Sep. 26—HARTFORD — State officials are committing themselves to a massive $22.5 million investment in the economic development of Bridgeport's waterfront — the razing of an industrial landmark, the closed coal-fired power plant.
"Every major project in the city starts with a big step," Thomas Gaudett, Mayor Joe Ganim's deputy chief-of-staff, said in response. "This is a first big step. ... And we're very happy and excited."
But any eventual payoff is likely years, and a lot more money, away. There are currently no plans for redeveloping the still privately owned harborfront site at 1 Atlantic St. in the South End. And even after the structure comes down, the soil will require extensive and costly environmental remediation.
"It's ugly (but) it's too much money for one project that's not going to bring any fruit anytime soon," City Councilman Jorge Cruz of the South End said. "They can knock (it) down and clean it up, but we're talking years down the road before it gets developed." He said he would prefer fellow Democrat Ganim focus on smaller blighted properties in the area.
On Tuesday members of the board of the Community Investment Fund voted without debate to spend over $101.3 million on nearly two-dozen projects around Connecticut. By far the largest amount on the list is the $22.5 million to demolish the PSEG-owned plant.
Recognizable from Long Island Sound, the highway and train line by its red-and-white striped smokestack, the facility was decommissioned in 2021 as part of a deal initiated under former Mayor Bill Finch's administration to allow PSEG to construct a new gas-fired plant nearby.
As reported this past July, the local regional planning organization — the Connecticut Metropolitan Council of Governments — has hired a consultant to conduct a 12 to 15 month analysis of potential redevelopment scenarios for the prime waterfront property.
In the meantime current Mayor Joe Ganim's administration and Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's office were in talks about how to cover the costly demolition. Ganim defeated Finch in 2015's Democratic mayoral primary and is running for a third consecutive four-year term.
The city submitted a formal application to the CIF, which the state legislature established two years ago to target dollars specifically for projects/needs in under-served and marginalized Connecticut communities. The requests are reviewed by a 21-member board of legislators and other state officials. Like other state borrowing, that group's recommendations, including those issued at Tuesday's meeting in Hartford, have to be approved by the governor-chaired state bond commission.
"The governor is making a huge bet on Bridgeport," Gaudett said.
Given all of the complexities involved not just in getting rid of the plant, but dealing with underground contamination there, Gaudett also acknowledged, "There are plenty of details to be worked out still."
One of the details is the true cost of demolition. He said the $22.5 million figure was based on a "rough estimate" provided by an unidentified company with experience razing coal-fired power plants. However, Gaudett noted, that company did not have access to the actual property.
But, Gaudett continued, with the CIF funding secured, the next step is for the city, state and PSEG to enter into a three-party agreement "and we will figure out the next steps to take the building down."
PSEG in a statement said, "We welcome the Community Investment Fund's announcement and look forward to continuing to work with the State of Connecticut, the Lamont administration, the state legislative leadership and the City of Bridgeport."
But the company did not clarify if and when it intends to sell. It sold the new gas-fired plant which came online in 2019 last year.
"We are evaluating best future use of the property," PSEG said.
In contrast Gaudett made it clear it is the city's desire to figure out "how do we get to that point where we could hand off this property to someone" to be re-purposed for a combination of housing, commercial and retail uses.
In order for future ground to be broken, however, that soil needs to be free from any contaminants that have accumulated on the land over the decades. Across the harbor on the formerly industrial Steelpointe redevelopment, for example, work on a 1,500-unit luxury apartment complex was recently delayed because of federal requirements requiring a more extensive clean-up of pollution than initially thought.
And on top of that work, any future plans also need to take into account existing utility-related infrastructure owned by other companies besides PSEG on or in the vicinity of the 1 Atlantic St. property, as well as the new gas-fired power plant.
Some of those questions should be answered by the mostly federally funded MetroCOG re-use analysis. Matthew Fulda, that organization's executive director, said Tuesday it was not involved in the city's application for the $22.5 million.
"We're going to continue the study work that we're starting right now," Fulda said. "Obviously the funding for demolition is going to play into that. (And) we're still going to do a significant community engagement process to ensure the public is part of the planning."
There was little specific mention of the power plant demolition when the CIF board met Tuesday.
But at one point member House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-Branford, said he would like in the future to be provided more details about individual projects, their local impacts and whether they are ready for construction.
"It's not to be critical of these projects. By and large the bulk of them have been great," he said. "(But) how 'baked' are these projects? We want to make sure they are 'shovel-ready.'"
Bridgeport has two legislative representatives on the CIF board, Democrats state Sen. Marilyn Moore and state Rep. Antonio Felipe, whose district includes the South End. Felipe Tuesday told his colleagues he was thankful for the $22.5 million investment.
"If you look at PSEG in Bridgeport ... for a lot of us that's represented sickness going on in our neighborhoods," Felipe said, referring to the coal-fired plant's adverse environmental and health impacts. "And we're now able to see that come down. This is the beginning of a project. Obviously cleanup is going to be a lot more expensive. But this is how you begin to rebuild neighborhoods."
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