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CT Construction Digest Tuesday September 3, 2019

Lamont readies a transportation reboot

The Trump administration and a global consulting firm are among the resources Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff tapped over the summer in a crash project to devise a transportation infrastructure plan capable of moving Connecticut past the debate over highway tolls.
Twice in the past month, the governor’s chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, has flown to Washington D.C. to meet with federal transportations officials, taking a special interest in the Build America Bureau, the office created three years ago as a clearinghouse for loans, grants and technical assistance on financing infrastructure projects.
“The politics, honestly, I personally didn’t think of it until I walked into the U.S. DOT, and there was this big picture of the president. When you are dealing with subject-matter experts, there is no partisan part to it,” said Drajewicz, a former congressional aide. “Transportation infrastructure is as bipartisan as it gets.”
The issue of infrastructure might be bipartisan, but paying for it certainly isn’t. At least not in Connecticut.
Lamont, a Democratic governor who took office in January, stumbled badly in his first attempt to increase funding for Connecticut’s aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure. He now hopes to coax legislators back to Hartford this fall to consider the product of his administration’s summer labors: “CT 2030,” a work-in-progress focused on projects that can reduce commuting times and spark economic growth.
“What I wanted to achieve is an overall reset, to really step back and think about a comprehensive, multifaceted transportation vision,” Drajewicz said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed a 30-year, $100-billion infrastructure plan in 2015, never finding a way to fund it. Drajewicz said he is working on a 10-year window, allowing the administration to set specific goals, then work backwards on the question of financing.
“I’ve spent a lot of time granularly dissecting what hasn’t worked and why in this state,” Drajewicz said. “Not just this last legislative session, but the one before, the one before, the one before going back. And what I have found is that people are either too far ahead or they’re not granular yet.
 
 In an interview last week, Drajewicz spoke broadly about the administration’s desire to make a fresh start on transportation, sharing details of his efforts to network in Washington and elsewhere with infrastructure experts in and outside government. But he declined to share specifics, such as the extent to which tolls still will be in the mix or to outline his 10-year shopping list.
In Washington, he has been briefed at the FAA on airport development in preparation for an eventual push to transform either Tweed New Haven or Sikorsky Memorial into a viable commercial option for air travelers in southwest Connecticut.
At Build for America, he has explored whether it would make sense to seek credit assistance from two programs Connecticut has not used, at least not in recent years: TIFIA, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, and RRIF, the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program.
“So my first conversations with U.S. DOT is who’s gotten this right? Who’s gotten this wrong? And where are they?” Drajewicz said. 
Drajewicz’s outreach has been comprehensive, but the road ahead is difficult.
Lamont still faces a wariness about tolls among some legislative leaders in his own party, especially senators intent on holding their majority after sharing power in an evenly divided chamber for two years, and outright opposition to any new transportation revenue from the legislature’s Republican minority.
The GOP’s position is straightforward: Connecticut’s officials cannot be trusted with any new revenue, even dollars earmarked for transportation.
On transportation, the administration spent much of the five-month, 2019 legislative session on the defensive. After campaigning last year on a promise to seek tolls only on trucks as Rhode Island is doing, Lamont proposed in February to toll cars and trucks on the Merritt Parkway and Interstates 84, 91 and 95.
 
 The session ended at midnight June 5 without a vote in either chamber on his plan.
The governor never succeeded in focusing the debate on what the tolls would buy for commuters and businesses. It was as though a restaurant had greeted diners with a bill without taking anyone’s order — or even enticing them with details about what the kitchen could deliver
“It devolved down into tolls, right? To toll or not to toll. And that became the debate,” Drajewicz said. “And in my view, it was a travesty to some degree. And I think, you know, we have to own some of that.”
Actually, there is a broad and bipartisan consensus at the State Capitol that the administration owns pretty much all of what happened after Lamont proposed tolls in a 724-word op-ed article dropped on a long holiday weekend. None of it was good.
“The whole debate was about how to pay for something, rather than how to improve your life. If we invest that money in highways, how does that improve commuting time?” said Joe McGee, the vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County. “The really big issue that has gotten lost in this is how this lack of investment in transportation infrastructure is affecting job growth.
“Twenty years ago, that was a theory. Today, it’s a fact.”
The administration has taken the criticism to heart. Drajewicz and Max Reiss, a television reporter who joined the governor’s office as director of communications in July, now describe possible projects in terms of commuting time. On I-95, they can point to four projects that could take 32 minutes off a 94-minute, rush-hour trip between New Haven and the New York line.
Lyle Wray, the executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, said the state has to make the business case for its 10-year plan, just as CRCOG is preparing to seek proposals for an economic impact study of improved rail service from Hartford to Springfield to Boston.
 
