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CT Construction Digest Friday January 31, 2020

House-Senate deadlock prompts postponement

Democratic legislative leaders informed the office of Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday that there will be no vote on a truck tolls bill before the General Assembly convenes its regular session Wednesday, despite assurances each chamber has sufficient votes for passage, said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. 
“Senate Democratic leaders have confirmed they have 18 votes needed to move our state’s economy forward, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and finally make a long overdue investment in transportation,” Reiss said. “Additionally, House Democratic leaders confirmed they, too, have the votes to improve the state’s infrastructure.”
But not on Monday, the day Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, had set aside for a special session on the governor’s $19 billion, 10-year transportation infrastructure plan.
Or Tuesday, the only other day before the regular session opens.
Senate Democrats informed their members by email there would be no session but did not offer a reason.
Looney and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, could not be reached Thursday evening, but numerous sources said the two leaders had been unable to agree on which chamber would vote on the bill first, a sign that neither leader fully believed the other had the firm votes for passage.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, would not comment on the House-Senate tensions, but he said there also were legal complexities about whether a special session could be interrupted to open the 2020 session on Wednesday and then resume. That only would be an issue if Republicans decided to prolong a debate into Wednesday.
“We are prepared to debate this issue until the good, hardworking people of Connecticut are satisfied we have represented their interests. They don’t want tolls,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.
Lamont’s staff informed the governor of the postponement by phone at 5 p.m. after he left a meeting of his workforce development council. He is to meet with Looney and Aresimowicz to discuss what comes next.
A public hearing on the bill will go forward at 1 p.m. Friday.
The development Thursday was a stark demonstration of how opponents of tolls have succeeded in rattling lawmakers about what is a relatively modest measure: Tolls on heavy trucks on a dozen highway bridges, raising about $180 million annually. Lamont began 2019 with a proposal for more than 50 gantries that would charge tolls on all motor vehicles, raising close to $800 million.
Klarides said all evidence pointed to the Democrats not having the votes for passage.
“The old adage in Hartford is, ‘When you have the votes, you vote.’ They don’t have the votes for a draft bill we are going to air tomorrow, which could change radically by the time the Democrats decide, if they ever can, to ram through this legislation and shatter the recognized legislative process at a later date,” she said. “The Democrats are desperate to avoid public scrutiny at all levels, and that has been made clear by them pulling the plug on this process, at this point.”
The governor’s original measure never came to a floor vote, as Senate Democrats said they could not produce a majority for a bill that would impose tolls on passenger cars. House leaders said they could pass a broader tolls measure, but their refusal now to call vote without the Senate going first calls that into question.
Unless the House and Senate leaders can agree on a path forward, the 2020 session will begin with the Democratic governor, Senate president pro tem and House speaker at odds, in the awkward position of being unable to publicly explain why they could not produce a vote on what emerged as the highest priority and most difficult issue of Lamont’s first year in office.
As is tradition on opening day, Lamont is scheduled to address a joint session of the General Assembly on Wednesday. One rationale for acting on a transportation bill in special session was to allow lawmakers to highlight other issues in the three-month, election-year session. It also would free up the governor’s staff to move on from an issue that has been all-consuming.
Democrats hold solid majorities in both chambers, 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House. Organized labor, especially the construction trades, have said a failure to pass a transportation funding measure will complicate re-election endorsements for Democrats later this year.
All 187 seats of the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November.
The proposed toll locations:
  • I-84 at the Rochambeau Bridge between Newtown and Southbury.
  • I-84 in Waterbury near the “Mixmaster” junction with Route 8.
  • I-84 in West Hartford at the crossing over Berkshire Road.
  • I-91 in Hartford at the Charter Oak Bridge.
  • I-95 in Stamford over the MetroNorth rail line.
  • I-95 in Westport crossing over Route 33.
  • I-95 in West Haven over the MetroNorth line.
  • I-95 in East Lyme crossing over Route 161.
