(Appeared as Fairfield-Sun
front page feature 1/20)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – It’s been a long process and often a challenging and controversial one with setbacks, but it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel and Fairfield will be enjoying its new train station by year’s end.
The Sun spoke with town officials and the developer to get background on how the project evolved, the latest progress update and their expectations about the site’s impact on Fairfield. Commuters joined in with their own comments.
The Project’s Inception
“I’ve been with the town for eight years,” said Fairfield’s Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart, “and the initial genesis dates back before my tenure to previous administrations. The state had originally proposed making improvements to the existing downtown station, including an expansion of structured parking there. That was not well received by the town as there were concerns about bringing additional traffic there and the station was already the second busiest station on the New Haven corridor.”
As a result, people started looking at alternatives. A 36-acre site in the eastern part of town, bounded by Ash Creek and the city of Bridgeport to the south and Grassmere neighborhood to the west, with access from Black Rock Turnpike, Kings Highway and I-95, was chosen. “It was the site of the former Bullard’s Foundry, which made iron castings among other things,” said Barnhart. “The existing BJs facility is part of the same factory complex.”
There were initial concerns about the site. “A challenge was that it was industrial and a so-called ‘brownfield,’” said Barnhart, “which meant that it had some environmental remediation issues. By-products included casting sand that was used as fill on the site and contains metal residue and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”
The negatives aside, the site represented opportunity. “It had long been idle, underdeveloped and effectively not cleaned up,” explained Barnhart. “Any investment would revitalize and give it new purpose.”
The Town of Fairfield entered into a three-party agreement with the state of Connecticut, the Department of Transportation and the owner of the property, Black Rock Realty, back in 2003. The partnership followed a lot of effort to secure the various legislative approvals, from groups like the Board of Selectmen and Representative Town Meeting. Beyond that, there was fairly extensive permitting and regulatory approvals.
The site as envisioned and the three-party agreement is broken into thirds. The first part is the train station facility and commuter parking lot with platform to provide access to northbound and southbound trains, surface parking lot to accommodate 1,500 cars, vehicular bridge that spans the track, pedestrian “up and over” allowing people to access the platform and a commuter drop-off. The second part is the area running along Ash Creek, which is wetland restoration, public access and walking trails – a 10-acre easement. Part three is private development initially intended to be an office park with some retail and a hotel – encompassing one million square feet.
Everything north of the tracks – essentially the train station, platforms, etc. – was the state’s responsibility. The town was to build the parking lot and then convey it to the state, and build the required roadway and traffic improvements to mitigate impacts. The developer was to do the private area and access road connecting the site to the turnpike. This was going to be done with a state/town grant using tax increment financing.
“As we came out of the approval process in 2008, the economy soured and Black Rock Realty had to put plans on hold,” said Barnhart. A different financing mechanism had to be identified to construct the access road. In the meantime, the state had commenced work on its area – a $40 million project. The state, town and Black Rock Realty developed a new plan and some new funding and the town was chosen to oversee construction of the public improvements south of the tracks.
This past July, Guerrera Construction of Oxford was awarded a $21 million contract to build the access road from the track overpass bridge to Black Rock Turnpike at the foot of the Brewster Street Bridge near Fairfield Cinemas. The company is also currently building the parking lot, doing remediation on the site, satisfying permit obligations to construct the wetland mitigation area and public access trails and installing utilities and storm drainage to support the station and future development of the site.
“The town’s work began in late July, and while the state’s project is substantially complete, the station will not be placed into service until the town has completed its work, particularly the parking lot,” said Barnhart. “We’re looking at the station going into service at the end of 2011.”
To that end, Barnhart says Guerrera has made a lot of progress. “They’ve largely completed the wetlands area including wetlands restoration, but also the installation of systems that filter, manage and distribute storm water runoff from the neighborhood north of the site and the site itself. They have also completed rock blasting operations in the mid-section of the site and installation of a new 36-inch diameter sanitary pipe. They have begun shoreline restoration work and made progress on the construction of a large retaining wall that will support the future access roadway and the “concourse” building. And they have finished one quarter of the initial development of the parking lot.”
First Selectman’s Perspective
“This is one of the most historic projects in the town over the last 100 years,” said First Selectman Ken Flatto. The three major objectives he envisioned are (1) the brownfield revitalization and transformation into the site plan, (2) solving the problems that have plagued commuters for decades and (3) more development of industrial property that can be turned into new revenues for the town budget. Flatto cites such benefits as the doubling of the amount of parking in Fairfield, the opportunity to oversell parking spaces, satisfying commuters on the waiting list and the anticipation of $6 million in annual tax revenue from the private development on the site.
Fairfield commuters are mixed in their feelings about the new station. “I’m not sure traffic’s going to change a lot,” said Dave Rabideau, 41, who commutes to Greenwich and New York part of the week by train and part by car. “The biggest benefit is going to be people getting access to parking that currently don’t have it. I’ve been on the parking permit list for five years, and haven’t gotten a town spot yet.”
Roger Milici, 44, who takes the train five days a week, is more optimistic. “The more public transportation access, the better,” he says. “It seems like it would add value to Fairfield as a commuter destination for New York City. At the same time though, I think it will make the existing trains from Fairfield more crowded. Hopefully Metro North will add the requisite cars to accommodate passengers.”
Milici had another reservation. “I’m also afraid the express train I now take from downtown will originate from the new station, which will add commuting challenges for me.”
Promising Future for Private Development on New Station Site
Kurt Wittek, Managing Director of Black Rock Realty, is optimistic about the future of the private development portion of Fairfield’s new train station site, but is taking things step by step. Current plans call for a mix of office, retail and hotel space.
“It’s not easy to build on spec in today’s world and current financing climate,” said Wittek, “so we are just now ramping up our efforts to market the space, primarily the Concourse building adjacent to the station’s parking lot. We plan to file for our building permit the first week of February and, depending on the weather and speed of obtaining the permit, we will begin construction on our footings and foundations. The size of the building is 200,000 square feet with the first floor dedicated to retail and the station waiting area and the four upper floors to office space.”
Wittek said that his group is speaking with a few tenants about the office space and it is his hope that he can consummate deals over the next 12 to 15 months, which will allow them to move ahead with construction.
“We always conceived the project in a modular fashion,” said Wittek. “The financing environment for hotels is improving, so that might allow that piece to go forward. Experts agree that the Norwalk to Bridgeport corridor is underserved with hotel properties, so this is a promising location.”
Wittek added, “We compare favorably to anything else out there. I-95 is a nightmare morning and night and we clearly offer opportunities to that regard. We can largely take commuters out of the worst of the traffic.”