CT Construction Digest Tuesday November 2, 2021
NEW BRITAIN - City officials were presented with updated renovation plans for Osgood Park, detailing additional features to the park.
Parks & Recreation Director Erik Barbieri addressed the Common Council last Wednesday to present a detailed plan of what renovations will look like for Osgood Park. The council had previously allocated funding from the American Rescue Act for the project. The estimated cost is $8,850,000 and will be completed in two phases.
Barbieri showed a video presentation of artist rendering of what the park will look like when renovations are completed.
“If you drive out there today and you look at the park and look at this video you’ll have no idea that they’re the same place. It’s really something special that we’re doing here that you have voted to give to the neighborhood and this city,” Barbieri said.
The presentation showcased the expanded parking lot, a small building for classrooms, indoor bathrooms, a new playground, splash pad, picnic table area and synthetic turf field. Additionally, the park will have a fitness area that will include a handball court, work out stations and two basketball courts; one with a covered top and bleachers, the other outside with lighting. The renovated football field will be utilized by the New Britain Police Athletic League (PAL) but Barbieri said it can be used for other sports as needed.
“As we fade to night time, you’ll see that we can have night games with bleachers,” Barbieri said. “The paths are lit and safe. The basketball courts and the parking lot, lit and safe.”
Once renovations are complete, Barbieri said the park will have a new system of security cameras placed all around for safety. Barbieri told the council that exact pricing of each element of the park has not yet been determined but falls within the overall budget of the project.
Renovations to the park have been an ongoing conversation for years. Since it originally opened in 1960, the park has only undergone minor renovations. In 2019, SMRT Architects and Engineers developed a Masterplan for renovations to Osgood Park, but only recently has funding been made available for a project of this scale.
Because the city was able to acquire funding from federal grants, Barbieri said construction can begin soon. He said the goal is to start construction in the spring 2022, and have the park completed by fall of 2022. Barbieri said the hope is that the park will be completed by the end of 2022.
Hotels and office buildings being converted to apartments. Mall space being transformed into healthcare and mixed-use facilities. Old manufacturing plants being re-imagined as modern e-commerce warehouse distribution centers.
All these types of redevelopment projects are occurring around our state and country. As we move closer to a post-pandemic world, I believe we are headed toward a great period of redevelopment.
The last year-and-a-half brought myriad challenges and accelerated shifts in many industries, forcing old-line companies and industries to close or shrink. Meantime, the future of office and hotel space — asset classes that were battered by the pandemic — remains uncertain.
What is certain is that there is plenty of empty and underutilized commercial real estate in Connecticut, providing countless opportunities for developers and businesses looking to expand their portfolios or operations.
The Hartford Business Journal in recent weeks has highlighted many redevelopment trends. In October, we published a story about developers snatching up shuttered hotels and converting them into apartments. There are at least a half-dozen such projects in the works across the state.
In this week’s issue we highlight the struggle of traditional malls and how some developers are converting empty storefront space into apartments, offices or even healthcare facilities.
Reinvention is the name of the game. But as new uses for vacant properties are considered, countless challenges stand in the way, including municipal land-use regulations.
Planning and zoning commissions are often overlooked bodies of local government but they are key gatekeepers in determining which development projects go forward, or get blocked.
Connecticut, of course, does not have a great reputation when it comes to new development. Whether it’s a penchant for NIMBYISM, high property taxes or construction costs, environmental concerns or other regulatory barriers, there are easier states in which to build or redevelop properties.
As municipalities continue to face pressure to keep property tax rates in check and grow their grand lists, cities and towns with the most flexible zoning regulations and boards will have a competitive advantage in wooing new development in the months and years ahead.
It’s a topic that came up during a recent panel discussion I moderated for the virtual 2021 Greater Hartford Association of Realtors and UConn commercial real estate conference. The panel included the mayors of Hartford, West Hartford, Bristol, Manchester and Bloomfield — all communities with significant development projects in the works.
Each of the mayors talked about the need to change, or at least consider changing, zoning policies as new opportunities arise. They also discussed how each of their communities use tax breaks and other incentives to help spur new development.