  • I-95 at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, between New London and Groton.
  • I-395 in Plainfield crossing over the Moosup River.
  • I-684 in Greenwich overpassing the Byram River.
  • Route 8 in Waterbury south of the interchange with I-84.
Special session vote on tolls is off; support unclear
Ken Dixon and Kaitlyn Krasselt
HARTFORD — The long-delayed special legislative session on tolls for heavy trucks will be delayed yet again, after lawmakers late Thursday afternoon canceled next week’s anticipated vote.
Notice was sent to lawmakers from the House and Senate Democratic caucus offices telling them not to come to the Capitol early next week. A vote had not been scheduled but top Democrats had said it would happen Monday or Tuesday, after lawmakers had been told to plan on coming to the Capitol early in the week.
It’s unclear whether the delay means support is softening for Gov. Ned Lamont’s signature legislation, and whether the tolls bill will advance in the regular legislative session that starts on Wednesday.
Sources said that disenchanted House Republicans threatened to stretch the scheduled debate next Tuesday, all night and into the Wednesday morning.
Friction has emerged over which chamber, the House or Senate, would first debate and vote on the legislation.
The vote was considered razor-close in the Senate, with no Republicans supporting it and several Democrats opposed. Democrats can pass the bill 18-18 in the Senate with four defections in their ranks.
State Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislative Transportation Committee, said Thursday night that the delay was not the result of a reduction in support. Democrats can easily bring the bill up for special consideration in a process called emergency certification, called an “e-cert.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides believes the cancellation of the special session is a sign that the toll bill could be on the verge of collapse. “The old adage in Hartford is when you have the votes you vote,” said Klarides, R-Derby. “Clearly they don’t have the votes for this. If and when at some point in the future they decide to e-cert this bill and abrogate the standard parliamentary procedures, it will be another instance of them going around the traditional legislative process. We are prepared to debate this issue at length until the good hard-working people of the state of Connecticut are satisfied that the process has served them.”
Pat O’Neil, House GOP spokesman, said blaming Republicans is a typical Democratic ploy.
“Of course they would blame us for their inability to muster the votes for a bill they can’t get the support for in their own caucuses,” O’Neil said Thursday night. “They control the process. They control the agenda and this is an abject failure on their part.”
A public forum on the plan is still scheduled for Friday at 1 p.m. at the Legislative Office Building, next to the Capitol in Hartford.
Under the plan, the state would charge tolls ranging from $6 to $13 at a dozen locations of highway bridges in need of rebuilding or major repairs. The plan would raise $150 million to $170 million a year — significantly less than earlier plans put forth by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Lamont had campaigned on trucks-only tolling, then proposed a broad tolling plan with 53 gantries around the state in February. When that plan did not receive a vote, he downsized that to 14 bridge locations for cars and trucks, then to the latest plan.“Senate Democratic leaders have confirmed they have the 18 votes needed to move our state’s economy forward, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and finally make a long overdue investment in transportation,” said Max Reiss, communications director for Gov. Ned Lamont.
“Additionally, House Democratic leaders confirmed they, too, have the votes to improve the state’s infrastructure,” Reiss said. “Democratic legislators have presented the only responsible bill to impose tolls on trucks only, combined with historically low federal financing — which we support and look forward to its eventual passage.”
Lamont and supporters of the latest tolling plan say the alternatives are worse: “Doing nothing, or raising taxes on the middle class and dipping into our state’s budget reserves, two things Republicans support,” Reiss said.
While most opponents of the bill did not want to see tolls on any vehicles, Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, said Thursday night she would not have voted for the plan because it prevents tolls on cars.
“It would have been intellectually dishonest and fiscally irresponsible to have passed that bill,” Bergstein said.
She has long argued for full tolling of all vehicles as the only responsible way of financing transportation improvements.
