City Rushes To Buy State Office-Warehouse

Table of Contents Alder Smith: Safer For Workers, Better Service For ResidentsIs It Safe?Mayor: Opportunity

The Board of Alders unanimously signed off on the city purchasing a state-owned warehouse, garage and office building on the eastern edge of Wooster Square—where the city plans to move the Health Department and snow plow and streetsweeper maintenance operations.

Local legislators took that final vote Monday night during a special, emergency meeting held online via Zoom.

In a unanimous voice vote, alders OK’d a resolution authorizing the city to spend $2,101,000 on purchasing a two-story, 58,481 square-foot building and abutting parking lot at 424 Chapel St. from the state Department of Transportation (DOT).

The city last appraised the roughly 2.3-acre site, which formerly housed the DOT’s highway repair operation center, as worth $2,523,900.

Monday night’s full Board of Alders vote marked the end of a rushed public process that formally began on Friday. That’s when Mayor Justin Elicker and City Engineer Giovanni Zinn first submitted to the alders a dozen documents describing the city’s proposed purchase of the building, as well as the city’s plans to convert the site into a new vehicle maintenance garage for the Department of Parks and Public Works. The city also hopes to relocate the city Health Department there from its current rented space at 54 Meadow St..

On Monday afternoon, the City Plan Commission unanimously endorsed the proposed purchase during its own special, emergency meeting.

Roughly four hours later, in a meeting that lasted roughly 10 minutes, the full Board of Alders did the same.

Now that the alders have signed off on the purchase, the city will tap into $10 million in capital funds that the alders included in the city capital budget three years ago for a planned overhaul and rebuild of Department of Parks and Public Works headquarters at 34 Middletown Ave.

Alder Smith: Safer For Workers, Better Service For Residents

Markeshia Ricks file photo

The only alder who spoke publicly on the matter during Monday night’s special full board meeting was West Rock/West Hills Alder Honda Smith.

As a recently retired city employee who spent more than two decades working for the Department of Public Works (now called the Department of Parks and Public Works), Smith told her legislative colleagues that she has seen firsthand just how desperately city workers need a new snow plow and streetsweeper maintenance garage.

“I have witnessed the facility at 34 Middletown Ave. deteriorate” over the past 20 years, she said. She added that a “brief earthquake” during her tenure at the department further damaged the aging building, causing “Cracks” and “parts of the flooring to fall.”

Despite the challenges of working in an aging and crumbling building, “the men and women of DPW … worked hard to make sure that every resident of this city got the services they needed.”

She said that city residents invested in having clean and safe streets during snowstorms will also see a material benefit from a relocated public works maintenance garage.

Currently, she said, during inclement weather, city snow plows can wait in line two to three hours as they queue up to get into one of the five maintenance garage “bays” at 34 Middletown Ave.

She said the planned new, larger 424 Chapel St. maintenance garage will allow for vehicles to be repaired in a “speedy fashion.”

The Wooster Square/Mill River district location on a bus line will also allow city residents to get to and from 424 Chapel St. much more easily, and safely, then they could get to 34 Middletown Ave., Smith said.

After Smith made her pitch, and with no other city legislators looking to weigh in, the full board took a vote—and unanimously approved purchasing the Chapel Street property.

Is It Safe?

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Much of Monday afternoon’s 45-minute City Plan Commission meeting focused on the current environmental condition of the office building, warehouse, and garage at 424 Chapel St.

“This is a really good building. Structurally sound, built for facilities and operations purposes, and [there’s] a sound argument to put it into public and municipal use,” city Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli said.

What’s the current condition of the inside of the building? Commissioner Ernest Pagan asked.

“It’s in relatively good condition,” Zinn replied.

He said the “mechanicals of the building are functional,” there’s a section of the roof that might need to be replaced in the coming years, and the carpet will likely need to be swapped out.

He also said that a non-structural dividing wall in the garage needs to be removed, new garage doors need to be added to one side of the building, and new insulation should be installed in the garage for energy efficiency purpose.

“I would suggest that someone could move in there tomorrow, basically,” Zinn said. “Nothing would prevent an office use going in or a public works use” as the building exists today.

Westville Alder and City Plan Commissioner turned to the environmental assessment report provided by the state to the city.

