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CT Construction Digest Wednesday September 21, 2022

Construction starts on long-awaited multi-use development by Fairfield Metro Station 

Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — For nearly 20 years, there has been a plan to bring a hotel, office and commercial space to the area surrounding the Fairfield Metro train station.

But it wasn't until Monday's groundbreaking that those long-awaited plans — along with the addition of hundreds of apartments — made a huge step toward becoming a reality on Ash Creek Boulevard.

Jack Klugmann, the president and founder of Accurate in New Jersey, which purchased the property earlier this year, said his company has done many different groundbreakings, but it is rare he and his colleagues are excited to be attending one.

"Over here, we felt that it was not just important," he said. "It was something that we wanted to do. We're going to make this project come true. I wanted to share that excitement and enthusiasm that we have."

Shovels dug into earth as town and state officials, as well as developers from Accurate, marked the beginning of work on the mixed-used project at the Fairfield Metro Station. The development aims to build 357 apartments, a 118-room hotel, 70,000 square feet of office space and 40,000 square feet of retail space.

The location is bordered by open space and Ash Creek, with walking trails and is within walking distance to restaurant row in Black Rock as well as other stores.

Klugmann said he loves the location of the project, calling a passing train the best amenity the development will have. He said the company plans to stay around after the mixed-use development is complete to run and maintain it.

"We're not going anywhere," he said. "We're part of your community."

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said she was "incredibly excited" to be breaking ground on the project. She noted she was on the Representative Town Meeting when the town entered into an agreement with the state and a developer for the property.

"Twenty years ago, and it's actually happening," she said.

Kupchick said she and other town officials were skeptical when Klugmann, the third developer of the project, came into the picture. But, she said, other towns who have worked with Accurate gave them glowing remarks.

Kupchick said she told Klugmann she wants a rooftop bar at the hotel, and he said he would make it happen. She said the development is a big deal for the town.

"This is the largest piece of property that has been undeveloped," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing this built. I can't wait to have a cocktail on the rooftop bar with anyone who wants to join me."

It has been almost two decades since Blackrock Realty proposed a massive development around Fairfield’s third train station with the goal of making it a hub of commuter and shopping activity. Initially proposed in 2005, the development was to consist of roughly 1 million square feet of mostly office space with a mix of retail and hotel elements.

Developers had wanted to pre-lease a large portion of the office space before starting construction. They eventually found that demand for that space dried up after the economy crashed around 2008.

As a result, Blackrock Realty’s plans went through a series of revisions as developers tried to find the best use for the space. Among the changes were proposals for a five-story, 197-unit apartment building.

Development of the site has long been a topic of debate between Fairfield officials who say the site, the former foundry off lower Black Rock Turnpike, has been dormant for too long.

Blackrock Realty contributed $5.4 million to the construction of the station in exchange for the rights to build its initial commercial and residential project connected to the station.

Klugmann said there will not be delays in the project like there were under previous developers, noting they have their permits and have started work. He said the development has taken so long to get off the ground because of how many parties and moving parts were involved with it. 

He expects one of the five apartment buildings to be completed first.

"It's hard to bring such a big project to fruition," he said, adding Accurate will get the job done. "We've done it in other places. We hope to have our first (certificate of occupancy) in about 12 to 14 months."

Bridgeport plan to sell Sikorsky Airport halts aviation museum's takeoff

Brian Lockhart 

STRATFORD -- Supporters of establishing a museum for local aviation history at Sikorsky Airport were on the cusp of finally achieving that dream.

Having in 2015 obtained a 99-year lease from Bridgeport, owner of the Stratford-based airport, the local Connecticut Air and Space Center in 2018 was awarded $1 million in state aid to give a substantial boost to the slow-going refurbishment of  the Curtiss hangar for its home.

But in recent months Bridgeport officials have refused to finalize the paperwork necessary for the state Department of Economic and Community Development to release those funds for the Curtiss work. Why? Because Mayor Joe Ganim's administration hopes to sell Sikorsky to the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) and it is unclear how the center and hanger fit into the latter's plans.

"There could be an issue with its location," Daniel Roach, a Ganim aide closely involved with the negotiations with the CAA, said. "We're trying to work things out to keep everybody satisfied."