Republicans had proposed to use half the state’s projected emergency reserve fund of $2.8 billion to pay down pension liabilities, then use the estimated $225 million savings in pension payments to back federal loans to fix roads and bridges.
And Republicans oppose measures in the bill.
Earlier on Thursday, supporters of truck tolls outnumbered Republican opponents during a confrontational but friendly morning news conference at the iconic commuter station in Westport.
While state Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield and Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, charged that regional rail commuters are not even mentioned in the 32-page bill that will be the focus of a public hearing Friday in the State Capitol, a dozen toll supporters held up signs in favor of the legislation.
It made the New Haven-bound platform a little crowded.
“There is no mention whatsoever in covering rail commuter interests in Fairfield County for me,” Hwang said.
The thorny political subject has been great fodder for photobombing, with toll opponents in recent months getting the upper hand on optics, particularly as backdrops for Gov. Ned Lamont’s public events promoting the legislation. Some lawmakers see the subject as a potentially toxic election-year issue.
Reiss said that the legislation will not affect the governor’s plans for rail improvements.
“We proposed more than $6 billion in rail upgrades,” Reiss said. “No administration has ever proposed these kinds of historic upgrades to Metro-North accompanied by a funding mechanism to pay for it.”

Special Session On Truck-Only Tolls Canceled

There was no immediate reason given for the cancellation. However, sources said Republican lawmakers planned to talk the bill overnight until the regular session is scheduled to start Wednesday, Feb. 5.
Larry Perosino, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, said they still expect to vote on the legislation within the first week of the regular session.
Some speculated that the cancellation of the special session means the Democrat-controlled House and Senate don’t have the votes to approve truck-only tolls.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the old adage is, “‘When you have the votes, you vote.’ They don’t have the votes for a draft bill we are going to air tomorrow, which could change radically by the time the Democrats decide, if they ever can, to ram through this legislation and shatter the recognized legislative process at a later date.”
She added that “Democrats are desperate to avoid public scrutiny at all levels, and that has been made clear by them pulling the plug on this process, at this point. We are prepared to debate this issue until the good, hardworking people of Connecticut are satisfied we have represented their interests. They don’t want tolls.’‘
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, said that’s not true.
“Senate Democratic leaders have confirmed they have the 18 votes needed to move our state’s economy forward, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and finally make a long-overdue investment in transportation. Additionally, House Democratic leaders confirmed they, too, have the votes to improve the state’s infrastructure,” Reiss said. “Democratic legislators have presented the only responsible bill to impose tolls on trucks-only, combined with historically low federal financing – which we support and look forward to its eventual passage. The alternatives are unacceptable: doing nothing, or raising taxes on the middle class and dipping into our state’s budget reserves, two things Republicans support.”

Dixwell Plaza Plan Unveiled, Embraced
Thomas Breen
An ambitious planned $200 million redevelopment of Dixwell Plaza would bring a new performing arts center, banquet hall, grocery store, museum, office complex, daycare center, retail storefronts, and 150-plus apartments and townhouses to the neighborhood’s fraying commercial hub.
The local team behind the project received nothing but praise from longtime community members who heralded developers for striving to keep — and build—inter-generational wealth in the heart of black New Haven.
Over 100 people filled the Stetson Branch Library on Dixwell Avenue Wednesday night to learn about, and ultimately celebrate, those newly unveiled details of the Dixwell Plaza overhaul planned by the Connecticut Community Outreach and Revitalization Program (ConnCORP).
A for-profit subsidiary of the Science Park-based nonprofit Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), ConnCORP has been steadily buying up condos over the past year-and-a-half in the 1960s-era shopping complex on the western side of Dixwell Avenue between Webster Street and Charles Street. They’d been mum over the past 18 months about their plans for the 7.5-acre, suburban-style complex directly across the street from the now-under-construction new Q House.
