With approximately 40 construction, remediation and/or revitalization projects either starting or already underway, Bridgeport’s new director of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development (OPED) clearly has his work cut out
Fortunately, Thomas F. Gill — who began in that post July 18 — is something of a reclamation himself, having previously served as the city’s OPED director from 1976 to 1982.
“The scope is obviously broader,” Gill said. “There are more departments now under the office of planning and economic development. But the goal is the same — bringing to fruition more projects, creating and retaining jobs, increasing the tax base and lessening the tax burden on Bridgeport residents.”
After leaving the OPED in the early ‘80s, Gill helped found the Fairfield First Bank & Trust Company and served as president, CEO and a member of the board of directors. In 1994, he was one of the three founding principals of Bridgeport-based Black Rock Capital LLC, the full-service commercial equipment finance company serving small- to middle-market companies in the U.S. and Canada.
“When this opportunity became available, I saw it as something I could add my years of experience to,” Gill said, “not only in terms of business but from previously working in the city environment. I’ve worked with regulators and state and federal agencies and having lived in Bridgeport my whole life, I have a passion to see Bridgeport continue to grow.”
One of the city’s top priorities is Steelpointe Harbor, the $750 million, 54-acre mixed-use project overlooking Bridgeport Harbor and Long Island Sound. The project’s first phase, which opened last fall, includes a 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shop, as well as a Starbucks, Chipotle and T-Mobile.
Last month, the city sold the remaining two pieces of land at Steelpointe Harbor for $2,086,600 to developer Bridgeport Landing Development (BLD), clearing the way for the start of the project’s fifth and final phase.
“The completion of this sale is a huge energy boost for the development and the Bridgeport waterfront,” said Mayor Joe Ganim. “This not only helps the city treasury, but it provides much needed momentum to attracting further economic development and investment in our city, which will also expand our tax base for years to come. This project is a perfect fit for a powerful revitalization of Bridgeport’s East Side.”
Once completed, Steelpointe will include more than 750,000 square feet of specialty and outlet retail; a 12-screen Cinépolis movie theater, five of which will feature in-theater waiter service and a full bar; a 120-key Hampton Inn and Suites; 1,000 to 1,500 mid and high-rise residential units, Class A office space and a 200-slip, full-service, deep-water marina.
Construction is currently taking place on phase two of the land that borders Long Island Sound, with utility lines being installed and building foundations being raised 9 to 14 feet above sea level in accordance with new federal flood protection regulations. BLD plans to begin construction of the high-rise buildings in 2017.
When the entire project will be wrapped remains an open question. “It’s now totally in control of Bridgeport Landing Development, so from a timing perspective it’s their call,” Gill said.
Another major project is Cherry Street, which he described as “a block of industrial buildings along the I-95 corridor that we are developing into housing to begin to change the visual effect of older buildings.”
The first phase of that undertaking is now underway, with a six-building complex on the street being turned into Cherry Street Lofts, which will ultimately include more than 300 apartments, a grocery store and a relocated Great Oaks Charter School, which currently stands at 510 Barnum Ave.
In addition, U-Haul is in the midst of renovating a former factory at 365 Cherry St. into a roughly 80,000-square-foot space that will include nearly 1,000 self-storage units.
Both Cherry Street and the “Downtown North” project are particular priorities, Gill said, as they are among the most visible parts of the city from highways and upon first entering Bridgeport.
“The work that has been done in transforming downtown is working towards North Main Street, which is an area that certainly has needed to be developed for some time,” he declared. “If you enter the city by the Route 8 connector, it’s the first visual you have of the town and it may not give you a clear understanding of what’s really happening.”
Downtown North has been particularly challenging, as it involves repurposing existing buildings — some more than 100 years old — rather than simply razing them and putting up new edifices. For example, the four-story Jayson Building at 179 Middle St., built in 1893, and the five-story Newfield Building at 1184 Main St., built in 1910, are being joined together as Jayson-Newfield, which will house 104 apartments and 8,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
It’s all part of maintaining Bridgeport’s history as an industrial hub while simultaneously modernizing it to attract businesses and visitors alike, Gill said. “It’s not like simply going out, finding a property and starting to construct new buildings,” he remarked. “This is about rehabbing older structures, remediating issues and remodeling instead of putting up new buildings.
“Fortunately we have attracted a lot of investment and something like that becomes contagious,” he added. “When people see what’s going on it tends to attract other people.”
As evidence, he pointed to the recent signing by Darien Rowayton Bank of a six-year lease for the renovated 12,000-square-foot space at 855 Main St. Meanwhile, Westport Property Management recently oversaw the demolition of long-vacant factory buildings at 60 Main St. and plans to put up apartment buildings and a marina.
Gill said he has been “very pleasantly surprised” by the overall spirit permeating Bridgeport. “The business community has reached out, people currently working on projects have reached out … It’s a really supportive network,” he said.
“Bridgeport has plenty of opportunity in terms of housing, commercial, industrial, retail and the arts,” he continued. “We have tremendous assets, a tremendous waterfront, a great transportation network. Additionally, we have a diverse culture of people and wonderful neighborhoods.
“I would characterize myself as being extremely positive about the city’s prospects,” Gill concluded.