Despite some last-minute questions from City Councilor Mike Buscetto III, the council voted 7-0 Monday night to award an $8.6 million contract to start work on a massive overhaul of the public space known as the Parade plaza.
The city and downtown organizations have been planning the project, whose cost has increased to $10.8 million, for the past three years. And plans to upgrade the Parade have been suggested in downtown revitalization studies going back nearly 20 years.
The overhaul of the Parade will be the downtown's largest public-improvement project since the $19 million creation of the Waterfront Park, which opened in 2001.
The project would flatten the grassy berm that now confronts many visitors to the city and blocks the sight line for drivers turning from lower State Street onto Water Street. Crosswalk signals connecting the Parade to the area in front of Union Station will be synchronized with the traffic signal at Bank Street.
The project reverses the early-1970s redesign of the plaza that raised the area above street level and created the above-ground walkway leading to the elevator tower of the Water Street parking garage. The walkway would be eliminated, the garage's tower would be rebuilt and the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse moved to another location.
The council awarded the construction contract to low bidder Haynes Construction Co. of Seymour, though with conditions.
Buscetto proposed that the council say that the Parade project, when completed, "will not limit options" that come out of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government's ongoing, year-long study into how to better link the city's varied transportation sources. The council agreed to that.
"The last thing I want to vote for is something that we built it, (and) we have to go back and rip something up," said Buscetto, who added he believed "the smartest thing to do" would be to delay the Parade work until the transit study is finished.
In another approved condition, Buscetto proposed that Haynes agree to an ordinance the council created in June that requires contractors to make a "good faith effort" to employ 25 percent of their workers from New London County, with half of that local workforce coming from the city.
Councilor Margaret M. Curtin also asked that the council closely supervise the project, which is being mostly funded through about $10 million in state and federal grants. The city's share of the project, which city officials have said is budgeted, is estimated to be about $850,000.
If the council had rejected the project, the city would have had to repay the state Department of Transportation about $850,000 it has already spent on the project's design work, said City Manager Martin H. Berliner, responding to a question that Buscetto has repeatedly asked over the past couple months.
"Right now, the city of New London is put into a position where we have to pay $850,000 whether we do it or not?" Buscetto said.