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CT Construction Digest Wednesday September 23, 2020

Amid pandemic, we’ve become complacent about transportation: Getting There

Jim Cameron  When it comes to COVID-19’s impact on transportation in our state, we are in the eye of the hurricane.

That’s been the theme of my recent virtual talk to various Connecticut’s libraries and civic groups, comparing the calm eye of an intense storm to how we’ve become complacent about our transportation future. We kid ourselves if we think the winds have passed. The worst is yet to come.

Commuters who’ve returned to the rails tell me ridership is slowly coming back but many still fear for their safety on mass transit, and with good reason.

Metro-North has finally put $50 fines into effect for those refusing to wear face masks on its trains, but they’re leaving enforcement to the MTA Police who almost never are seen on Connecticut trains. Anecdotally I’ve heard from many riders who’ve seen non-mask wearing riders and conductors who do nothing to get them to mask up.

We’re talking about public health here. I think anyone who refuses to wear a mask should be kicked off the train.

The back side of the coronavirus hurricane may see a second wave of infections, but we will certainly feel the effects of six months of financial losses born by the railroad. The MTA’s Chairman Patrick Foye said the agency is facing an “existential challenge” — a $16 billion deficit by 2024.

Without federal help, he is predicting layoffs and service cuts to as little as one train every two hours. Imagine how crowded those trains will be, commuters sitting three abreast among the unmasked.

But on the state level an even greater financial storm is approaching: The Special Transportation Fund is going bankrupt faster than previously feared.

It is the STF that funds highway and bridge repairs, subsidizes mass transit and keeps transportation moving. But it relies on gasoline and sales tax revenues that have been slammed by the virus, so by mid-2022 — or maybe sooner — it will run out of money.

If the STF is in the red, nobody on Wall Street will underwrite any of Connecticut’s new bonds, not for schools or sanitation or housing. Then what do we do?

What really galls me is that nobody is talking about this.

It is an election year (as if you haven’t noticed), but our state lawmakers have disappeared, leaving the governing of the state (by executive order) to Gov, Ned Lamont who, by recent polls, is seen as doing a good job.

Some lawmakers have complained the legislature has been cut out of decision making, but they couldn’t cite which of Lamont’s emergency orders they took issue with.

Aside from their brief summer session when they passed an omnibus police reform package, now receiving criticism after we understand its details, our state reps and senators are AWOL.

Oh, they’re campaigning, but not talking about what’s coming in the next session.

Of course they don’t want to tell you now what’s going to be necessary to re-fund the STF: A combination of tolls, new taxes and higher fares. They’ll leave that bad news until after they are reelected.

That’s why all of us must force their hand. Go to their campaign rallies (fully masked) and upcoming League of Women Voters debates and ask them, on the record, where they stand on tolls and taxes. And if not those remedies, what are their alternatives?

Then we can all cast an informed vote and decide who’s best to help us weather the storm yet to come.

Construction begins at former Marina Village site in Bridgeport

Tara O'Neil  BRIDGEPORT — It’s been a long time coming, but construction has finally begun at the former site of the Marina Village public housing complex.

City officials announced Tuesday that work is underway on four building of the future Windward Commons Development.

Demolition went on for months in 2018. At the time, development was expected to begin in late 2018 and continue into early 2019, with leasing projected for this year. Instead, demolition efforts continue through this summer.

In June, Mayor Joe Ganim visited the site to watch as one of the buildings was demolished, posting a livestream from the site.

JHM Group, the developers of the site, partnered with Park City Communities, which owns and manages the city’s public housing, to revive the complex.

The $27 million project will allow for the development of 60 new mixed-income housing units during phase one, with 100 overall — a third of which have been set aside for residents relocated during the redevelopment of Marina Village.

The four-story mixed-use building will also feature a new, 7,000-square-foot Southwest Community Health Center facility. The project includes a four-story, mixed-used building at the corner of Park and Railroad avenues.

“Thanks to the leadership of our City Council and the patience of the tenants, the South End is seeing a huge rebirth right here at what’s formerly Marina Village,” Ganim said in a statement released Tuesday.

Windward Commons is phase one of a bigger redevelopment plan at the former Marina Village site. It is being built alongside the state’s Resilient Bridgeport project, which is expected to create a public green space, designed to absorb rain run-off and will include a pumping system to provide greater flood protection for the area.

