewood Suites nearby in Southington that he says is always busy.
Environmental, logistical concerns present challenges to developing Hartford’s waterfront
Cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have been able to reinvent themselves with a slew of modern, mixed-use waterfront developments.
But building along a riverway to boost a city’s live, work and play profile isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s nearly impossible.
Environmental advocates say that’s largely been the case for decades in Hartford as several developers have tried but failed to come up with a commercial development that makes economic and environmental sense to build along the Connecticut River downtown.
Development there has been especially difficult because of potential impacts to an underground levee system that curbs the level of riverfront flooding on what is widely considered the narrowest part of the Connecticut River.
Bryant says the promenade would be built on an acre of city-owned land and have the ability to float and rise with water during flood conditions using groundbreaking new technology.
“We think that it’s game-changing that people can reimagine what floodplain construction can be,” he said. “We think it has worldwide implications and we are pretty excited to show it.”
However, questions remain over how a riverfront development in Hartford would impact an extensive floodplain and an underground flood-control levee system that helps protect the river.
Other logistical issues include that the river beneath the nearby Founders Bridge is just 700 feet wide bank-to-bank. Environmental experts say the narrow segment of the 400-mile river typically triples the velocity of water flow, making it difficult for any boats attempting to access a riverfront structure, environmental and other riverfront experts say.
The smaller channel, among other factors, also contributes to regular flooding on Hartford’s riverfront, as water elevations rise up to eight feet during rain and snowfall in the winter months. Climate change, meanwhile, is also generating more severe storms and, as a result, additional flooding and ice flows, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Of course, all of these issues could be resolved, but they would require a significant investment by any developer, which could make the project impracticable financially, experts say.
Aqua Ark, Bryant said, is collaborating with engineering firms from Germany and Westport on designing the floating structure, connecting utilities and mitigating impacts to the levee system and nearby Mortensen Riverfront Plaza.
Bryant said he is confident the floating technology, similar to infrastructure used for the foundation of the Lumière Place Casino in St. Louis, can be successfully deployed in Hartford.
“We think we can justify the investment to investors,” said Bryant, whose firm has built floating structures overseas but not yet in the U.S. “It has to be a solid piece of engineering, and a solid economic play.”Seizing the moment
Hartford City Councilman John Gale is well versed in the issues thwarting riverfront development.
It was Gale’s resolution last year that requested the city, Riverfront Recapture and Greater Hartford Flood Commission to develop proposals for marinas, houseboat moorings, restaurants or floating residences to generate economic activity along the riverway.
Gale said he sees major commercial potential for the riverfront, which has grown into a recreational hotspot in recent decades with help from Riverfront Recapture, a nonprofit that manages Hartford’s and East Hartford’s riverfront parks and riverwalk trail system. It’s time, he says, for the city to leverage its riverfront as an economic engine like “every other city has.”
Gale says Aqua Ark’s proposal, or perhaps another one, offers an opportunity for the state and Army Corps of Engineers to begin discussions on how to upgrade the river’s levee system and address other issues preventing development.
“There are a number of hurdles that anyone has to jump to get any type of economic development that I want to see at the river,” Gale said. “But I think it’s time to look at how to exploit our riverfront. This proposal might provide the catalyst that would procure that.”Development red tape
There have been a handful of developers looking to build on Hartford’s riverfront in recent decades, but only two made it close to the finish line.
DEEP, which would need to approve any riverfront proposal, has denied two applications in the Hartford-East Hartford area since 1990. One 1991 proposal called for a floating restaurant on the river in East Hartford and another a few years later sought to build a barge-mounted floating home, according to DEEP.
DEEP in a letter following Gale’s resolution last year cautioned Mayor Luke Bronin that any riverfront proposals would raise numerous public safety and environmental concerns that would make authorization “problematic.”
Jeff Caiola, assistant director of DEEP’s land and water resources division, said he is worried about how Aqua Ark’s proposal could impact the river’s flood-control system.
To gain DEEP approval, the developer would need to at least provide sufficient proof that the commercial structure would not displace water in the river and would comply with Connecticut’s strict flood-management program, which Caiola says is more rigid than federal standards. Any upgrades to the levee system would also require federal oversight and will be costly to operate and maintain, he said.
Riverfront Recapture leaders say they would like to see commercial development on the river, but understand the regulatory hurdles in play.
Marc Nicol, Riverfront Recapture’s director of planning and development, said Aqua Ark has been receptive to learning more about the longstanding environmental concerns of building on Hartford’s riverfront. That includes $1 million in potential upgrades needed to rework an underground concrete anchoring system.
But Nicol said he doubts this proposal or any others would make financial sense without some level of federal or state funding. Still, he said riverfront development will ultimately be driven by a developer’s willingness to spend and their projected return on investment.