STAMFORD – There’s a sure path for unkempt century-old buildings in Stamford, especially when the housing market is hot and they sit on the edge of a thriving downtown where property is scarce.
They get knocked down.
And the people go with them.
Half a dozen Stamford residents spoke up for the structures, and the tenants, during a public hearing where it was decided that the 1910 brick rooming house and 1900 two-story multi-family at 41 and 45 Stillwater Ave. can go.
At the time of the hearing, the owner, Artel Properties LLC, based in Los Angeles, was seeking Zoning Board approval to replace the old structures with a 39-unit apartment building.
All the residents opposed the project, even though the developer’s attorney explained how much better the new building will be – improved heating, plumbing and electrical systems, added air conditioning, and no more vermin, said the attorney, Mario Musilli.
The site is on a hill overlooking downtown, so residents of the new building will have an amazing view, he said. There’s not much room for parking so the lot will have lifts to fit more cars, and a 24-7 valet. And the owner is considering a great use for the building – he may lease it to the downtown Stamford branch of the University of Connecticut as a student dormitory, Musilli said.
“This development will lead to a vast improvement, like other developments on the West Side,” he said. “This is a harbinger of things to come.”
It is a harbinger, said John Bowser, one of the Stamford residents who called in to the Zoning Board’s Zoom meeting. That’s the problem.
“The people who live on the West Side will not be targeted for this development. You are targeting UConn and expanding the downtown,” Bowser told the board. “This will add density and congestion. We don’t need more of that.”
It’s what’s been happening since developers became interested in the downtown-adjacent West Side, he said. The Stillwater Avenue site, for instance, is 350 yards from the edge of Mill River Park, a downtown jewel.
“Development is to the disadvantage and displacement of residents,” Bowser told the Zoning Board. “I guess the word is gentrification.”
His sister, Cynthia Bowser, said developers are not looking at overcrowding on the curvy, narrow streets of the West Side. Artel Properties got a zoning change that will allow 39 units in the new building when the old buildings had a total of 17, Cynthia Bowser said.
“The board already approved (two projects) that will add a total of 110 units within 500 feet of this,” she said. “Where is the concern for the West Side? You are talking about the people in your building who will get a wonderful view, while the views for people on the West Side have been encroached. We are not opposed to progress. All we are asking for is equity.”
The West Side is one of the neighborhoods where the city’s newest immigrants have made their homes since 41 and 45 Stillwater Ave. were built – African Americans who migrated from the South, Italians, and now Latinos from many countries.
The poverty rate in the area is 20 percent, a point at which communities begin to struggle, said Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, a group that works on legislation to increase the amount of affordable housing in Connecticut.
“It’s fine for new housing to come into a neighborhood, as long as there isn’t displacement,” Boggs said. “There is an absolute need for more affordable units all across the state. We are in a housing crisis.”
In the 39-unit Stillwater Avenue project, the city requires that five be “affordable” for renters earning no more than 50 percent of the Area Median Income. In Stamford, that’s $53,000 for an individual and $76,000 for a family of four.
But many in the neighborhood earn far less than that. They need “deeply affordable” units, but those are hard to find. A recent study found that Connecticut is short 86,000 deeply affordable rental units, and one-third of the need is in Fairfield County.
“What’s happening in Stamford is for developers, not for working families and children,” Yazmin Iglesias told the Zoning Board.
“Put something there to build the community up,” West Side resident Debbie Joiner said.
Zoning Board members voted to approve the Artel project – there was no legal reason to do otherwise – but the calls for attention to neighborhood needs were not ignored.
The board attached a condition to its approval of the Stillwater Avenue project.
Acknowledging that the tenants will have a difficult time finding apartments for rents as low as what they pay at the old buildings, board members gave Artel Properties 45 days to provide a plan for how they will help tenants relocate.
“It was the first time, to my knowledge, that the Zoning Board asked for a relocation plan,” said Ralph Blessing, chief of the city’s Land Use Bureau.
When the developer did not come up with a plan within the deadline and issued tenants a notice to quit their leases, zoning officials stepped in.
“We had the property owner post another notice Saturday saying the quit notice is null and void until there is a relocation assistance plan,” Blessing said. “The owner cannot get a demolition or building permit until that requirement is met.”
It’s evidence of the struggle residents tried to convey during the Zoning Board meeting.
“At the end of the day, development is not to the benefit of the local people,” John Bowser said.