Wednesday night, they took their intentions public.ConnCORP President and CEO Paul McCraven, ConnCAT President and CEO Erik Clemons, ConnCAT Chairman of the Board Carlton Highsmith, and ConnCAT Chief Operating Officer Genevieve Walker stood alongside the project’s development consultant, local builder Yves-Georges Joseph II, and dived deep on the team’s estimated $200 million rebuild of Dixwell Plaza.
They urged the dozens of neighbors who showed up for this first public presentation to give feedback on the still preliminary sketches, They invited people to help shape what will ultimately be built as the project moves from the ideas stage to more formal planning and fundraising, followed by rezoning quests, site plan reviews, demolition, and construction. The team plans to host three more community meetings at Stetson Library on March 11 at 6 p.m., April 22 at 6 p.m., and May 16 at 1 p.m.
ConnCORP still owns only five of the plaza’s 11 condos. It hopes to finish negotiating purchases for the remaining properties by the end of this year and to begin construction in early 2021.
Clemons said Wednesday that the idea for the ConnCORP-led Dixwell Plaza project emerged from him watching ConnCAT grow and succeed over the past decade by providing culinary school, medical billing, and phlebotomy job training for class after class of local students.
And yet, he still saw those same graduates struggle to stay in New Haven and afford to buy a home or start their own business.
He said that 85 percent of Dixwell residents are renters, 17 percent are unemployed, and 55 percent are low-income.
The mixed-use residential, commercial, retail, office, and recreational suite of buildings that ConnCORP has planned for the prospective Dixwell Avenue superblock are all geared towards addressing that core issue of poverty, Clemons said. A key focus of the project is also the investment of dollars and resources provided by black New Haveners like himself and McCraven and Highsmith and the rest of the ConnCORP team into the historic center of New Haven’s African American community.
“This is not about us making more money at all,” Clemons said. “This is about us being a part of the social contract. Because of the fact that we have been blessed, we need to share those blessings. That’s what this is about.” The founder of the Specialized Packaging Group (SPG), a board member of KeyBank, and one of the key funders behind ConnCAT, Highsmith stressed at the top of the meeting that this planned Dixwell Plaza redevelopment has no connection to the university down the block.
He said he is frequently confronted with the question, “Is this a project of Yale University?”
“The answer is: No,” he said to applause.
Instead, Clemons said, the money required to make this all-new construction project a reality will come from a mix of private equity, subordinated debt, new market tax credits, and fundraising. McCraven said ConnCORP initially planned on focusing its Dixwell economic revitalization efforts at the long-vacant former C-Town grocery store building at 156 Dixwell Ave., which the company bought in February 2018.
After the ConnCORP team presented its plans for that building to the city, Then-Mayor Toni Harp encouraged the local developers to dream bigger.
So the team started canvassing Dixwell community leaders and residents as to what they would like to see in the neighborhood. They polled Dixwell Community Management Team Chair Nina Silva, Newhallville Community Management Team Chair Kim Harris, and DataHaven to better understand the demographics and history and economic makeup and needs of Dixwell.
McCraven said that they heard the same requests everywhere they turned: Dixwell needs jobs, retail, daycare, banking, housing, open spaces, public safety, cultural and entertainment venues, spaces to launch and grow a small business.
He said people they spoke to frequently referred to a long and proud history of African American residents and businesses in the neighborhood. People recalled a dynamic, diverse, and self-sufficient economy in the mid-20th century. So the ConnCORP team started brainstorming. They hired local developer Joseph and architect Peter Cook, who helped design the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., and started planning.
McCraven walked Wednesday’s audience through ConnCORP’s plans for the 11 different parcels that make up the soon-to-be-transformed Dixwell Plaza.
“It’s all preliminary sketches,” he cautioned. “None of this is in stone.”
The first building, closest to Webster Street, would consist of a performing arts center, a banquet hall, and a museum.
“We plan to do jazz concerts there,” he said. “The whole idea would be an entertainment and cultural center for the community.”
Further north in the complex would be a 20,000-to-30,000 square-foot grocery store and food hall.