 James Redeker, the DOT commissioner under the Malloy administration, said the state does have a ready example of how transportation infrastructure improvement can touch thousands of motorists on a daily basis: the recently completed widening of a 2.7-mile stretch of I-84 in Waterbury, long a notorious bottleneck.
He wondered the other day during a telephone interview if his old agency had completed a before-and-after analysis of the $300 million project to add a third lane and make other improvements. It turns out DOT has not done an economic impact study, but an analysis of road-sensor data was available.
Average rush-hour speeds jumped from 16 miles per hour to 62 mph eastbound and from 7 mph to 67 mph westbound. Travel times through the corridor fell from 13 minutes to 3 minutes eastbound and 30 minutes to 3 minutes westbound. Accidents fell from 38 a month to 3.
“With approximately 113,000 vehicles per day traveling through this corridor, there is a daily savings of 4,200 hours of travel time in the eastbound direction and daily savings of 5,100 hours of travel time in the westbound direction,” the analysis found.
The challenge to the state is the mismatch between the projected revenues the Special Transportation Fund can expect from fuel taxes and the projects and services that draw on the fund.
The state currently borrows about $800 million per year for infrastructure work, combining that with roughly $750 million in matching federal grants. But the DOT says Connecticut needs to spend at least $2 billion annually to make long-term repairs and strategic improvements.
As originally proposed, tolls could raise about $800 million annually, according to administration estimates.
Republicans countered by suggesting the state simply crowd out other borrowing and focus on transportation. The need for new revenue: Zero.
 
Let's all humor Gov. Ned Lamont and join him in looking away from the messy scandals at the Connecticut Port Authority and concentrate instead on the wind deal that the troubled agency hatched, a plan that could close the port of New London to traditional cargo for the better part of a generation.
If I have the governor's timetable correct, there will soon be a grand unveiling of the final $93 million plan, as already sketched out in permit applications, to convert New London's port to a giant wind turbine assembly pad.
This apparently would be a final, lawyer-scrutinized deal, ready for the limping port authority to gavel it into reality.
Apparently, the public will get a look-see at the ribbon-wrapped deal before it is signed. A hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 17 in New London, at a location to be announced.
Will the public have any meaningful input at all into a project of such magnitude and consequence? Is there any hope of the public influencing what will happen to this port? If not, shame on this governor.
Has any consideration been given to the considerable clamor for keeping the traditional side of the port operating. This includes the opinions of two local legislators to a plea from the U.S. congressman for this part of the state, who complained that the $7 million he secured in federal funding for improvements to the rail line to the port was intended to initiate new manufacturing supported by a multi-modal cargo link.
There's no evidence of any change in the plans, as final negotiations conclude, to close the port to traditional cargo. Could the governor surprise us?
Expect a lot of big talk Sept. 17 about hopes that a busy wind assembly port, used for wind farms serving Connecticut as well as other states, might eventually lure overseas manufacturers to actually build the turbines here.
Even David Kooris, the interim port authority chair, admits that's a "big if."
In the meantime, the reality is that the assembly of foreign-manufactured turbines, for a majority-foreign-owned wind company, is expected to produce 300 jobs, about what you would get from a new Walmart. Excuse my yawn.
Meanwhile, the ethically challenged port authority signed up the operator of the competing New Haven port to run New London's, an inherent conflict, an arrangement that shipping executives tell me is already diverting cargo from eastern Connecticut.
Closing the port to all but wind will shut off local public works departments from a convenient and moderately priced source of road salt. It will also, in apparent violation of state coastal management law, displace another water-dependent use: a fishing fleet moored there.
And what of the displacement of the revitalized rail link for getting traditional cargo, generated and needed inland, to and from ships? That's certainly a water-dependent use, a historic one at that. 
I hope the governor's team comes well prepared to answer these questions Sept. 17 and explain why the wind companies need exclusive use of the sprawling waterfront at the pier complex to assemble their foreign-made turbines.
By Sept. 17, the governor also should come up with a better formula for sharing revenue from the port with the city. The current deal — 10 percent of the port authority's revenue — is absurd, or as state Sen. Cathy Osten would have it, "miniscule." Why should the city, which collects no property taxes on the pier, get only a pittance from the riches slated to go to a quasi-public agency with a few employees? The port authority doesn't repair roads or educate children. Mostly, it seems, it takes care of cronies.
I'm all for offshore wind as a promising source of renewable energy, at a time the country has forsaken its responsibility to tame global warming.
I think the governor's $35 million bet on developing a wind terminal in New London is fine. The idea that eastern Connecticut will become a hub for an established turbine manufacturing industry migrating from overseas seems to me to be great fantasy, although I would be delighted to be wrong about that.
New Bedford, Mass., when it accommodated a wind assembly facility in its harbor, didn't have to give up its fishing fleet or the rest of its port.
New London shouldn't, either.