Does that mean giving away the house to a developer? No, but it does mean being open and welcoming to new opportunities.
Right now, the playing field is uneven. For example, in October, developers broke ground on 260 luxury apartments on the Westfield Trumbull Mall property, in hopes of transforming that struggling retail facility into a more mixed-use, live-play-work community.
Conversely, Milford’s town planners rejected a 300-unit, mixed-use apartment redevelopment at the site of the struggling Connecticut Post Mall.
One zoning issue that’s made headlines recently is cannabis regulations. Many communities have passed temporary moratoriums on the industry, waiting for more clarity on how best to regulate marijuana cultivation and retail sites.
Other municipalities, including the city of Hartford, are ready to embrace the new industry and are setting up regulations that will allow dispensaries and grow facilities.
Communities that are fast-moving will have the best chance to cash in on the economic development opportunities brought on by the recreational marijuana industry.
Of course, planning and zoning commissions are made up of elected, volunteer and unpaid board members. It’s a thankless job, but the work they do is important.
While it may have flown under the radar, Nov. 2 is Election Day. There are no sexy national or statewide races this year, but municipalities across the state have local elections, including for positions on land-use boards.
Voter turnout in off-year elections is often dismal, but as outlined above, who sits on municipal boards can have a major impact on local decision making.
So make sure you go out and vote. Whether or not your community can benefit from the next major mixed-use development opportunity could depend on it.
Quite simply, many people aren't aware of the career they could have in construction.
That's a large reason experts say construction is struggling to find and keep workers who build careers, rather than just work jobs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, larger numbers of the older workforce have retired than was expected, as some waited within the safety of their homes before evaluating their next career step.
At the same time, high schools seem to make college the only option for students, and it's harder for some young people to see a future in construction.
"From a trade school side, this goes back to our industry, and that we have to do a better job at raising awareness. You don't have to go to college to be successful," Chad Goodfellow, CEO of Goodfellow Bros., a Hawaii-based contractor, told Construction Dive. "Our employees in the trades often enter at [a] higher salary than our college graduates, with much less student debt."
Retention begins with recruiting
A key to the skilled labor crisis, experts said, is ensuring that workers know they can have a long and successful career in construction, and not merely view it as a job or a one-time gig.
In order to do that, it's vital the trades let workers know that they can learn and become an expert in a skillset that will be marketable anywhere in the world, said Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors.
Sizemore, who is based in Washington, D.C., joked that, despite it being the capital of the country, "the smartest person in the city during a heat wave is the one who knows how to fix the air conditioning." That's a skill that will always be needed.
But it must also be clear to construction workers that their path through the industry may not be a vertical ladder; many times workers walk on the jobsite with one job, and have three or four very different ones by the time the project is complete, Sizemore said. When a worker understands how they can advance, even if it's not a vertical ladder, they're more likely to commit to their job and appreciate leadership.
The skills required to help construct a building and those required to manage a jobsite are not the same. Nevertheless, often the managers running billion dollar jobsites were, at one point, just holding a shovel, said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Associated General Contractors of America.
As a result, it's vital to train emerging leaders in the skills required to be a boss, something both AGC and ABC have invested heavily in. As much as employers need to invest in training their workforce, they need to invest in training leaders as well, Turmail said.
That can create a beneficial cycle, said Goodfellow, whose business boasts a high employee retention rate.
"To me, a key piece of what makes this work is that you have to have your skilled superintendents and other longtime staff committed to bringing up less experienced employees who are entering the workforce," he said. "When you have that, then you are able to build that next generation of leaders."
As simple as salary?
For union workers, salary is negotiated before construction can even begin, which can make it easier for some workers to build careers, said Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades Union.
When workers, union or not, see the salaries of the higher-ups in corporate America, they can be left with a sour attitude, McGarvey said. They're the ones on site doing the hard work, and they often know the value they create.
But according to Anirban Basu, chief economist for Associated Builders and Contractors, that's not always the case.
Increasingly, Basu said, contractors value other aspects of their workplace than just the salary, and, especially in a pandemic, are willing to settle for less money if it means more comfortable and safe working conditions.