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Windsor Locks-based authority, emphasized his organization, which aims to return regular commercial passenger service to Sikorsky, wants the museum there too. He noted the CAA-run Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks is home to the New England Air Museum.

"If we're the (Sikorsky) airport operator, we'd want to make sure it (the air/space center) has a home at the airport," Dillon said. "But we'd want the flexibility to be able to work with the museum to relocate the facility if necessary."

And so for now the $1 million is in limbo.

“We are supportive of the City of Bridgeport and CAA continuing discussions around the hangar," state Economic Development Commissioner David Lehman said in a statement. "It is important that any capital investments made with taxpayer funds make sense for the current and potential future owner of the airport.” 

Mark Corvino, the center's president and manager of the Curtiss hangar restoration, is frustrated. He said he has been given little insight into the situation.

"I'm banging my head against the wall," Corvino said. "What's the plan? I fear they want this (the hangar) ground. I fear they have 'bigger, better plans.' But nothing is public. Nothing is in the open."

The museum is not some attempt at establishing a tourist trap. This area and Sikorsky Airport have had significant roles in history. The late Igor Sikorsky, for example, was a Russian immigrant who invented the first practical helicopter, constructed seaplanes or “flying boats” and founded the namesake Stratford-based aircraft manufacturing giant.

And the Curtiss hangar, which dates back to 1929, was used by the likes of famous aviators like Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. It was built by the Curtiss Wright Co., which used it for a flying school. The building was abandoned in the 1990s and needs significant upgrades.

Dillon said "there are safety and security issues" surrounding having a publicly-accessible museum on the airfield if CAA purchases Sikorsky and re-launches commercial service. Currently the airport caters to business, charter and private flights.

"As well, does it (the museum) sit on a prime area for development — air-site development — at the airport?" he added. 

A relocation plan could involve moving the Curtiss building or, if that is not feasible, identifying another spot within Sikorsky's footprint for the museum and re-purposing the hangar for other uses, Dillon said. 

"We don't have enough information yet to make definitive statements about 'this is what we'd do tomorrow,'" Dillon said. "That's why it's important to build in the flexibility I'm talking about (into a Sikorsky sale) with the understanding we feel it's very important to be supportive of the museum."

Corvino believes the hangar could be taken apart and reconstructed, but such a project "wouldn't be cheap."

"Who is gonna pay to relocate the hangar?" he said.

And, Corvino added, if the intent is to honor history, the Curtiss structure should remain where it was built.

"That's hallowed ground," he said. "Everyone in aviation has been there, kept his plane in there."

Corvino said the center's attorney is Kevin Kelly of Stratford. Kelly did not return phone calls seeking comment.

State Rep. Joseph Gresko, a Democrat, represents the neighborhood where Sikorsky Airport is located and helped to obtain the $1 million for the air and space center.

"Look, it's a built-in gem," Gresko said of the museum. "If it was me (we) would promote it, embrace it, celebrate that it's there. Stratford has arguably one of the best aviation histories and reputations not only in the country but, arguably, the world, so you would want to highlight that as a draw for your airport."

Gresko also doubts the Curtiss hangar could be relocated, at least without plenty of complications. 

Stratford's Republican mayor, Laura Hoydick, said, "Absolutely the museum should remain on the property because of the history of the Curtiss Hangar. It's not just about Stratford. It's the region. I'm not in favor of using the hangar for other things unless the museum and its board of directors acquiesces."

Hoydick's administration has been attempting to make a counter-offer for Sikorsky Airport to Bridgeport, arguing the town will be a better steward of the facility than the upstate CAA. She noted museum supporters are not trying to sink any deals.

"We want to be sensitive to our history and work collaboratively," she said.

The Bridgeport City Council, currently all Democrats, will ultimately have to vote on any sale of Sikorsky. Its president, Aidee Nieves, said she supports the museum and city and state officials need to include its representatives in their discussions.

"It is my hope whoever becomes the owner/operator ensures that (museum) project is fulfilled," Nieves said. "It has been a long term endeavor. Many people have been committed to this.” 

Fate of Southington library project uncertain

Christian Metzger

SOUTHINGTON — The town manager announced the decision to voluntarily withdraw from a $1 million state library construction grant at a Town Council meeting earlier this month, leaving the future of the project uncertain. 

The project architect is expected to provide a comprehensive evaluation of expenses at a special meeting of the Library Building Committee next week so officials can decide how to proceed.

