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CT Construction Digest Wednesday May 8, 2024

Bridgeport to hold off on demolishing Cherry Street Lofts buildings 

Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Prominent developer Gary Flocco has a few months' reprieve to get his Cherry Street Lofts project back on track before the city moves to demolish the handful of recently-condemned buildings he needs for more housing.

"Let's see what he can do," City Council President Aidee Nieves said Tuesday.

She and her colleagues on the legislative body had not been eager to commit to spending $10 million of taxpayer dollars to raze the private West End property. 

But that was the scenario the economic development office laid out. In late April, Director Thomas Gill and Deputy Director William Coleman informed council budget committee members that four blighted buildings making up the next phase of Flocco's Cherry Street Lofts endeavor — 62, 72 and 80 Cherry St. and 1325 Railroad Ave — had been deemed hazardous and ordered demolished.

Unsure of Flocco's ability to do the work, Gill and Coleman wanted the city to do the estimated $10 million job with no guarantee those funds would be reimbursed.

Flocco has already built 158 housing units in that neighborhood, which opened in 2018, plus a charter school. But Cherry Street's third phase has been stalled for the past few years following a ceremonial groundbreaking in July 2021. In an interview last month, Flocco blamed pending lawsuits filed by a former architect on the project for affecting his financing.

Nieves, Burns and the other budget committee chairman, Councilman Ernie Newton, all said this week that, for now, neither that committee nor the full legislative body will authorize spending any dollars to tear down Flocco's four buildings, despite their condition.

"The gentleman (Flocco) asked to give him time to see if he can put the deals and stuff together," Newton said.

Flocco has stated in the past that he believed he would soon have access to the capital to commence work, despite his ongoing legal issues. 

On Tuesday, Flocco said he has since made good progress.

"My banker is coming in two weeks and will meet with the city to give them a comfort level," he said. "I'm feeling very optimistic."

Nieves and Burns said, following economic development's request for the $10 million, they individually spoke with Flocco to better understand his situation.

"From the council perspective, we're not excited about issuing (borrowing) $10 million of bonds to demolish buildings that may yet be restored, rebuilt," Burns said. "My feeling is that the developer will still be able to pull things together and end up with a result I think we all want."

Burns acknowledged that the fact that an emergency condemnation order has been issued for Flocco's properties opens Bridgeport to legal exposure as long as the structures remain standing and in disrepair should a member of the public be injured there. 

But he and Nieves also noted that, realistically, even if the council wanted to fund the economic development office's $10 million request, it would take a few months for any tear-down to begin. For example, last year  the building department ordered the "immediate demolition" of the city-owned Remington Arms factory on the East Side in early January and construction crews began knocking it down in mid-April.

There is another factor complicating any efforts by Bridgeport to demolish Flocco's four structures. In December, 2020 this pending phase of Cherry Street Lofts was awarded $2.2 million from the state to help cleanup any environmental contamination there.

Jim Watson, spokesman for the state's Department of Economic and Community Development, confirmed that Flocco has been unable to execute the final paperwork to access those funds because of the pending lawsuits against him. 

Watson added, as a result of the state committing funds to Cherry Street Lofts, "any decisions to demolish or condemn the buildings will have to be signed off by the State Historic Preservation Office."

Were that agency not consulted, Watson said, the state aid could be jeopardized. 

Flocco said Tuesday he hopes to meet with state economic development staff in June to be able to obtain that $2.2 million.

Developers of the former West Hartford UConn campus refile plans to build hundreds more homes

 Michael Walsh

WEST HARTFORD — One month after the Town Council approved the construction of 322 housing units at one half of the former University of Connecticut campus, developers have restarted the approval process that would allow them to build over 200 more homes across the street.

Over the winter, the development group of West Hartford 1 LLC withdrew its plans to redevelop the western portion of the parcel, allowing West Hartford's various boards, commissions, and Town Council to just focus on the eastern side of the property at 1700 Asylum Ave., which was formerly used as the school's parking lot. It will now be transformed into four residential buildings, adding to an influx of new multifamily homes in West Hartford.

This week, the developers refiled those plans with West Hartford's Planning and Zoning Commission, where it will first seek a wetlands approval after a future public hearing. It is possible that developers will face a similar challenge to their plans as they did months ago, where residents intervened with a petition to try and stop the project, though they were unsuccessful.

"No new building or parking construction is proposed within a wetland except for the filling of a small, isolated wetland pocket of low-or-no functionality identified at the corner of building #5," reads the updated filing letter. "Development of the site as a university campus has significantly impacted the ecological integrity of its wetlands resources. The overall wetlands functionality is low."

Whereas the western side was a straightforward residential development, the plans for the eastern side — at 1800 Asylum Ave. — are a bit different. While there are plans to build 211 housing units, they will be split between 93 apartments, 28 townhouses, and 90 assisted-living units.

That housing, the developers said, would then be accompanied by a commercial component, including retail uses such as a restaurant, a cafe, a spa, and a grocery store, among other potential uses.

Should the project get its wetlands approval, the development would then need to be approved by the Town Council, which would have to vote to rezone the area from single-family to multifamily, while also approving of the commercial aspect of the proposal.

West Hartford's Town Council has shown a willingness to approve more housing in all parts of town, with well over a thousand new multifamily homes expected to be built over the next few years through a variety of projects. Should the project be approved as is, there would 533 total homes built between the two parcels.