The complex was flooded in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

New London argues State Pier project will need local approvals

Greg Smith   New London — The city has issued a challenge to the Connecticut Port Authority and crafted legal opposition to the proposed $157 million State Pier Redevelopment.

City Law Director Jeffrey Londregan, in a Sept. 2 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reiterated the city’s argument that the port authority must first amend a 20-year-old State Pier Municipal Development Plan before it can apply for a permit to work at the pier. The plan governs activities on the property.

The proposed work at State Pier, which includes filling in 7.4 acres of water between State Pier and the Central Vermont Pier, represents a major modification to the MDP, the city contends, and requires a months-long process of public hearings and local legislative approvals overseen by the city’s development arm, the Renaissance City Development Association.

It’s a contention that the port authority has dismissed, arguing the MDP is no longer applicable since the terms of the MDP have been met. But RCDA Executive Director Peter Davis said the MDP issue was first brought to the attention of the port authority in May 2019 and that he has yet to see a written legal opinion disputing that “the MDP remains in full force and effect for 30 years from the date it was ratified. Period. End of sentence.”

New London, Davis argues, has contended with obstacles thrown up by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for Fort Trumbull, which has a similar MDP in place.

“It’s an issue of equity. The RCDA doesn’t understand how we can be held to the terms of Fort Trumbull MDP and (the port authority) is not pondering the terms and conditions of the State Pier MDP,” Davis said. “Respectfully, we don’t agree with that.”

“The city is obviously trying to protect its interests and wondering why the CPA is held to a different standard,” Davis said.

Connecticut Port Authority Board of Directors Chairman David Kooris maintains that actions contemplated by the MDP at State Pier are completed. The city acquired parcels of land and transferred them to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which completed redevelopment there. Fort Trumbull, by contrast, remains mostly undeveloped, Kooris said, and thus the MDP remains in effect there because conditions of that MDP have not yet been met.

The opposition from New London comes even as Mayor Michael Passero continues to argue that as the host city, New London deserves better financial compensation for a project on tax-exempt land. Meanwhile, negotiations on a host city agreement with State Pier development partners Orsted and Eversource have stalled.

The lack of response from the port authority to the MDP, Passero said, is “consistent with the way this agency has acted throughout this project, to completely shut the city out of discussions and ignore any issues we raise until we get to the critical point that jeopardizes the project.”

“This is a legitimate issue we’ve raised. It’s another symptom of the agency locking out a representative from the host city to participate in their plans,” Passero said. “You can’t blame the city if this is jeopardizing the project. They can’t just ignore it. It’s the law.”

The city’s letter was a response to a solicitation of public comments by the Army Corps of Engineers as it reviews the port authority's permit application to transform State Pier into a hub for the offshore wind industry. Construction is slated to begin in 2021 but the authority must first obtain permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for aspects of the proposed work.

The comment period for the Army Corps application ran from Aug. 4 to Sept. 3, and numerous individuals and organizations submitted letters — a mix of support, opposition, questions, concerns and calls for a public hearing. The Day obtained copies of the letters through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance, has asked that the port authority conduct a Formal Navigation Safety Risk Assessment for the proposed project. The 473-foot-long and 184-foot-wide vessel, expected to be used in association with the work at the pier, would require 36.8% of the 500-foot channel as compared to the 19% required by vessels arriving at State Pier in 2019.

“I am concerned there may be increased risk of collision and subsequent damage to vessels in the waterway due to the reduction in available channel width …,” wrote Coast Guard Lt. Jennifer Sheehy, chief of the Coast Guard’s Waterways Management Division.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is among others that have has raised concerns over State Pier's inability to accommodate freight other than what the wind industry is bringing in. There is also support. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, a group representing thousands of small and large businesses, argues the improvements “will provide a long overdue and much needed boost not only to the Groton-New London community, but will help support the health and well-being of the entire economy of Connecticut and Southeastern New England for years to come,” wrote CBIA Vice President Eric Brown.

After the construction period and growth of the offshore wind industry, Brown writes, “Our state will have full ownership of a modernized port facility that can support numerous different cargoes and shipping opportunities.”

It is unclear when the Army Corps is expected to make a decision on the permit application.

Kooris said a legal opinion of the MDP from the port authority is forthcoming and thinks the city has a wrong interpretation of the MDP.

