Costs Mount As State Decides The Future Of Seaside Park In Waterford [Courant]

October 13, 2015

Hartford Courant

WATERFORD — A rusting, vine-covered swing set sits forlornly on a lawn at what is the first new beachfront state park in 50 years. Just beyond, a 2,000-foot seawall running the length of the property on Long Island Sound is crumbling.

Fences are going up to protect the historic, but now derelict, buildings that once housed the Seaside Sanatorium for children with tuberculosis. The facility was later used to serve children and adults with developmental disabilities.

There are broken windows everywhere. Graffiti covers walls inside and out. State workers are trying to deal with safety issues, invasive plants, mold problems and water damage from nearly 20 years of neglect at a site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Either saving the buildings or tearing them down is certain to cost millions — possibly tens of millions — of dollars. Simply repairing the breaks in the seawall is expected to run the state $2 million, said Susan Whalen, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

So far, state spending on the Seaside State Park project totals more than $520,000 for engineering and feasibility studies, planning and preliminary safety and preservation work, according to state officials. A new consultant has just been hired, for $35,000, to prepare a market study of how the buildings at Seaside could be reused.

No one really knows yet what the final tab for the park might be or where the money would come from in a state facing years of potential deficits. Even staffing and maintaining Seaside Park, which is already open to the public, could be a problem for a short-handed state park system.

$20 Million Lawsuit

There’s another potential problem. The developer who wanted to buy the property for $8 million is seeking to sue the state. Mark Steiner, who worked for years on his plan for a high-end, $200 million complex featuring an inn, restaurant and housing at Seaside, claims that Gov. Dannel Malloy unfairly halted the project.

Social-service advocates had supported Steiner’s idea because, under state law, the $8 million the state would get from the sale would be dedicated to the community that the property once served, in this case, children and adults with disabilities.

Steiner has filed a notice with the state claims commissioner’s office seeking permission to pursue a $20 million lawsuit for canceling his development contract. The state attorney general’s office has until Jan. 4 to respond to Steiner’s filing, but such claims cases often drag on for years and could delay any major plans for the new park.

Malloy’s critics claim his decision a year ago to create the park was just a ploy to gain popularity during his re-election campaign. It’s a charge Malloy has shrugged off, saying the creation of a new park on Long Island Sound is a chance “to allow the people of Connecticut to enjoy its natural beauty for generations.”

Whalen said being able to open a new park on the Sound is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. … Yes, budgets are tight, but this opportunity may not come around again,” she said.

Many of the people who live near Seaside or come to walk along its quiet beachfront lawns are simply happy the state decided not to sell the property to a developer.

“I like the fact that it will be in state hands,” Ruth Menghi said one bright autumn afternoon last week. Menghi grew up in Waterford and now lives in New London, but she comes to Seaside at least once a week to walk her two dogs.

“I always told my husband that, if he ever won the lottery, I’d make him buy this place,” Menghi said with a laugh.

“We’re going with the flow now,” said Kathy Jacques, a real estate agent and resident who was one of the most vocal opponents of a commercial sale of Seaside. Jacques isn’t concerned about the potential costs associated with creating the new park.

“It’s not a dollar issue,” she said. “It’s a long-term beauty issue.”

Mounting Costs

But the long-term cost of developing and maintaining the park has become a political issue. “I can’t understand how the state can take on a project this expensive,” said Senate’s Republican leader Leonard Fasano of North Haven.

“We cannot afford this park — it’s just insane. … Our state parks are suffering now [from lack of funding], and we don’t have the money,” Fasano said.

As of last week, state spending on Seaside included $80,000 to remove an old storage building and $61,500 for an evaluation of the cost of demolition expenses.

The tab for an analysis of the deteriorating seawall was $28,000, and fencing around the main buildings and parking areas is expected to run $65,700, state officials said.

Meanwhile, the state recently announced that it will spend at least $35,000, and possibly as much as $80,000, on a new consultant to perform “an analysis of the economic viability and market demand” for using the park buildings as a hotel, inn, education center, museum or research institute. Those were some of the options identified in the Seaside Park master plan that has already cost $250,000.

Whalen said the decision to seek an economic analysis of possible uses for the historic buildings came in response to comments at public hearings.

“Clearly there was strong interest in evaluating adaptive reuse of the buildings,” Whalen said. “So that’s what we’re doing.”

One option would be to turn the property into a “destination park” that could cost between $46 million and $60 million, according to the state plan.

The major buildings on site were designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. The alternative would be to tear down the 1930s-era structures, which have 173,000 square feet of space.

Whalen said engineering consultants believe all the buildings could be removed for $1.2 million. Daniel Steward, Waterford’s first selectman, said town officials estimated several years ago that demolition would cost millions of dollars more than what the state is now projecting.

The state’s master plan includes two options that involve removal of all the major buildings. One envisions a passive park for walking and picnicking at a cost of $3.2 million, and a second would create an “ecological park” that would require spending between $10.5 million and $24.1 million.

From TB To Disabilities

The 32-acre tuberculosis sanatorium was opened in 1930 and served patients suffering from the disease until 1958. The buildings were converted to a geriatric hospital, and then, in 1961, became the Seaside Regional Center for the Mentally Retarded. The center closed in 1996.

The multistory, brick hospital building, with its turrets and balconies, has a look that mixes the style of an oceanfront resort and a fortress. The other major buildings include a former nurses’ dormitory, and a “duplex building” that housed administrative offices.

Stretches of sandy beach lie on the other side of the seawall, and cormorants sit on the rocks of the stone breakwaters watching over the ferries running from New London to Orient Point.

Steward still sounds unhappy about losing millions of dollars in revenue to Waterford’s tax rolls that could have come from the commercial development of Seaside. He said he’s now more concerned about the state’s financial ability to do what needs to be done to develop the park and maintain it.

“There has to be some financial backing for whatever they do,” he said.

There were DEEP workers at Seaside last week, on temporary loan from Harkness Memorial State Park just down the road and from Fort Trumbull State Park in New London. Charlie Luxton, 69, is a seasonal park employee assigned to Harkness for the past seven years. He and workers from Fort Trumbull were pruning bushes and removing invasive plants that had grown up over the years.

“It’s a gorgeous place,” said Luxton, a Waterford resident whose wife once worked as a special education aide at Seaside in the 1970s. “Everybody’s hurting,” Luxton admitted when asked about staff shortages at state parks.

Whalen said there’s no way to know what Seaside’s long-term staffing needs will be until its development is decided. For now, she said, park workers are “being moved around to accomplish priority tasks.”

“We haven’t looked at it yet,” Karl Wagener, executive director of the state Council on Environmental Quality, said of the issue of paying for Seaside. “I don’t know where the money is going to come from.”

But Wagener said he doesn’t believe the costs of creating Seaside State Park should be a roadblock, pointing out that the state routinely uses bond money for all kinds of big-ticket infrastructure projects.

“It’s a fraction of what the state spends on a new bridge or paving a highway,” Wagener said. “In the grand scheme of state spending, it doesn’t seem insurmountable.”