Looming trial over Hartford's minor league ballpark has high stakes for city, fired developer
The tortured construction of Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park — marked by soaring costs for the city, the firing of the developer and a year delay in opening — has receded a bit in memory as the ballpark and its home team, the Yard Goats, host a third season, drawing fans even during a particularly rainy spring.
But past troubles that dogged the ballpark, and the prospect for future development around the 6,000-seat stadium, are about to jump to front of mind again.
This week, a trial is expected to get underway in Superior Court in Hartford over a lawsuit by the former developer, Centerplan Construction Co. and DoNo Hartford LLC. Centerplan, seeking damages of $90 million, argues it was improperly fired in 2016 from the ballpark project, and later, from planned apartment, retail and other development on parcels surrounding the stadium.
"The downside of getting a big penalty is very large," said Andrew Walsh, a professor of urban studies at Trinity College in Hartford. "This year's budget cycle for the first time in many years is not so tough because of the adjustments made at the end of the Malloy administration. But if that goes south, it will be a bad scene."
A controversial state bailout bolstered Hartford's finances to the tune of $550 million, and a one-time, $20 million subsidy to close a year-end budget gap. City leaders say Hartford's municipal finances are on the way to stability when just a year ago bankruptcy was on the table.
Although Dunkin' Donuts Park is in full operation, Centerplan has placed liens on the surrounding parcels, effectively blocking development even as the city has identified another developer willing to take over the project.
The future of the area surrounding the ballpark, devastated when I-84 was built in the late 1960s, is equally important, Walsh said. The highway severed downtown from the city's northern neighborhoods, and there has never been a recovery, he said. The city envisioned a mixed-use development knitting the two sections of the city back together again, an area known as Downtown North.
"What you've got here is a redevelopment that has been stalled really since the 1950s," Walsh said. "It's very high stakes for the neighborhood and any possibility of improving the life of the neighborhood, and that goes all the way to including whether they get a decent grocery store there and other sorts of things that are tied to this development."
The surrounding development also was supposed to generate tax revenue to help pay for the ballpark. And future appeals of decisions rendered in the trial could drag out the dispute for years.
Centerplan declined to comment for this story.
The city was under intense time constraints to build the ballpark right from June 2014, when it was announced the then-New Britain Rock Cats would relocate to Hartford, wooed by the promise of a new stadium. The team and New Britain had a lease that ran through December 2015, so they would need a new place to play beginning in April 2016.
In September, Centerplan was chosen as developer for the stadium and surrounding parcels, one of just two applicants for the job. Ground was broken in February 2015 with a target completion date of March 11, 2016, in time for a home opener on April 17. The timetable was ambitious, considering Centerplan had never built a baseball stadium before.
Trouble surfaced at the end of the year. It had become clear that the scheduled completion and the budget of $56 million would not be met, and in January the city and the developers reached a new agreement. The city, the team and the developers agreed to a new price of $63 million, with funding to come from the city, the developers and the team, and set a new substantial completion date of May 17, with a home opener scheduled for May 31.
Construction costs for the ballpark eventually jumped from an initial $56 million to $71 million.
The new agreement included construction milestones for the developers to meet. The first, in early March, was met, but several subsequent ones were missed, raising concern among city officials. In early May, city officials expressed skepticism that the deadline for "substantial completion" would be met, but DoNo Hartford principal Jason Rudnick told The Courant "We have every intention of meeting every one of our contractual obligations."
Two weeks later, the developers would miss the May 17 deadline to hand the ballpark over to the team.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has consistently pointed out that the ballpark was started under the previous administration of Mayor Pedro E. Segarra. But it was Bronin who made the decision to fire Centerplan from both the ballpark, after the developer missed key deadlines, and later from developing the surrounding parcels.
Jury selection begins on Monday, with the trial following. The trial was initially expected to start in September but was moved up twice over the objections of the city. The city had pushed in a court hearing to have the liens lifted so the city could proceed with development with Bronin testifying the city could no longer work with Centerplan given the history. The move did not result in any resolution.
Instead, Judge Thomas Moukawsher said the trial should start sooner rather than later because both sides have told the court that resolving the issue is a matter of "great urgency."
The trial comes at a vulnerable time for Bronin, who is in the midst of seeking a second term as mayor. The trial will likely dissect his administration's decision-making around the stadium, one of the biggest issues of Bronin's first term.
Centerplan fights for reputation
The stakes are equally high for Centerplan, whose business has been curtailed by the fallout from its 2016 firing in Hartford, a damaged reputation and subsequent legal battles.
Centerplan also is on the hook for $39 million a judge ordered be repaid to Arch Insurance, the company that guaranteed completion of the stadium. Arch subsequently oversaw the project until its opening in March 2017, hiring Whiting-Turner Construction Co.
After Centerplan's dismissal in June 2016, Dunkin' Donuts Park architect Pendulum Studio, based in Kansas City, Mo., compiled a 344-page construction status report that painted a bleak picture of workmanship and attention to detail in the stalled project.
The report, dated Sept. 5, 2016, showed problems in many areas of the ballpark that Centerplan officials had asserted were more than 90 percent complete when they missed a second deadline to hand it over to the team.
Among the report's findings were: cracking stairs; honeycombing and chipping concrete; improperly poured concourse slabs that invited pooling water; clogged and improperly installed drains; large amounts of sealant being used to close gaps; and daylight at the intersection of exposed joints.
Centerplan disputed the report, calling it a "whitewash for poor design services that led to the conditions described," and saying that Pendulum had certified that construction had been completed in an acceptable manner and approved payments.
On the eve of the trial, lawyers for both sides have been busy filing last minute motions to exclude certain testimony.
Centerplan attorneys also want Moukawsher to preclude the city from using the phrases "Ponzi scheme," "house of cards" or similar derogatory statements when describing the company to jurors or to witnesses. The lawyers argued that the city has made statements to that effect about Centerplan during litigation and that it would be prejudicial to their case.
On the city side, lawyers have asked for any references to mediation prior to termination, which is included in Centerplan's original agreement with the city, to be excluded. They argue that the original agreement became null and void when they entered into a new agreement in January 2016 and that the new agreement carried no provisions for mediation prior to termination.
Developer ready to step in
Earlier this spring, the city reached a development agreement for the first phase of Downtown North with a different firm, Stamford-based RMS Cos.
RMS hopes to build a $46 million development of 200 mixed-income apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail and community space, and a parking garage of about 250 spaces on what is known as "Parcel C," located behind the Red Lion Hotel. After completing that 200,000-square-foot mixed-use project, RMS owner Randy Salvatore could continue with the rest of the 13-acre planned development, which would add 800 apartments, 60,000 square feet of retail space and 2,000 parking spaces around the ballpark.
Salvatore originally said he could begin work May 1, but the city has been slow to greenlight his plans in light of the ongoing legal battle over the parcels. Salvatore now says he could start construction by the end of year, assuming all legal issues are resolved, and complete construction by fall 2020.
"It is important that we resolve this issue once and for all expeditiously," Council President Glendowlyn Thames said Friday. "The city has a developer in play, and we can't afford to be hampered by lengthy, complex litigation. It would have a profound impact on our ongoing economic development momentum efforts."
"I am hopeful the court will weigh all these factors when determining the best path forward for the capital city."
Courant staff writer Rebecca Lurye contributed to this story.