That document notes that some of the prior owners and users of the facility produced hazardous waste, Marchand said. The report also indicated that there might have been leakage of petroleum products from underground storage tanks.

“This report says you need to do further study of the site,” Marchand said. “What kinds of further study would be required in order to make sure that it’s a safe and wholesome place to have people work?”

Thomas Breen file photo

Zinn (pictured) said he and his team did look “at length” at the state report, dubbed the Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment.

He noted that, in 1986, the Eaton Corporation filed a so-called Negative Declaration Form I indicating that there had been no hazardous waste spills on site at that time of that change in ownership. And while subsequent tenants of the site did report generating over 100 kilograms of hazardous waste per future reports collected by the state, Zinn said, “that doesn’t necessarily mean there were releases at the property. That just means someone signed a hazardous waste manifest out of the property.”

He said the city does not believe and has seen no evidence indicating that there might have been any releases of hazardous waste on the site.

As for the underground storage tanks, Zinn said, when those tanks were removed in 2008, closure reports did not indicate there were any releases of hazardous materials from those tanks.

“We don’t believe that there is any particular risk to the city of contamination beyond what is typical in an urban environment,” Zinn said. “We don’t anticipate having to” do any further environmental investigations or sampling at this time.

Marchand pressed on the issue. “How confident can we feel that this place is safe based on the information that the DOT has provided, which is not exhaustive and is out of date? And also based on what the city has done to check out the place?” Could this site also have lead and asbestos that would make office work dangerous for people regularly visiting and working in the building?

Zinn pointed to a 1996 filing indicating that, at that time, there was no existing negative condition on the site. There is no indication in the record that the site has any PCBs. The tank closure reports indicate no further action is necessary.

He said that the DOT did some renovations to the second floor of the office building when they took the building over around 2008.

This building is “fairly typical of what we see in terms of lead and asbestos in buildings of this age,” he said. “It’s typical of what we see in the rest of the city’s portfolio.”

Ultimately, all of the commissioners, including Marchand, threw their support behind the city’s purchase of the building.

“I think this facility is going to provide a big boost to the public works department in its street maintenance division, and will help the city run better and take better care of its infrastructure.”

The City Plan Department staff advisory report also offered a host of considerations when explaining its recommendation in support of approval of the purchase. Those included:

• The purchase price is below the current appraised value.

• Relocation of DPW to an existing building of similar layout would be more cost effective than the construction of a new site.

• The proposed land use for this property is in line with the industrial designation for the site included in the city’s Comprehensive Plan of Development from 2015.

Mayor: Opportunity For “Significant Financial Savings”

Thomas Breen photo

In separate interviews Monday morning and in their separate letters sent to the Board of Alders in support of the land deal, Elicker and Zinn described how 424 Chapel St. would be a boon for the public works department, the Health Department, and potentially other city services.

“The opportunity is one that we really shouldn’t let pass by because there’s a significant financial savings to the city by acquiring the property and using it for DPW and the Health Department,” Elicker said.

That’s because the city currently pays rent for a first-floor clinic and ninth-floor office space for the Health Department at 54 Meadow St., he said.

Elicker and City Engineer Giovanni Zinn said the cost of demolishing and rebuilding a new vehicle maintenance garage at 34 Middletown Ave. would be significantly higher than buying and renovating the garage at 424 Chapel St. and using that space for tuning up city snow plows, street sweepers, and other publicly-owned vehicles, excluding police cars and fire trucks.

“The building is in generally good condition, has been continually maintained by the State of Connecticut, and can be quickly occupied by City operations without major renovation,” Zinn wrote to the alders in a letter supporting the proposed purchase. “The large garage space in the back would be very well suited for the Vehicle Maintenance Garage of the Parks and Public Works Department. The rest of the building would be suitable for housing other City activities, with an emphasis of moving operations out of rented spaces such as the Health Department.”

If the purchase goes through, Zinn said, the city would still demolish the main garage at 34 Middletown Ave. and create new storage space in that building’s footprint.

Zinn pointed out that the bonded money that the city intends to use to purchase and renovate 424 Chapel St. and to undertake less-costly repairs at 34 Middletown Ave. is largely state money. That’s because the state awarded the city a $10 million grant in 2019 for the public works demolition, construction, and renovation project. That $10 million state award requires the city to spend $5 million as a local match.