Communicating safety, creating comfort
It's largely Generation Z, the youngest generation in the workforce, that cares more about work conditions than pay, Basu said. As a result, if they have the option for a slightly lower paying job, but with more predictability, both in the physical location of their workspace and dangers of their work, they're likely to choose that one. In many cases, this leads workers away from construction.
Construction's safety practices as a whole have increased in the past few years, said Sizemore. Nevertheless, construction is an industry that can be dangerous and requires constant vigilance on the jobsite.
It's up to the contractor and the jobsite managers to continue to make safety not just a high priority, but a recruiting tool. A simple step is for a contractor to prove that its injury rate is below the national average, Sizemore said. By indicating the company is a safety leader, it can create an air of trust before a worker steps foot onto the jobsite.
Beyond safety, there can be uncertainty in the workplace, as it is constantly changing. Workers can have different tasks day to day, or find themselves going to several different jobsites frequently. Either way, it's a challenge to staff some jobsites that are far away, or inconsistent.
Goodfellow Bros. has had success, Goodfellow said, by assigning workers to jobsites close to their homes. That could be easier for regional contractors, like Goodfellow, which does work in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.
But workers aren't just after feeling safe and comfortable in their routine, Basu said, there is also an important element of respect that the emerging workforce expects at their jobs.
Changing the culture
Some sociologists have suggested that younger workers, both Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2012 — and millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — are more sensitive to criticism, Basu said. While not wanting to stereotype across generations, Basu said it's vital that workers know they are respected and valued at work in order to keep them.
The culture of change isn't just as simple as being nicer, and it's not just for the younger workforce. If the industry is to attract women and minorities, typically underrepresented groups in the workforce, there needs to be a change in every jobsite culture to create a more welcoming environment.
"If you're going to start attracting people who've typically been underrepresented in the industry, it's time to drop the pinup calendar in the jobsite trailer," said Turmail. "It's time to think twice before you make a joke."
To the superintendents or managers who may resist the cultural change, Turmail suggested it may be an easier decision for them when they must deliver a project on a tight schedule, and need all the help they can get to complete it.
Tied in with that example is the need to remove the "macho ethos" around construction, Turmail said. Equipping workers with the tools to say when they're struggling with mental or physical health can make it easier for them to heal, recover and return to work, while being more productive.
The best jobsites have an inclusive culture, spearheaded by leadership that encourages workers to challenge each other and themselves to be the best they can be every day, according to Ralph Esposito, president of Suffolk's Northeast and Mid-Atlantic division.
"Suffolk Chairman and CEO John Fish often says, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast' and I think he's right," Esposito said. "Companies in any industry that offer their people a strong culture that gives them the peace of mind and tools to be their absolute best will attract and retain the very best talent at the end of the day."
Alison Tripp, national recruiting leader for DPR, echoed that sentiment, saying that contractors should strive to have workforces that represent the communities in which they build, and can therefore work to build a safer, more advanced jobsite.
Technology and safety
The human aspect of construction makes it less feasible to turn to a completely automated industry, and no matter what, there will have to be someone on the jobsite to keep things running smoothly.
The kind of technology that will aid construction is the one that benefits worker health and productivity, said Turmail. He imagines more tools like exoskeletons designed to reduce injuries or stress on a worker repeatedly lifting heavy objects, or a rebar-tying robot, which can complete a task that often creates extreme strain on workers.
Even something like a drywall robot or machine that can complete a task allows a worker to step back and get a few feet away from the action on a jobsite, creating a safer environment.
For Basu, technology returns to the issue of a worker's desire to have a safer jobsite and more predictable environment. Some workers leave construction for manufacturing, but were the industry to continue to turn to modular prefabrication, perhaps that could attract more workers to stay and enjoy the predictability of working in a factory.
Sizemore, however, said tech's biggest payoff is in recruiting. Showing off high-tech GPS-guided cranes or software used on site can show that jobsites are modernizing quickly, and there is a place to apply the skillset many young workers have with their experience wielding technology.
Building a sense of pride
According to both Turmail and Sizemore, there is one simple recruitment tool that can show young people what they can get from construction: pickup trucks.