Town leaders had initially hoped that the $17 million approved at referendum last year would be enough to cover the cost of demolishing the existing library and building a new one around 30,000 square feet. Rising costs mean that the money authorized by voters would only cover a building about 24,000 square feet, according to current estimates. That's about 3,000 more square feet than the existing library, which town officials agree is inadequate in a host of ways. The state grant would have offset a portion of the $17 million approved by voters, not add to it.

There is disagreement between council members on how to move forward. 

Councilor Jim Morelli, chairman of the library building committee and a Republican, hopes to proceed with the project with the money allocated in the referendum. 

“The $16.9 million at the time of the discussion was sufficient for about a 29,900 square-foot library,” he said. “And obviously as everybody understands, now, those dollars don't do the same in this current economic situation.”  

The solution, he believes, is to allocate more community program space in the new building, while decreasing the amount of shelf space for books.

“The future of the library is not so much about books,” Morelli said. “It's more about community involvement, whether it's vocational, arts, or entertainment. It needs to be a really flexible and usable space.”

Councilors Chris Palmieri and Jack Perry, both Democrats, believe the matter should be put back out to referendum.

“We had a design, we had ideas that we sold the community,” Perry said. “What I'm hearing from a lot of residents is that everything has changed. And I would agree with that.” 

The original 30,000 square-foot proposal was the smallest size the State Library Board would consider for the project. 

A 24,000 square-foot building puts the Southington facility well under the size of libraries in the surrounding towns. Meriden and Plainville both have 45,000 square-foot buildings, while Wallingford has a 67,000 square-foot library.

“If the state doesn't want to be a stakeholder in this project with their own money, then that's a red flag right there,” Perry said.

Palmieri said councilors have discussed renovating and expanding the existing library because of the limited funding available for a new structure. 

“One of the proposals being looked at was expanding on the current library, but that's just a proposal right now,” Palmieri said. 

The uncertainty has sparked concern from some residents. 

“I was horrified to hear that instead of building a 30,000 square-foot library for $17 million, as the referendum had stated, they thought they could only build a 24,000 square-foot library,” said Margaret Lewis, a Southington resident who spoke out at the Sept. 12 council meeting. “I thought that was a waste of money...you don't spend $17 million to build a new building that is not adequate for the present, let alone adequate for 10 years into the future.”

New London approves $4 million road project, roundabout on Jefferson Avenue

Johana Vazquez

New London ― The city council on Monday night granted the approvals necessary for a year-long road reconstruction project on Jefferson Avenue that is slated to begin next month.

The project includes replacing the traffic signal at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Chester Street with a three-legged roundabout.

The total cost for the project is $4,082,920, of which about 97% will be paid through a grant given to the city by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The funds come from the DOT’s Local Transportation Capital Improvement Program (LOTCIP).

“We’ve been looking at that intersection and a way to improve it, helping with traffic flow and to reduce accidents. We decided to look at roundabouts,” Mayor Michael Passero said.

He said the city is working on another roundabout at the intersection of Williams and Broad Street.

Brian Sear, the city’s director of public works, said it was a long process but he is “really excited about the great project.“ He said Jefferson Avenue will go through a “total reconstruction” and the area will become safer and more attractive.

Apart from the roundabout, the project aims to install drainage improvements, ADA-compliant sidewalks and sidewalk ramps, dedicated bicycle lanes and the installation and repair of granite, concrete, pavement markings and signs.

Sear said the city spent three years, from 2016 to 2019, doing preliminary work for the project and working with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government, the local entity that administers the LOTCIP.

The city hired the engineering and consulting firm Fuss & O’Neill in 2019 for $215,000 to design the project. Sear said the city spent the following two and a half years working on the design and review.

He said the city received bids in June and determined the lowest qualified bid.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously approved a $3.3 million contract with Colonna Concrete & Asphalt Paving of Woodbridge for the roundabout and roadway improvements.

Sear said the remaining $600,000 in the approved $4 million grant will go towards incidentals and contingency fees.

Expected to start in October and finish in October of 2023, Sear said construction will continue through the winter.

The city is responsible for paying $97,760 of what remains of the project costs for a test pit excavation and decorative light pole and fixtures expenses that were not eligible for the grant.

