September 22, 2013 03:28PM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — Twelve properties along Colony and State streets will be acquired, partially acquired or have an easement attached to them as part of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line project.
In recent weeks, a property at 24 Colony St., the former Wilcox building, was taken by the state Department of Transportation as part of the $365 million, 62-mile project. Already underway with underground cable installation, the rail line will come with a new station in Meriden and improved services along the line, according to DOT project manager John Bernick.
The acquisition of 24 Colony St. is part of an ongoing effort by the DOT to situate a parking garage on the rear of the property. The 300-space garage would cross over into the adjacent public parking lot owned by the city. To the front of the property along Colony Street would be a mixed-use building that includes 63 housing units. Being proposed by the Meriden Housing Authority as part of a public-private partnership, the project seeks funding from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
“We’re working with the city and housing authority on that deal, which hinges on a number of critical activities,” Bernick said. “Part of that included acquiring the property so that we can enter into an agreement with them related to the transfer of property. ... We are diligently working in cooperation with the city. Right now, it’s a go.”
The MHA intends on applying for tax credit funding for the building by the mid-November deadline, Director Robert Cappelletti said in a recent interview.
Bernick admitted that the 24 Colony St. project is a “little bit different” than what is being done elsewhere along the rail line. It is similar to the partnership the DOT has with Stamford in creating a transit-oriented district. The Meriden project, however, involves several state agencies and is being dubbed a pilot program by officials.
“It’s what we see as possible for future cooperation between local municipalities and state agencies to make projects come alive,” Bernick said.
The 24 Colony St. property was acquired from owners Aharon and Jeffrey Shweky on Aug. 27 through eminent domain, according to city tax assessor records. The Shwekys were paid $182,000 for the 0.7-acre property.
Using eminent domain is common for busway, road and rail projects, said UConn law professor Sara Bronin. As long as it comes with a public use and some type of compensation is involved, Bronin said the DOT was within its rights.
“It’s a classic, justified use for eminent domain,” she said.
Though the 24 Colony St. property project could include a public-private partnership, Bronin said the taking would be justified because the MHA is a public housing entity.
“I wouldn’t say it’s common because it is a housing authority, but it is something that is perfectly valid,” she said.
Though there could be a private developer involved with the 24 Colony St. deal, Bronin said it is still a project that includes a public entity.
DOT officials showed the map of properties impacted by the rail project at a public hearing in June. Jeffrey Shweky was in attendance and said he was surprised his property was included, since he hadn’t yet been contacted by the state. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
The DOT is also in the process of acquiring 60 State St., the city-owned property on which the current station stands. Plans call for the station to be demolished and a drop-off area for commuters constructed. Valued at $244,000, the DOT has offered $238,000 for the parcel. City Council Majority Leader Brian Daniels filed a recent resolution regarding the property transfer that will be addressed by the council’s Finance Committee.
“The rail project being undertaken by the state is an important component of the overall city plans for the city center and the proceeds of the sale can be used to help fund other city center activities,” it reads.
The resolution recommends placing all proceeds from the transaction in the city’s land acquisition and demolition fund for future use.
Immediately to the north stands the former Stone Insurance building at 88 State St., which the Meriden YMCA now owns. The building is used as a CrossFit training gym and a children’s activity center. Director John Benigni said negotiations for the building are ongoing, but didn’t have a timeline for the property’s taking. Benigni said the Y would not stand in the way of the train construction and said the programs will likely be relocated. Bernick said he anticipated the area would be used for 79 parking spaces.
The remainder of the properties will be subject to partial acquisitions, defined easements or temporary construction easements. An easement would allow the DOT to use a property without owning it. Because between the Colony Street buildings and the tracks is “tight,” Bernick said the takings and easements are necessary.
One of the temporary construction easements is through the edge of the Catholic Charities parking lot at 61 Colony St. Though it will eliminate some parking, Bernick said it will allow construction crews to gain access to where a train platform is being constructed.