State Port Authority eyes vacant Crystal Avenue property in New London

The former Thames River Apartments in New London are seen Nov. 25, 2016. The Connecticut Port Authority on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, revealed itself to be the second entity interested in buying or leasing the vacant Crystal Avenue property being marketed by the city. (Tim Cook/The Day)
The former Thames River Apartments in New London are seen Nov. 25, 2016. The Connecticut Port Authority on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, revealed itself to be the second entity interested in buying or leasing the vacant Crystal Avenue property being marketed by the city. (Tim Cook/The Day)

New London — The Connecticut Port Authority on Thursday revealed itself to be the second entity interested in buying or leasing the vacant Crystal Avenue property being marketed by the city.

The news comes a week after a waste disposal, construction and demolition outfit announced its own proposal for the city-owned parcel, which is viewed as a potential economic driver and companion site to the nearby State Pier.

Port authority Executive Director Evan Matthews, in a written response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Day, declined to release any details of the port authority’s proposal for the Crystal Avenue property, citing exemptions in FOI law that protect “trade secrets” and appraisals and evaluations made prior to the acquisition of a property.

Port authority Chairman Scott Bates, in a statement also released on Thursday, said that the authority’s interest is directly related to the ongoing improvements at State Pier. The state has pledged $15 million for improvements at the pier and Block Island Wind Farm developer Deepwater Wind has offered another $15 million for upgrades to accommodate its future work there.

The city is counting on some side benefits from an increase in activity there.

“State Pier New London is an important part of the Connecticut maritime economy and a state owned asset,” Bates said in the statement. “As the agency in charge of creating jobs by promoting maritime commerce, the Connecticut Port Authority is interested in anything it might do to advance that mission and improve facilities at State Pier. In that spirit, CPA has expressed an interest in the property in question.”

Bates said no substantive discussions have taken place with the city about its proposal but the port authority would “continue to look for opportunities to implement Connecticut’s five-year maritime strategy which puts a strong emphasis on the full development of State Pier.”

The Crystal Avenue parcel under discussion is the former home to the 124-unit Thames River Apartments, a federally subsidized complex managed by the New London Housing Authority. Because of its deteriorating condition, the Housing Authority and city worked together to move residents into privately owned housing earlier this year.

The city closed on the property earlier this week and previously had started marketing the property through the Renaissance City Development Association in an effort to quickly shift the liability and costs for demolition of the buildings away from the city.

The City Council in August voted 4-3 in favor of buying the property for $185,000, though some councilors, including John Satti, expressed concern about the unknown costs of environmental cleanup at the site.

Satti at Monday’s City Council meeting again expressed his worry that the city may be taking on something it could not afford and asked that any proposal under consideration should include a “study to find out what we’re buying into.”

Connecticut Waste Processing Materials LLC and Manafort Brothers, on Sept. 25, announced they had submitted one of the two proposals to acquire the property. Its plan is to demolish the three apartment buildings and use the property for a bulk shipping and storage facility, partially in support of its own operations in the city. CWPM also is constructing a waste transfer station on Fourth Street, off Crystal Avenue. One of the ideas contained in CPWM’s proposal is to use a portion of the property to expand the pier’s ability to stockpile salt.

Contained in that proposal, and referenced by Satti at Monday’s council meeting, was a request to the city to provide $800,000 for what CWPM considered an underestimation of the cost of demolition and asbestos removal from the Crystal Avenue buildings.

Estimates contained in an appraisal completed for the Housing Authority put demolition costs at $1 million. CWPM estimates the costs at $1.75 million based on its own walkthrough of the Crystal Avenue buildings.

In response to Satti’s questions on Monday, New London Mayor Michael Passero said, “I don’t know what the cost is, but it’s going to have to be covered.”

Passero has said that one of the city’s first priorities is demolishing the structures to relieve the city of liability. It was the city’s hope that the cost be borne by developers.

The ultimate goal for the property was always to find a tax generator for the previously tax-exempt 12-acre parcel while factoring in its proximity to one of only three deepwater ports in the state.

Felix Reyes, director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, said he will be interested to know how the Connecticut Port Authority is going to tie the Crystal Avenue property in with expansion plans at State Pier. With any proposal, Reyes said, the city will look for something that will benefit the economic development in that area of the city.

Passero said meetings with the two prospective buyers could start as early as next week.

“We are pleased we have two strong parties interested and look forward to discussing the proposals with each one,” Passero said. “We’re anxious to move the process along quickly.”

Passero, who under advice from City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan had rejected a Freedom of Information request to release names of parties submitting proposals, said on Thursday, “I didn’t feel like it was the city’s place to release the identities of either of the respondents.”

g.smith@theday.com

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