Can a $100M redevelopment plan turn Pratt Street into Hartford’s crown ‘jewel’?    
Gregory Seay   
Michael Seidenfeld, whose New York realty company Shelbourne Global LLC has invested more than $200 million buying and refurbishing downtown Hartford commercial buildings, views Pratt Street as an untapped jewel.
It’s not a wholly unique viewpoint. Many business, civic, and economic-development leaders along with residents and visitors to the city have long viewed the bricked, block-long, one-lane thoroughfare hugged on both sides by multi-story commercial buildings as an underleveraged asset that could be the cornerstone of Hartford’s downtown revival.
For years, however, Pratt Street has been held back by significant retail and commercial vacancies and lack of investment.
That could soon change and Shelbourne Global LLC, with two well-known Hartford landlords as partners, is trying to lead the revival.
“The fact that it’s one block,’’ Seidenfeld, Shelbourne’s chief operating officer, said of Pratt Street. “There’s so much history here. That’s a unique story we want to preserve.’’
In June, Shelbourne, Hartford landlord Martin J. Kenny, of Lexington Partners LLC, the project lead, and city parking magnate Alan Lazowski, of LAZ Parking, pitched the Capital Region Development Authority on their Pratt Street proposal. They also asked CRDA to consider co-funding the project with a $20 million subsidy.
The plan essentially has three components: redevelopment on Pratt and Trumbull streets; repairing and reopening the Talcott Plaza garage; and acquisition and redevelopment of The Lofts at Main and Temple into more apartments.
Once fully complete, the partners say their redevelopment will count 375 apartments — 257 of them new; 45,058 square feet of retail on Trumbull/Pratt/Main streets; and 1,308 parking spaces for residents and shoppers.
The scope of their planned redevelopment is huge. It would include six Pratt and Trumbull street buildings that Shelbourne owns, with 193 apartments totaling 143,657 square feet and 32,330 square feet of retail
The partnership will also repair and reopen the mothballed One Talcott Plaza parking garage creating 960 parking spaces.
Some work on the planned redevelopment is already set to begin. Conversion of upper-floor space into 131 apartments — including 32 “micro units’’ — will begin this fall at 196 Trumbull and 99 Pratt, with both ready for occupancy by late 2020, Kenny says.
The Pratt Street project likely would take shape around the same time as the proposed $200 million redevelopment of the city’s nearby Downtown North (DoNo) tracts. Both projects happening in tandem would give another major boost to downtown.
However, Pratt, plus two more development proposals — Downtown North and Bushnell South — threaten to strain CRDA’s limited downtown bond authority, he said.
“Each will be in phases,” Freimuth said, “but will essentially use up CRDA downtown bond authority over the next few years.”
CRDA financing is crucial for Pratt Street, Lazowski said, to help fill the funding gap created by rising building costs and stagnant rents.
“You need to have that gap-funding filled in order to make these projects work,’’ Lazowski said.
Of the trio, Kenny has the most experience with downtown redevelopment. He transformed a dilapidated block into 100 apartments, street-level retail, and a parking garage overlooking Bushnell Park at 100 Trumbull.
Kenny, a Hartford development fixture since 1983 who has developed suburban Hartford apartments, is currently working on The Borden, a two-building, 150-unit apartment community on the Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield.
For the Pratt/Talcott makeover, Kenny will provide construction and property-management expertise. Lazowski will oversee their parking operations, while Shelbourne oversees equity-investing and financing, Kenny said.
“Both Alan and I,’’ Kenny said, “love and are committed to Hartford, and making Hartford better and stronger is something we are committed to always; especially with an opportunity like this, which can be a game-changer for the city.’’
Lazowski, who started his Hartford business as a valet parker downtown, said Pratt’s diverse character is its chief asset.
Tenants react
The future potential of Pratt Street has been seen in glimpses in recent years. More city cultural events have been staged there, bringing, at times, hundreds or more to the one-lane corridor.
For example, the Hartford Business Improvement District launched the “Pratt Street Patio” lunchtime concert series on certain summer weekdays, closing the street to traffic and offering free concerts.
Earlier this spring, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at the XL Center, a pop-up brew pub took over Pratt Street creating a pedestrian-friendly festival that highlighted Hartford’s eclectic breweries and small businesses. It drew thousands.