The council also voted 6-1 to approve another contract with Fuss & O’Neill in the amount of $258,000 for construction assistance and inspection services. Sear said the firm will be there to make sure the city is following guidelines during construction, which is a requirement of the project.

Councilor John Satti voted against the Fuss & O’Neill contract, saying it was not a bid contract like the other contracts.

Passero said professional service contracts do not go out to bid, they are negotiated.

Fix Rentschler Field? Not before the XL Center

Mike DiMauro

A (mostly) rhetorical question posed to the sports fans of Connecticut:

Are we a college basketball or college football state?

Chances are, the overwhelming majority of you just answered with an absorbing, “well, duh.” And so in the hoopla of our hardwood hankerings, we recall the words of Jim Calhoun:

Not one dime.

Not one dime earmarked for the $63 million dollars a recent study reported to repair Rentschler Field. Not one dime until our lawmakers actually make a decision about the XL Center.

Because we are a basketball state first.

It’s why UConn poohbahs decided to return to the Big East in the first place.

And so we’re suddenly going to contemplate tossing $63 million samolians so Dead Program Walking, otherwise known as UConn football, has a modernized place to play?

Sorry. Can’t do it.

You remember the XL Center, no? The Grande Dame of downtown Hartford, home to UConn basketball and hockey, the Wolfpack and concerts? The XL Center: a coughing, wheezing, crumbling rockpile, whose well-being has been hijacked by politicians and lawmakers, who have kicked the metaphorical can to somewhere near El Paso by now.

Seriously: Gov. Lamont and Sen. Murphy love tweeting about their beloved Huskies. Now maybe, you know, they can actually do something to help?

What began some years ago at $250 million to renovate the building has been downsized to a taxpayer-funded $100 million (although that could be rising), lessened mostly through what Mike Freimuth, the head of the Capital Region Development Authority, calls a “lower bowl strategy.” It is designed to “shrink” the XL to 11,000 seats for certain events, while also preserving the upper bowl capacity to reach 16,000 by using a special walling system.

I asked Freimuth, a good guy and straight shooter, about Rentschler vs. the XL the other day in the wake of the Hartford Courant’s report about potential repairs to The Rent.

“Yes, the XL is more desperate for help, is used more and generally speaking, arenas drive more economic spin than stadiums,” Freimuth said. “But they’re two different worlds with different markets and different facility demands.

“Had we invested in the XL 25 years ago, we would have avoided some of the obsolescence we face today and shouldn’t repeat that mistake with Rentschler or for that matter, the convention center.”

A word on Freimuth: He is by no means a politician. He has been more transparent than a bottle of Aquafina throughout the process. He’s fond of calling the XL project “a big nickel.” He’s also rid $150 million off the original price tag with smartly altered plans.

“Most venues tire out at 20 years,” Freimuth said, “either because the industry standards move on or wear and tear catch up to normal life cycles. There is depreciation of equipment and systems. For technology, it’s even quicker.

“The Rentschler study suggested that even more dollars should be invested but we had to prioritize and recognize budget realities and suggested a five-year, $60 million phased approach.”

But this is where our lawmakers need to awaken. The downtown arena in the capital city has more cachet – especially in a basketball state – than the suburban stadium, whose primary tenant has lost approximately 99 of its last 100 football games.

Earlier this year, Freimuth talked about potential partnerships between the CRDA and some entertainment management groups. Promising? Perhaps. But it also sounds a lot like the foibles of Route 11, the useless 8.5-mile highway from Colchester to Salem whose construction stopped in the 1970s several miles from the shoreline. Despite a number of possibles, maybes and God willings, Route 11 became Lucy yanking the football from Charlie Brown.

UConn faces a $47 million athletic deficit (provided we’re done paying Kevin Ollie, which Vegas might call a pick ’em at this point). This is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is a department hemorrhaging money paying rent to the XL Center for home games there. Freimuth said rent for men's and women's basketball is $40,500 per game plus $3 for every ticket sold. Hockey pays $20,500 per game plus $2 for every ticket sold, although UConn receives an incentive fee once an annual attendance threshold is met for each team.

The good news: Amenities in a renovated XL Center might keep UConn’s rent stable.

“If we're able to fully renovate the building, the idea is to restructure the basic UConn/XL deal,” Freimuth said. ”That effectively creates increased revenues for UConn from premium, club and new floor level suite revenues that also impact donations and sponsorships as well as bigger upside from improved concessions.”