“The role of the MDP is to give a redevelopment agency the authority that they didn’t have … in this case the purpose of the MDP was for redevelopment. The activities the (MDP) governed are completed,” Kooris said.

Davis said while some work was completed, the city never did see the kind of economic benefits contemplated in the MDP, such as a promised multi-use cargo warehouse and associated jobs.

The MDP was adopted in 1999 to allow the city, through the New London Development Corp., to acquire 8.6 acres and dozens of homes in the area around the State Pier with state funds, enabling it to market the property for commercial use in association with State Pier. The NLDC later transferred the property to the state Department of Transportation, which expanded the footprint of the pier to about 30 acres. The property was recently transferred to the port authority.

The MDP project area is 125 acres and includes tidal waters at both State Pier and the adjacent Central Vermont Railroad Pier. The city argues that plan remains in effect until 2029.

The proposed work falls within the boundaries of the MDP, and the city contends some of what is proposed is “inconsistent with certain sections and provisions of the MDP.” Specifically, the city argues that the plan to fill in 7.4 acres between the two piers significantly changes the shoreline and triggers a review and possible series of approvals by the city before it can apply for a permit to the Army Corps.

“Clearly these elements of the proposed project are not only inconsistent with, but in direct violation of, the plain language of the MDP as adopted in 1999,” Londregan wrote. “The MDP was prepared for the RCDA and the City of New London, not for the CPA.”

Waterford Airport property ready for takeoff

Sten Spinella   Waterford — The former airport property has a new suitor. 

Vacant for 37 years, what’s known locally as “the Waterford Airport property” at 140 Waterford Parkway South is once again a target for development, this time by Fabcon Precast, a concrete manufacturer based in Minnesota. 

At 188 acres, the airport property value is currently about $4.3 million, according to the town tax assessor’s office. Fabcon did not disclose the details of its deal with Mathon Fund I LLC, except to say it’s contingent on the town approving development of the property.

Town Planner Abby Piersall said Fabcon has so far applied for inland wetlands approval from the Conservation Commission as well as filing a special permit application, which includes the site plan, with the Planning and Zoning Commission. 

The Conservation Commission has yet to come to a decision on Fabcon’s applications. Jordan Brook and Nevins Brook are both on the property. 

Piersall said the town is preparing notices for a public hearing she expects to take place in early October. 

Fabcon CFO Mark Pederson spoke to how the company scoped out the Waterford property for development. 

“We’re interested in opening a new plant somewhere in the New England market,” Pederson said. “When you start looking around at sites that are big enough to accommodate our needs, it was hard to find an appropriate site. The airport site happened to fit.” 

Since it opened its first plant in 1971, Fabcon has steadily expanded its operations. The company now has plants in Minnesota, Ohio, Kansas and Pennsylvania. 

Pederson said the Pennsylvania plant had been servicing the New England market at “quite a distance.” Fabcon determined there was enough demand in the area to warrant the building of a new plant. Although Fabcon won’t buy the land unless it gets the proper approvals for development, Peterson said “so far we’re on track to make that happen.” 

Fabcon’s land use application elaborates on its plans in Waterford.

“The development is proposed on the east side of Jordan Brook, which is approximately a 97-acre portion of the 188-acre parcel,” the application reads. Fabcon promised to demolish and remove any remaining structures and to “construct a new 123,284 SF (130,000 SF Gross Floor Area) concrete products manufacturing facility with an outdoor storage yard and related site improvements on roughly 41 acres of the 188-acre site. The building will include 122,000 SF of manufacturing and 8,000 SF of offices.” 

The plan includes a new driveway system and space for 60 parking spots. 

“Truck loading will occur at several locations around the building and in the storage yard,” the application reads. “Vehicle deliveries include gravel deliveries, hardware, steel, lumber, cement, foam insulation, admixtures, and pigments, and vehicles also will remove debris and recycle material including filter cake (concrete waste), lumber or pallets, cardboard, metals, and office debris.” 

Piersall said all exhibits related to Fabcon’s possible redevelopment of the Waterford Airport property can be found on the town Planning & Development website.  Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule is optimistic about the possible development.

"I am supportive of building the town's tax base and putting a project at the old airport property, which is zoned industrial, as long as it meets the zoning and wetland regulations of the town in all respects," Brule said.