“Not a big box like Stop & Shop,” he said, “but a big market that would serve the community.” That site would potentially contain commercial kitchens that local culinary entrepreneurs could use to for their own food-related businesses — something akin to the kitchen incubator space the city has been planning for years on building. An adjacent building to the southwest would be ConnCAT’s new headquarters, he said. “Our dream is to bring ConnCAT over to Dixwell” from Winchester Avenue and to expand upon the current job training offerings to include more computer-based skills as well as advanced manufacturing.
That building would include a roof-top daycare center, he said.
McCraven said that ConnCORP initially planned on building an above-ground parking garage to accommodate the office, commercial, and retail uses on the southern half of the super-block.
But after talking with local alders, who expressed concerns about a parking garage towering over the neighborhood, ConnCORP is now committed to building an underground parking garage accessible off of Webster Street, according to McCraven
Building underground parking is significantly more expensive than building above-ground parking, he said. Nevertheless, “we’re committed to making that happen.”
The Dixwell-adjacent middle of the block will house an art gallery and a landscaped plaza under the plan, he said.
And the northern half of the block closest to Charles Street will consist of a mix of rental apartments and townhouses. ConnCORP anticipates building around 150 to 180 housing units in total, he said, though the exact number of units and bedrooms per unit has yet to be finalized.
The northern half of the block would also contain an office building, ideally housing a mix of start-up businesses and anchor tenants. McCraven said they’re already in serious conversations with a Hamden-based biotech company that is interested in relocating to the Dixwell neighborhood.
“And implanted in all of this would be retail,” he said. Banks, food shops, fitness centers, bike stores, entertainment venues, clothing stores, pharmacies. “We’re pretty confident we can bring most or all of those things to this site.”
Clemons said that everything included in the project so far, though still preliminary, has been informed by conversations with community leaders and data scientists.
“Now we want to hear even more,” he said. “We want more input” from the broader public. Over the next hour, dozens of people present offered that input.
They pressed ConnCORP to make sure that the redeveloped Dixwell Plaza both includes affordable apartments and contributes to greater homeownership in the surrounding area. They called on the developers to make space for mental healthcare providers and to employ local minority contractors over the course of construction.
Even the most critical of comments was couched in an enthusiastic embrace of the idea that local black developers are spearheading such a large project in the city’s historic black neighborhood.
“This is one of the first projects I’ve seen come to the city where people who look like us are building it for us,” said small business contractor Rodney Williams.
The city more broadly and the Dixwell neighborhood in particular are currently rife with development dollars, he said, referencing the planned new nearly 400-unit apartment complex at 201 Munson St.
That money, those jobs, and the subsequently built buildings rarely trickle down to the mostly working-class African American population that defines the Dixell and Newhallville neighborhoods.
“How could we not support them?” he asked about ConnCORP.
A woman behind him agreed. “This is our time,” she said. Shepard Street blockwatch captain Addie Kimbrough (pictured) also threw her support behind the project. “All they want to do is build and make Dixwell look like it used to,” she said. They deserve the neighborhood’s support.
“This reminds me of what Dixwell looked like when I came here” in 1959, said Claudine Wilkins-Chambers. Whatever help or support ConnCORP needs in order to make this vision a reality, she said, she’d be happy to do her part to provide.Sean Reeves (pictured) recognized that most people are wary of change. “But change has to happen in order for our children to be successful,” he said.
And this project could very well lay the groundwork for the economic welfare of generations of Dixwell residents to come. Katurah Bryant (at center in photo, in sunglasses) agreed.
“It’s refreshing to see that people who look like us want to engage us,” she said.
She added that she’s tired of seeing out-of-town developers and large-scale landlords based in other neighborhoods of the city scooping up all of the rental housing in Dixwell and Newhallville.
“It is going to be a beautiful thing for our community to look like a place where we want to live.”




 
 
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