Many UConn fans offer a dismissive wave to Hartford games and blithely suggest playing all the games on campus. But this comes at political peril.

UConn's participation in playing games over the years at the XL Center has come mostly through unwritten rules. It keeps the downtown business owners happy and is politically astute. Good relations between UConn and lawmakers means favorable appropriations.

“The building operates at a loss (pre-COVID) of roughly $2 million annually,” Freimuth said. “The state allocates between $600-800K towards this. The rest is covered by parking revenues at the attached Church St. garage generated by XL events.

“However, the building does not get credit for the nearly $2 million it generates in taxes to the state coffers. The state earns annually $2 million and appropriates $600-800K, so the XL is contributing about $1.4 million to the state budget that could cover its operating costs.”

Think about that the next time you see another inane tweet from a lawmaker about how much they love their Huskies.

They might consider pulling the plug on the rhetoric and investing some thought into the central artery of downtown Hartford and home to the state’s biggest sports entity: UConn basketball.

And if the discussion ever creeps into a discourse about Rentschler over the XL, refer to the resident Hall of Famer.

Not one dime.

Rich’s Foods plans $21M New Britain expansion

Robert Storace

New Britain-based Rich’s Foods — a maker of pizza, cake icings and a variety of desserts — is planning a $21 million expansion at its current Myrtle Street location that is expected to bring more than 300 construction jobs along with about 100 new manufacturing jobs, city officials said.

Mayor Erin Stewart told the Hartford Business Journal Tuesday morning that Rich’s Foods — also known as Rich Products Corp. — first contacted her office about their plans to expand their current 138,130-square-foot site into a new 191,330-square-foot facility. The expanded space, the mayor said, will be used for an added production line including new manufacturing equipment and cold storage, among other uses.

Rich Products Corp. is financing the expansion itself, but will be eligible for tax breaks, including getting its current $8.5 million property assessment frozen for 10 years, Stewart said. 

The project’s construction will begin in the fourth quarter of 2022 and take about 18 months to complete, the mayor said.

The planned project must still be okayed by the Planning & Zoning Commission at its Oct. 4 meeting and then by the Common Council at its Oct. 12 meeting.

Stewart said the planned expansion is a boon for the Hardware City.

“I think that expanding businesses and bringing in more jobs is exactly what we need to do to fix the economy right now; people are looking for work,” Stewart said. “They are looking for an opportunity. I know that we have plenty of qualified individuals in the city who will be applying for those positions.”

Stewart said New Britain was in competition with one other state in the Midwest for the expansion. 

$838M neurosciences center breaks ground in Connecticut

Sebastian Obando

Yale New Haven Hospital broke ground Aug. 31 on a new $838 million neurosciences center, according to a project press release. Turner Construction will serve as the general contractor of the project, according to Mark D’Antonio, media relations coordinator at the hospital.

The 505,000-square-foot project will include two new patient facilities and 201 inpatient beds. It will be the largest project of its kind in Connecticut history, according to the release.

The project will create hundreds of construction jobs as well as new positions at Yale New Haven Hospital, said Justin Elicker, mayor of New Haven, Connecticut.

Healthcare construction remains strong despite surging costs, with spending in the sector near all-time highs.

The Yale New Haven hospital was officially announced on April 29, 2019, but its start was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Costs for prevalent materials in hospital projects, like concrete and structural steel, have “seen significant increases over what they cost over the last 24 months,” said Chris Dunn, a health care construction lawyer at Epstein Becker Green.

But that has not stopped massive healthcare projects, like the Yale New Haven hospital, from moving forward.

The new center will consist of two patient bed towers, the Sherman tower adjacent to Sherman Avenue and McGivney tower built atop of the existing McGivney Center. 

Both towers will share a common podium that will house the new entrance and the main lobby on the first floor, neurosurgery and radiology spaces on the second floor and caregiver spaces and the mechanical equipment room on the third floor. 

The hospital will provide enhanced access to state-of-the-art care from movement disorders to neuro-regeneration for patients, according to the release.

“When there’s a downturn, and objectively we’re trending that way, there’s a fair amount of attention that design professionals and contractors give towards the healthcare sector because it’s durable,” said Dunn. “It usually stays pretty much in demand, even in down cycles.”