New Haven, state DOT wrangle over Union Station control

The proposed new garage at Union Station in New Haven.

Connecticut wants New Haven to run Union Station for three to five more years — then maybe have someone else run it. Mayor Toni Harp’s administration argues that it has earned the right to run the place indefinitely.

Those conflicting positions hover over current negotiations over management of the train station.

New Haven’s 35-year lease to manage the station — which the state Department of Transportation (DOT) owns — expires at the end of 2017. The city’s parking authority (aka “Park New Haven”), not the city government itself, has that lease.

DOT is seeking to extend the lease another three years, with two one-year renewal options. That’s because it is building a second garage on the site, and wants to concentrate on that without having to deal with changes in management.

Mayor Harp said her team is telling the state it wants longer-term control as it proceeds with economic development plans in which the station plays an integral role.

“We want to actually own it,” she said during her latest appearance on WNHH radio’s “Mayor Monday” program. “We believe that we have had possession of it for the past 35 years. And there was a point in time when the state didn’t want it. And that was before it was profitable. Now that we’ve made it profitable, they’re sort of saying, ‘We want it back. We want to control it.’”

DOT Commissioner James Redeker said in an interview that once the second garage is built, “we’re contemplating a competitive procurement for a service provider or providers.” Meaning management would go out to bid for all or different portions of the facility.

By that time, the DOT will have moved its offices from an upper floor of Union Station to a new maintenance facility across the tracks. So new space will open up to market and rent. Other management duties include leasing food and other commercial spaces on the first and lower floors; keeping the place clean; and maintaining the tracks.

New Haven’s Matthew Nemerson: We’ve earned it.

City Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson argued that the parking authority has earned the right to keep running the station. The state has owned the station since the previous owner, Penn Central Railroad, went bankrupt in the late 1970s. But it has never managed the station, Nemerson noted. New Haven has, and done it well, running a surplus in recent years that goes back into maintaining the facility.

“We don’t think it’s right after 35 years to put this out to bid. We think it should stay within the family. That really was the deal we got into with the state 35 years ago. It wasn’t just a business deal. It was a very close partnership,” Nemerson argued.

Nemerson said that the contract provides 20 percent or more of Park New Haven’s overhead, so losing the contract would damage the organization. Park New Haven still manages to run the place at no higher cost than do larger outside firms, Nemerson said.

He said he worries that without local management of the station, surplus revenue would go to other stations in the state rather than stay here.

New Haven has been pursuing “transit-oriented development,” building apartments and stores and offices near train and bus lines. That’s another reason keeping control of the train station’s development matters so much to City Hall.

“The train stations in this day and age — and it’s going to become more and more so — are the gateways to cities. If you go to Philadelphia or you go to New York or you go to Boston or you go to Washington, the train station has become synonymous with the front door of the city. It’s where the visitor centers are. It’s where the marketing approach of the city is rolled out,” Nemerson said. “Cities and train stations in this day and age are intractably linked.”

That second garage

Meanwhile, negotiations over the design and control of that second garage have also produced some state-city friction.

After decades of false starts, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration last year announced plans to build a $40 million to $60 million, 1,000-space, seven-level garage on a current 260-space surface lot next to the perpetually full existing garage. New Haven activists and officials, after years of seeking that garage, rose up in opposition to the design. They demanded it include better bike storage facilities, first-floor retail, preservation of trees, a pedestrian bridge to Long Wharf, and a depot to replace the Green as the main switching point for CT Transit buses. Gov. Malloy responded in August: Take it or leave it.

Redeker said that since then, the state and city have engaged in fruitful discussions to tweak the design. He said he hopes to see construction begin in 2018 and finish in 2020.

“We’re nowhere near a place that we’re ready to say that we feel comfortable with the final design,” Nemerson said of the discussions. “But if we’re still in conversation with them, we’re happy. We have some serious concerns about some of the theories behind the garage. We believe that the train station as a community with restaurants and waitings areas is very important. We don’t know if it’s a great idea to let people go directly from the garage to the streets.”

And, he added, the city, not the state, should own and manage that new garage. Another point of contention with the state.

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