Pratt and Trumbull streets house a number of shops, restaurants and commercial enterprises, some of whom like the redevelopment the Kenny/Lazowski/Shelbourne partnership propose.
One of the project’s goals is to bring in additional retail and restaurants to provide a vibrant, urban marketplace similar to Chelsea Market and Eataly in New York City.
“It would make this more of a destination,” Russell said as he manned the music turntables for sidewalk guests on one of many summer Friday nights, when Pratt Street is closed to vehicles.
 Gerry Grate, owner of century-old The Tobacco Shop, a Shelbourne tenant who relocated to 89 Pratt from nearby Asylum Street years ago, hopes redevelopment will make Pratt Street blossom.
“I love what’s happening downtown,’’ said Grate, who sets up outdoor seating in front of his shop on days Pratt Street is blocked off as an outdoor patio.
There are other pockets of skepticism.
Downtown apparel-boutique co-owner Jody Morneault, who with husband Ron have advocated to the city and state for decades to do more to market and promote downtown venues, welcomes more landlord investment. For a time, the Morneaults ran a “pop-up’’ mens’/womens’ fashion outlet in a previously vacant Pratt Street storefront.
However, the Morneaults worry that, absent more venue promotions from the city and state, there still won’t be enough “feet on the street’’ to support local merchants.
“There’s just not enough foot traffic downtown,’’ said Jody Morneault, of Morneault’s Stackpole Moore Tryon, a longtime retail fixture at the corner of Pratt and Trumbull.
Pratt’s other landlords
As Shelbourne & Co. look to change the look and feel of Pratt Street, one challenge they have is they don’t control all of it. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried.
West Hartford landlord The Simon Konover Co., owner/operator of The Society Room, 31 Pratt, and a surface lot next door, says it has rebuffed the partnership’s offer to buy both.
“We bought out our partner (in the downtown property) years ago, because we believed in the city long-term,” said Konover President James Wakim.
Wakim said combining the Pratt Street developers’ resources into a single vision “is accretive to the economic environment of Hartford.’’
“We wish all the partners the best in this endeavor,’’ Wakim said.
Meantime, a large chunk of the street’s north side — 42 Pratt — is owned by Northland Investment Corp., which has faced criticism for leaving its downtown retail space largely empty.
However, Northland CEO Larry Gottesdiener said his retail storefronts at XL Center, 242 Trumbull, and Pratt Street are empty, not due to high rents, but because there is a lack of demand. Indeed, retail vacancies have been a problem for downtown for decades.
Gottesdiener said Northland, which has grown to $10 billion in the past decade by shifting focus away from Hartford to major cities like Boston, Austin, and Denver, has invested millions in cash and in-kind services to attract and prop up retail tenants in the city.
Gottesdiener, who has been at odds with the city and state, said he is bullish about Pratt Street’s future but unsure about the prospects of the recent $100 million plan to revitalize it.
“Pratt Street is a jewel, which has the potential to be the cornerstone of Hartford’s downtown revival,’’ said Gottesdiener, whose realty company also built the Hartford 21 luxury apartment tower adjacent to the XL Center. “Unfortunately, the $100 million ‘Pratt Street’ proposal is muddied by a lack of focus, and is actually three proposals cobbled together, including two ill-advised bailouts of Talcott Plaza and Sage-Allen.”
Meantime, The Lofts at Main Temple, a 78-unit market-rate apartment community built in the former Sage-Allen department store with public subsidies as part of the “Six Pillars” project, slipped into foreclosure earlier this year.
That building has been owned by 18 Temple Street LLC, which was controlled by prominent downtown developer Marc Levine prior to his death last October.
The Pratt Street development group is negotiating to buy the property from a private investor that bought the mortgage note last year.
In response, Lazowski said Gottesdiener “should be excited” because his partnership’s vision “is going to create value on Pratt Street.’’
Gottesdiener said if there are sufficient public subsidies, they should be used to build multifamily units on both sides of Pratt and to attract decent retailers.
“The Pratt Street component, enlivening the street with residential over retail, is a model that is likely to prove very effective and should be expanded to incorporate the north side of the street as well,” he said.