Airport history 

Some in Waterford are unaware the town was home to an airport from 1945 to 1987. Its three runways were destroyed decades ago. Now, the property is mostly a wooded area with overgrown vegetation and some litter. 

Russell Corser, a pilot from Waterford, founded the airport in 1945. Corser announced in 1978 that he hoped to sell the land. In 1979, neither a proposed industrial park nor a proposed 19th-century “Disney Land,” complete with horse shows, a hotel and an amusement park, came to fruition. New England Savings Bank bought the property in 1984, anticipating an office park, hotel and convention center, but after $300,000 in improvements to the property, not a single building went up.  

Reynolds Metals Development Co. bought the property in 1987 with plans to build an industrial park called “Waterford Landing.” But after hundreds of thousands of dollars in soil remediation, lawsuits related to its wetlands permit and efforts to put utilities on the property, Reynolds Metals left the deal in 1997.

Rumors of different entities willing to buy and develop the property have persisted for decades, but deals never materialized.

The Mathon Fund I LLC, the mortgage-holder that foreclosed on the Waterford Airport site in 2005, faced its own legal troubles around that time. Principals Duane Slade and Guy Williams were convicted for defrauding investors of more than $167 million in a Ponzi scheme. A court-appointed conservator who was tasked with recovering money for defrauded investors took Mathon over.

“There’ve been discussions over the years, folks have come in with interest about the property and asked general questions of what could be done there, but in my five years, no one has come this far to going forward, no one else has submitted permits,” Piersall said. 

New $25M Bristol hotel, event center development breaks ground

Greg Bordonaro  evelopers have officially broken ground on a new $25-million expanded hospitality complex in Bristol that will include a hotel and event center.

The owners and managers of the DoubleTree by Hilton Bristol held a groundbreaking Sept. 17, to start construction on a new 50,000-square-foot Bristol Event Center and a 90-suite HOME2 Suites by Hilton hotel. 

The development, which will be located adjacent to the current DoubleTree by Hilton hotel on Century Drive, will be constructed on four land parcels, including a portion of the existing DoubleTree hotel site. 

The event center and hotels are owned by Dr. Gerald Niznick and managed by Prestige Hospitality Group. Niznick is privately funding the hotel.

The Hartford Business Journal was first to report the development in December. 

The Bristol Event Center will feature two hospitality suites, a ballroom and outside seating accommodating up to 750 people conference style or 450 people for sit-down dinners/weddings. 

The HOME2 Suites by Hilton hotel  will feature all-suite stylish accommodations with flexible guest room configurations and inspired amenities. Underground parking garage and pedestrian walkways will connect the two new hospitality venues with the existing DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton Bristol.  

Construction on Hinsdale School delayed

Kathryn Boughton  WINSTED — Town Manager Robert Geiger told the Board of Selectmen Monday night that he had met with school officials about the renovations and addition to Hinsdale School, originally slated for completion by September 2022.

Geiger said completion will probably not be realized until a later date.

“The architects have been working on all the plans, which they will put in a package to be sent for bids,” he reported. “That has been occurring over the past several months. There have been some modifications that have occurred, which is normal.”

This stage will end in coming weeks, before the specifications are sent out to contractors.

“It will take two to three months for the contractors to look at them and another few months before we see returns,” Geiger predicted. “Then a contractor will be selected. We are a long way off before there is a shovel in the ground.”

Selectman Jack Bourque asked about bonding for the project and was told the town is waiting for state grant approval.

“We have to wait until there is either a special or a regular session (of the legislature),” said Mayor A. Candy Perez. “And then we have to wait for the bonding commission before the bids can go out. The good news is, our reimbursement rate will be higher, which will save the community a million dollars or more.”

In other business, Geiger revealed that he has had a second meeting with a developer about a large parcel of land in Winchester. The property, which he did not identify, has been on the market for a number of years.

He said state permits are being sought to close the sidewalk and half of one traffic lane on westbound Route 44 in front of the former Mexican Grill on Main Street. The town has owned the property since April and plans to demolish the building to create eight parking places.

Director of Finance Bruce Stratford had both good news and bad. He said tax collections are at the same level as 2019-20, as is the town’s total revenue. Municipal leaders throughout the state had feared decreased tax payments if residents lost jobs to COVID-19, but payments have not faltered in Northwest Connecticut towns.