NORWALK, Conn. — A common thread wove through three Norwalk school issues at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, and another thread through two of them.
The first theme was the continued opposition to a South Norwalk school from Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B), who promised “real politics right now” in a threat to keep the meeting going to 1 a.m.; the second was frustrated anger from Council Republicans, who said they weren’t given information on what Council member Michelle Maggio (R-District C) called a “huge vote.”
“How sad is it that we are sitting up here getting ready to vote on something and we cannot give, the four of us over here, cannot give an answer to the question at hand because we don’t have the same information as the people who sat on this or discussed it in the majority,” Maggio said, on contracts with two architectural firms in the planned construction of new schools.
The first item, a 25-year contract to lease a Wilson Avenue bus yard from Stanley Seligson, passed on a 8-3-2 vote. The two architectural contracts each passed 7 to 6, the same vote count that quelled a motion to table from Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large).
The bus yard
The city’s desire to rent a property to store school buses goes back at least two years, Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said, with Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton explaining once again why the city will save money by renting a bus yard and then subleasing it to a bus company.
Firms do not bid on the bus contract because they are stymied by needed to store the buses, he said, but the major resistance hinged on a phrase Bowman repeated over and over: “25-year lease.”
It could have been a 15-year lease with two 5-year extensions, Assistant Corporation Counsel Diane Beltz-Jacobson said. Hamilton said the lease would save the district $56,860 in its first year, and over the course of 20 years could save $7.5 million.
“This is another industrial company that is in South Norwalk,” Bowman said, holding up a map to show that the bus depot is “across the street” from the proposed school at the Nathaniel Ely site.
“You are going to have school buses and parents coming in and out,” she said. “…We can’t say today that we don’t have any issues.”
Environmental issues will be remediated but there are two underground tanks that could be leaking into the ground water that children will drink, and the city “will have to cut down industrial buffer between the companies on Wilson Avenue and the residents who live in Roodner Court and Adamson Avenue,” she said.
“To sign a lease for 25 years does not seem reasonable,” Bowman said. “…in the scheme of things, we have seen, especially with the Board of Education, these savings disappear and move. Twenty-five years is a long time when you are proposing traffic changes to this same direct neighborhood.”
Council member Travis Simms (D-District B), who has also opposed a new school, was absent.
Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) asked if the lease would allow the installation of charging stations in the future; Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) called that a great point, as no one knows what kind of transportation systems may develop.
The tenant would pay the brunt of the expense for charging stations, Hamilton said, explaining as part of the discussion that only one other property owner had offered a potential bus yard, at more than double the cost Seligson wanted.
After 25 minutes of questions and commentary, Coppola said, “This may be the most negotiated lease in the history of the city of Norwalk,” with an “incredible” amount of redrafts and “countless hours” logged.
The protections for the city were “hard fought on our end,” there was a lot of work by consultants and Seligson spent a significant amount of money, he said, concluding, “I think it’s fair to say the city squeezed… literally as hard as it could on the various terms, we are very proud in terms of the negotiation.”
Bowman returned to the idea of polluted ground water.
“We are insisting on putting a school where we have to take two contractor yards by eminent domain, which are properties that are probably contaminated. … across street from school yard,” she said. “I just don’t understand what it is we are doing here and I am going to take my time today because I am tired of South Norwalk being disrespected.”
“There is a reason why folks don’t want a bus depot in their neighborhood. I don’t know why South Norwalk has to bear the brunt of this all the time,” she said. “…I am very serious. My residents we need to live. Wilson Avenue, we have a bus depot, we have Grasso.”
She mentioned City Carting and the attempt by Firetree LTD to open a federal prisoner halfway house on Quintard Avenue.
“I don’t know if that was just oversight, whether or not that was the plan to try to stick that down there … I don’t know if you think it’s funny, I don’t know what, I don’t know if you people you have a vendetta. However my residents deserve better,” Bowman said, promising that karma would come around to bite the Council members who don’t help South Norwalk.
Following a recess, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) asked Seligson if he would agree to allow the city to use the property for another use under the 25-year lease. Seligson said yes; Livingston asked about charging stations and Seligson said, “Whatever the state of the art is I am sure can be accommodated.”
A slightly amended lease, to allow that flexibility, was approved, with Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), John Kydes (D-District C), Eloisa Melendez (D-District A), Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), John Igneri (D-District E), Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D), Livingston and Hempstead in favor, Michelle Maggio (R-District C), Bowman and Bonenfant opposed, and Steve Serasis (D-District A) and Corsello abstaining.
Architectural firms for new schools
The problem with hiring Perkins Eastman Architects to design the addition to Ponus Ridge Middle School and JCJ Architecture to design the Nathaniel Ely school is that Silver Petrucelli & Associates, the firm that did the study that led to the plan for new schools, was the low bidder, Bowman and others said.
“This is technically not a bid. This is a proposed set of fees. It’s an exercise in arithmetic on the part of the firm,” Kimmel said at the outset, unsuccessfully trying to forestall the objections.