DoNo developer moving to break ground
Gregory Seay
At one point, it looked as if developer Randy Salvatore’s vision for revamping Hartford’s Downtown North parcels would be the city’s sole redevelopment project for some time.
But in the aftermath of turmoil surrounding the delayed, overbudget construction of the downtown baseball park that led to a weeks-long court trial that ended in victory for the city of Hartford and those parcels being released for development, Salvatore’s proposed $200 million DoNo project has some potential redevelopment company.
A trio of landlord-developers with extensive downtown realty holdings have come forward with their $100 million vision to remake the Pratt Street corridor, from XL Center on Trumbull Street to Main Street and including the Talcott Plaza parking garage.
Landlord Martin Kenny, Alan Lazowski, founder-CEO of LAZ Parking, and Shelbourne Global, a New York realty investment group, are looking to start their first conversions of upper-floor office space along Trumbull and Pratt streets into apartments this fall.
But Salvatore, who says lawyers on both sides are reviewing final terms of his DoNo lease with the city for its parcels, hopes to have construction crews turning dirt — by yearend, at the earliest — on the first phase of his yet-to-be-named development on Main Street, adjacent to Dunkin’ Donuts Park, that will be the site of about a 250-300-vehicle garage wrapped by 200 apartments.
Salvatore says he’s not dismayed by the scope of the Pratt-corridor makeover, nor that it may be first to break ground.
“I think it’s all positive,’’ he said. “Anytime people are willing to put private dollars into the city, it’ll bring more people, more retail and establishments to downtown.’’
Meantime, Salvatore says his design team, New Haven’s Ken Boroson Architects in collaboration with Torti Gallas + Partners, of Washington D.C., a specialist in restoring historic neighborhoods, has assembled sketches and blueprints for review. Salvatore’s firm, RMS Cos., is the builder, he said.
Salvatore said he never lost faith in Hartford or DoNo during the city’s contentious lawsuit with the project’s former developer, Centerplan Construction, that held up his development. However, he admits that, if the judge had not released Centerplan’s liens, it would have thrown the DoNo project into jeopardy.
Centerplan’s lawyer, Raymond Garcia, previously said his clients would appeal the court’s July verdict that sided with the city.
Salvatore’s first realty foray into Hartford was three years ago, with his $5 million acquisition of the then-shuttered Goodwin Hotel portion of the Goodwin Square office-tower property during the skyscraper’s 2016 sale.
Following an extensive makeover of every one of The Goodwin’s room, lobby and restaurant-bar space, the hotel reopened in spring 2017. Salvatore says the hotel “is doing very well.’’
In Stamford, Salvatore says his boutique Hotel Zero Degrees that opened a decade ago is about to undergo renovation and a rebranding.

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