The Bristol Blog features news and information about Bristol, Connecticut.
August 10, 2014
When the city bought the mall site...
I keep hearing that the city bought the mall back in 2005 in the middle of the night with no public notice. That's just not true.
I thought it might enlighten some of you to see the story that reporter Jackie Majerus wrote on March 12, 2005 -- six days before the city bought the site for $5.3 million:
The city could buy the 17-acre downtown mall property as soon as this week, said Mayor Gerard Couture.
The mayor said a deal between the city and mall owner S. Rudy Gatto and Associates is “imminent before next weekend.”
The two sides are still negotiating the price, Couture said. He said it is likely to be in “the high fours” and “less than five” million.
“There may be a decision from the attorneys, a deal that we can agree to,” Couture said Saturday. “That deal my come within seven to 10 days.”
But while Couture insisted, “there’s nothing unusual going on,” the city has three special meetings on the issue scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Former Mayor Frank Nicastro is questioning the sudden rash of special meetings and the timing of the posting of at least one of them.
“The people never had a say in this project,” said Nicastro, a Democrat who led the city for a decade, with Couture serving alongside him on the City Council. “It came out this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re buying and this is what it’s gonna cost.”
The purpose of the meetings, said Couture, is to get those boards that have already okayed the purchase of about seven acres of mall property to sign on for the full 17-acre deal.
If the sale goes through quickly, it would represent a step forward for the city’s plan to raze the mall and replace it with a recreation center, performing arts theater, fieldhouse, parking ramp and Bristol Boys and Girls Club headquarters.
It would also eliminate the problem of a new – and unwanted by project leaders – Walgreens drug store on a key corner of the property.
“We’re negotiating the deal,” said Couture. “That’s not saying we would not talk to Walgreens at a later date.”
The drug store project is in the early stages. Several applications needed for the Walgreens are scheduled to be heard by the Bristol Zoning Commission next month. They were filed jointly by Walgreens and the Gatto company.
“My proposal would not be a Walgreens on that corner,” said Couture.
The zoning applications can move forward, said the mayor, “if Gatto still owns it.”
The Bristol Development Authority, which is already meeting about community development block grant allocations at 4 p.m., couldn’t be specific about its meeting time on the mall issue in the notice posted at City Hall.
The notice said the BDA’s special meeting on the mall issue would be held after its 4 p.m. policy committee finished, “estimated to be as early as 5:30 or as late as 7 p.m.” The only item on the agenda is discussion and action on the referral from the mayor’s downtown project site and planning committee – the acquisition of the entire 17-acre mall property.
Nicastro said it isn’t right that the BDA meeting time is so vague – or that the posting wasn’t made at City Hall until 3:30 p.m. Friday, barely making it legal.
Running what could be concurrently is a special meeting of the city planning commission, which is set for 5:30 p.m. in the public works conference room. The agenda for that session is limited to talk on the mall property purchase. The planning board last year approved the purchase of six acres.
The city’s parking authority is also holding a special meeting, at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Nicastro said the heavy schedule of special meetings this week violates a promise Couture made at the last city council meeting to always have an agenda item that would help people keep track of what was happening downtown.
“The mayor announced that the purpose of that was to keep the public informed of any up and coming meetings on downtown,” said Nicastro. “Here’s three meetings taking place in less than a week of when he made that statement and the public was never notified.”
“And he’s chairman of the BDA, too,” Nicastro added. “This was never mentioned.”
But Couture said the meetings are nothing out of the ordinary. These approvals are something that the mayor’s workshop asked for awhile ago, Couture said, but boards never followed up on it.
“Everybody sort of got lackadaisical about it,” said Couture.
The site committee asked in February that several different city boards take up the question of the 17-acre purchase, said Kosta Diamantis, a Democratic state representative for Bristol who works as an attorney in Couture’s office. Diamantis said those boards included the BDA, the park board, the board of education, the parking authority and the planning commission.
Each one of the boards is meeting on the issue by Thursday, said Diamantis, with the exception of the school board.
Diamantis said the idea was to have the boards pass resolutions supporting the 17-acre purchase before March 21, when consultants for the state and city begin a week-long series of meetings with stakeholders.
“They didn’t take action in February,” Diamantis said. “It was our hope that we would have those resolutions in place” before that week of heavy involvement by the state.
The endorsement of the planning board is crucial to the project, said Diamantis.
“The planning board has already given its approval for seven acres, but we’re asking them to extend it to 17,” said Diamantis.
Couture said the approvals are nothing more than another item on the BDA’s agenda.
The purchase of the mall property would include the mall building, but also the paint store and discount grocery store on the property, said Couture. He said it would not include the Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s that abut the property and are not part of the parcel.
Diamantis said the initial plan to buy just part of the mall property – and let Gatto build on the rest – wouldn’t work.
“Our consultants have indicated that six or seven acres is not sufficient to maximize the public purpose of the project,” said Diamantis.
But Nicastro said Diamantis himself said the size of the parcel the city buys would depend on the outcome of the various studies of the site.
“Have those studies been completed?” Nicastro asked. If so, he said, the public hasn’t been notified.
The preliminary studies made public haven’t been positive on the project, the former mayor said, and instead outlined large operating costs and a poor market for retail and real estate.
“Have the finished reports come out? If they have, they haven’t shared ‘em with anybody,” said Nicastro. “Where’s the final report?”
Instead of rushing to buy the mall property, Nicastro said, city leaders ought to be in Washington, D.C. lobbying hard for money to finish the Route 72 extension. He said the city needs highway access badly.
Without a highway, said Nicastro, the theater couldn’t draw patrons and businesses can’t draw customers.
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