“Due to the existing configuration and suitability of the garage portion of 424 Chapel St, this represents a much faster and more economical approach to fulfill the need for a new vehicle maintenance facility for Parks and Public Works,” Zinn wrote in his letter to the alders. “The ability to possibly house other City operations is a plus, however the purchase of this building makes financial sense even purely for the vehicle maintenance activities.”

Click here, here, here, here, and here to read some of the documents associated with the city’s planned purchase of 424 Chapel St.

What’s The Rush?

How did the city settle on the proposed $2,101,000 purchase price? And why the rush to have the Board of Alders convene a special meeting Monday night just to vote on whether or not to buy this building?

Zinn told the Independent Monday that the proposed purchase price comes from a request for proposals that the state recently put forward when soliciting potential buyers for the empty, publicly-owned property.

The highest bid that the state received from a potential private buyer for 424 Chapel St. was $2,101,000.

Per state law, the municipality where that state-owned property is located has an opportunity to purchase the property first, so long as the local government pays no less than the highest private bid.

Elicker and Zinn said that state statute gives municipalities a 60-day timeline between their initial expression of interest in buying the state-owned property and when they have to actually close on the transaction.

That 60-day window ends on June 23, the mayor and top city engineer said.

“The Department of Transportation provided the City with the closing documents only on June 4, 2021, and the City immediately requested an extension given that the timeline was incompatible with normal processes of the City,” Zinn wrote to the alders. “CT DOT staff suggested that the City submit a letter to the Commissioner requesting an extension, and the City believed in good faith that by following this instruction there would be ample time for normal City processes. However, this week the CT DOT indicated that they may not be able to provide an extension and that the June 23, 2021 closing date is still in effect.”

Zinn told the Independent that the city had mapped out a local public process that went through September. That had to be curtailed dramatically, he said, when the city found out last week that the state would not extend the June 23 purchase deadline, even after the state sent over the closing documents only on June 4.

“If this conveyance is not completed by June 23, 2021,” Elicker wrote in a separate letter to the alders, “the City will lose its opportunity to acquire this much-needed property.”  

Highest Private Bidder Was Branford Developer

On Monday afternoon, state DOT spokesperson Kevin Nursick said that the state put the property out to bid back on March 3.

“We used the building as field office space, and to some extent, storage as well, but mainly field office space going back to the Q-Bridge project days,” he wrote. “We no longer need the property for our use, hence, the sale of it.”

And who was the private buyer who submitted the highest bid?

That was GR Realty Associates LLC, Nursick said. “We do not know what their intentions for the property were.

GR Realty Associates LLC is a holding company controlled by Branford’s Lisa Amato. Amato and her son, Michael Massimino of the Branford-based development company Mass Development LLC, recently purchased the former St. Michael’s School buildings on Greene Street and are in the process of converting those formerly vacant school buildings into 23 luxury apartments.

Amato and Massimino did not respond to a request for comment by the publication time of this article as to what their plans were for 424 Chapel St., if they were to buy it.

From Electrical Instruments To Highway Repair

Thomas Breen file photo

Zinn said that the state currently has 24-hour security at 424 Chapel St., and has done a good job of performing routine maintenance at the otherwise-empty site.

An environmental site assessment report from 2016 provided by the state to the city gives a brief history of how this property has been used over the past half-century.

The property is bounded by South Wallace Street to the east, Chapel Street to the north, I-91 to the west, and I-95 and the ramp connecting I-95 to I-91 to the south.

Prior to 1967, that report reads, the property was home to residences, a bakery, and a school.

From approximately 1967 through 1986, it was used by J.B.T. Instrument Co. for the manufacturing of electrical instruments and switches and metal plating operations.

After 1986, some of the property’s tenants included a flooring company, an engineering consulting firm, offices, a recycling company, and a maintenance garage.

The state purchased the building in 2006 and used it as its District 3A office starting in November 2008. The property served as the headquarters for the state’s I-95 New Haven Harbor Crossing Corridor Improvement Program, including the construction of the Q Bridge.

Towards the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the state partnered with an Ohio-based applied science research and development organization called Batelle, which ran a mass mask-cleaning operation out of 424 Chapel St.‘s garage.