You can take the lowest bid when you are paving roads but building a school is a “qualitatively different endeavor,” with factors to include references, ability to work with parent groups and others, imagination and experience with complex projects, he said.
Kimmel was on the 11-member interviewing committee but missed the second of two meetings because he was ill, he said.
Livingston had said that the firms who were selected are within the budget, and Kimmel said the money has already been approved and, “We are talking about $1.5 million vs $1.2 million for a $40 million project.”
“All of a sudden we don’t care about the money anymore,” Bowman said, pointing out that the entire plan was designed by Silver Petrucelli and “if we don’t trust their work then why are we going forward with these school plans?”
Hempstead asked questions; Coppola said it wouldn’t be good practice to discuss the issues about the bidders in public.
Hempstead asked if whatever needed to be kept private was known before the request for proposals was put out.
“We didn’t have a reason to disqualify” Silver Petrucelli, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said. “…During interview process, we found elements from the other proposals and the representation and the quality, that the committee felt that they recommended the other firm first instead of Silver Petrucelli.”
“I think it was in view of the overall presentations. … they were different presentations, different strengths and weaknesses,” Livingston said.
It’s .5 million, Hempstead said.
“We all want the best looking school, we all want the best functioning schools in them but for $.5 million we have to understand why” the Committee didn’t choose the low bidder, Hempstead said.
There were 10 criteria and, “It’s not easy to deal with the reimbursement levels when you are building a new school on the one hand and right next to it a renovation or an addition. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff about how to deal with the state, and you answer all of those questions during the interview… It’s not the same as paving a road or buying a new police car,” Kimmel said. “…From what I heard from BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis they knocked it out of the park, their ideas, their imagination, how they handled certain problems in the past. We listened to all of them, none of them were bad, some of them were great.”
Serasis suggested tabling it back to Committee so Council members could get their questions answered. Kimmel asked Lo if this would cause a delay, mentioning the need to relieve overcrowding at Jefferson Elementary School.
“This road is very long or very short,” Lo said. “…Every month we lose now, one month we lose in construction. Because the time frame just shifts… The process is very slow. In order to adjust the enrollment issues, it would take us five years to actually gain any seats.”
“I am more upset more than anything by the process or lack of,” Hempstead said.
“Is there a reason why we couldn’t have reviewed the criteria?” Maggio asked.
“Its’ not fair to anybody who wasn’t on the committee or didn’t have a discussion with somebody who was on the committee,” she said. “This is a huge vote and It is a lot of money… in a time where we don’t have any money at all, where Hartford is telling us that we are not going to get this (funding)… . I feel like this is a little slap in the face, that we have to vote on something that we have no idea what we are voting on.”
Bowman returned to her objections, calling the South Norwalk school idea “a cluster you know what” because the plan is to build on Springwood Park, which she said is historic and “protected by the National Park Service.”
The city is seeking approval from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to do an open space swap for the use of the park.
Hempstead made a motion to table the item to get “more detailed background information,” when that failed, 7-6, he said he would vote against the contract because, “In good conscience I cannot make a decision with the information that has been given to us at this particular point.”
JCJ was chosen partly because of its desire to work with the community, Livingston said in the ensuing discussion regarding the South Norwalk school contract.
Even South Norwalk residents who support a school there are concerned about the traffic, Bowman said, and Lo explained that the school needed to be partially designed before a traffic study could begin. That would likely be in January, he said.
Hempstead said he’d be voting no.
“I am an information freak with some of this stuff, there certainly is not enough here for me to make a judgement,” Hempstead said.
The vote was the same on both architecture votes, and the motion to table.
The contract was approved by yes votes from Corsello, Kimmel, Sacchinelli, Melendez, Kydes, Igneri and Livingston. There were no abstentions.
“For the record I do support the new school construction, however with the dollars we are dealing with, I needed more information before voting,” O’Toole Giandurco said in an email after the meeting. “If we had been provided with the information in two weeks as requested I believe I would have been comfortable supporting the proposal.”
“If you look at previous projects, we did not typically go with the low bidder,” Barbis said in an email. “We listened to a range of proposals — some really stood out — the firm was creative, energetic, had a vision, understood what we are trying to do … while other presentations were flat, lifeless, with no vision, no energy and no understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. It was night and day between some of them.
“Both of the bids the committee chose were within the amounts budgeted …And let’s not forget, more often than not ‘you get what you pay for’.
Regarding Bowman’s comments, he said:
“The existence of that Restricted Light Industrial 1 zone is crazy in South Norwalk – why has NO ONE DONE ANYTHING TO CHANGE IT??? This is why there is a bus depot there, this is why there are trucks belching black smoke are driving through South Norwalk … yet in the 20 years I’ve lived here and the 12 years I’ve been an elected official, I’ve never seen one attempt at trying to change this.”