Showing high schoolers someone just a few years older than them who can say they put their head down, worked hard and have now bought their own pickup truck could be an effective way to show people the accomplishments someone can make quickly in the industry.
Turmail suggested showing a jobsite parking lot full of new pickup trucks as a potential recruiting tool to workers, perhaps in comparison to another lot with less exciting vehicles.
But beyond a shiny new vehicle is something construction offers that so many other jobs don't, Turmail said: the ability to build something out of nothing and to show that to friends or family. There is an inherent sense of pride to construct something that will last decades.
"Construction workers, if they've ever driven someone they know around town and pointed out their buildings or their bridges or their power plants; telling those stories is very impactful," he said.
WINSTED — The town is intending to apply for at least $1 million in state funding for projects that could improve the livability, vibrancy, convenience and appeal of communities throughout the state.
Town Manager Joshua S. Kelly told selectmen on Monday that the town will apply for a Communities Challenge Grant, which is a competitive grant offered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development. It can provide municipalities between $1 million and $10 million, but as a “distressed community” Winsted must include a 25% match from the town.
According to state law, a distressed community is one that has high unemployment and poverty, an aging housing stock and low or declining rates of growth in job creation, population and per capita income.
Kelly said the town’s application will include several projects but identified only one — the Sue Grossman Greenway that starts in Torrington. It would cost roughly $1.9 million to finish that greenway trail, he said. At 25%, that would leave the town on the hook for $475,000.
Kelly said he is working with Finance Director Bruce Stratford to find the money for the town’s share.
“I’m very excited about that grant process in general because you’re talking about the possibility of getting more money in this grant than we were able to from the American Rescue Plan fund, and that’s significant,” Kelly said. “And they’re all for projects that I think could really help the downtown core here.”
He said the greenway could fit the DECD’s parameters perfectly.
“It’s a huge economic driver, it’s something that focuses on transportation, it’s something that focuses on recreation, community vibrancy, all the things the grant is trying to accomplish.” He also said “the state has already shown a commitment to wanting to fund it by providing us money in the past toward that project.”
All of these projects will be entered as a complete project, so the 25% would not have to come from one specific project but the cumulative total of all of them.
Municipalities, economic development agencies and regional councils of governments are eligible to apply. The DECD encourages public-private partnerships and aims to create 3,000 jobs under this program.
The town must notify the DECD of its intent to apply by Dec. 3, and the full application due by Jan. 14. The DECD tentatively plans to announce the awards in March or April.
BERLIN - Progress is coming along on the 80,000 sq. ft. Steele Center project off Farmington Avenue, a mixed-use development that broke ground in March.
“We are currently under construction with 9 Steele Boulevard; the steel frame is up and wood framing is now going up,” Tony Valenti, one of the principals of Newport Realty Group, told the Herald Wednesday.
The first of four buildings the Southington developer has planned for the site, 9 Steele will have 8,000 sq. ft. of commercial space on the first floor and 16 one- to two-bedroom upscale apartments on floors two and three, ranging from 600 to 950 sq. ft. Completion is expected by May 2022.
“We have an ongoing waiting list of folks who want those apartments and we are looking to obtain a restaurant for the side facing Farmington Avenue, where we are building an outdoor patio,” Valenti said.
Once the property’s north-facing parcel is remediated and sealed, a four-story building will be constructed there with 60 one- and two-bedroom apartments and parking below.
The remaining two buildings will consist of retail, commercial and office space.
It was the adjacent Berlin Train Station that drew his company to this particular site. Newport Realty has already completed other smaller developments at 848 and 861 Farmington Avenue, now home to small businesses and restaurants.
“The train station is one more very key amenity that’s going to allow us to draw residential and commercial tenants to the Steele Center,” Valenti said. “We hope we can also provide supply to that demand of our rail system.”
Newport first submitted its proposal to the town in Sept. 2018 and signed a purchase agreement in May 2019. The developer paid $460,000 for the two parcels along Farmington Avenue, the former site of a warehouse furniture store, and $1 for the Brownfield site on the property’s north end, which was formerly an industrial use.
“This is a nice partnership between the Town of Berlin and Newport Realty Group,” Berlin Economic Development Director Chris Edge said.
Although construction materials have faced shortages and delays, the developer has kept to his timeline and the project remains on track.
“We’ve obtained all our necessary approvals and we’re completely financed,” Valenti said. We’re ordering construction products well in advance and we’re working as hard and smartly as we can to avoid any delays.”
KEITH M. PHANEUF
Gov. Ned Lamont returned oversight of the state’s massive school construction financing program Friday to the Department of Administrative Services, ending a controversial two-year experiment that had placed the venture within his budget office.
The reversal came one day after deputy budget director Kosta Diamantis of Farmington — who directed the school construction unit — abruptly retired in the face of an investigation for unspecified misconduct.
“Given the departure of the former director of the office of school construction we felt it made the most sense" to bring the team back to Department of Administrative Services, said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.
The program, which sends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to municipalities to help build new and renovate existing schools, had long been located within DAS. And with Diamantis’ departure, Geballe said, the department is best positioned to manage the program.
Max Reiss, Lamont’s director of communications, declined to discuss specific allegations against Diamantis with the CT Mirror on Thursday night, writing only in a brief statement that: “The Governor’s Office removed Mr. Diamantis because of a personnel matter that is still under review.”
Diamantis denied any wrongdoing and said Lamont’s top aides have been disrespectful to his former boss, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, who is Black.
McCaw, who is Lamont’s budget director, surprised legislators in November 2019 when she announced Diamantis, a former state representative who’d led the school construction program for years within DAS, would be joining the budget staff — and bringing the construction unit into OPM with him.
Top lawmakers from both parties balked at the Lamont administration’s decision to make this move unilaterally, since the legislature had placed the school construction unit within DAS by statute decades earlier.
And Republican leaders questioned whether the Democratic governor had slipped up in a political sense, as well.
Because of OPM’s immense authority — it executes much of a governor’s agenda as the state’s chief fiscal, planning and labor relations agency — it generally is viewed by legislators as more partisan than other departments and agencies within the Executive Branch.
The school construction program historically is seen as immune from partisan politics. Communities receive construction grants that reimburse between 20% and 80% of project costs based solely on wealth, population and other empirical data.
The Lamont administration insisted at the time that the move was about increasing efficiency and said there was no intention to change the operations — or the nonpartisan nature — of the school construction oversight process.
And while leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority said in late 2019 that they wanted, at a minimum, to revisit the program transfer and clarify the matter in statute, nothing was enacted in 2020 or 2021.
Leaders of the legislature’s Republican minority repeated Friday the objections raised two years ago, and said the latest controversy is indicative of the majority’s laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the governor.
The Democratic majority repeatedly has extended Lamont’s expanded emergency authority throughout the coronavirus pandemic, much to the GOP’s frustration. And Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said Friday that the Democrats’ unwillingness to stop the school construction shift immediately after it happened was — along with the emergency power issue — part of a larger problem.
“There is a culture of acquiescence,” Kelly said, “where the majority has been very comfortable letting the governor handle everything and that’s what’s landed us at this point. ... Where are the checks and balances? Where are the protocols?”
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford said Lamont’s unilateral shift of the construction program “reeks of politics” when it happened. And before the administration announced its reversal Friday, Candelora already had called for the General Assembly to formally reassign the program via statute to DAS.
“That was unprecedented, that was highly political,” Candelora added. “Certainly my worst fears came to fruition.”
Democratic legislative leaders didn’t comment on Diamantis’ departure, but did recommend Friday that it was time for the legislature to get more involved.
“The General Assembly should clarify where that agency is statutorily,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.
But both Rojas and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said that while Lamont needs to work with the legislature to realign agencies, moving the construction program from one department to another — even to the budget office — was neither unprecedented nor inherently wrong.
The school construction unit sent about $330 million to local school districts in the fiscal year before its transfer to OPM, and Looney noted the budget office understandably has a close relationship with any program handling such large amounts of money. “They are all part of the same administration,” he added.
With Diamantis’ departure, DAS Deputy Commissioner Noel Petra will oversee the school construction program until a permanent replacement is selected, Geballe said.