A proposal to convert an aging community center into an affordable housing complex has hit another snag in Stamford.
It’s happening despite a push from Hartford to create more housing in Connecticut, and a push from Mayor Caroline Simmons to create more of it in Stamford.
City representatives and citizens who spoke during a public hearing Tuesday night made the case that some things are more important than building an ever-greater number of housing units.
Like a community center.
Everyone understands the need for reasonably priced housing, Stamford resident Joe Avalos said during a virtual meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Legislative & Rules Committee, which was to vote on a proposal submitted by Simmons to sell the Glenbrook Community Center to a developer to build 51 affordable units.
But “we also have to take care of our population,” said Avalos, who attended some of the many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that were held at the center.
“It had programs for youth, for seniors, for people in recovery. It had social activities, sing-alongs, Christmas tree lightings,” Avalos said. “It saved my life. It saved a lot of lives. This affordable housing project will help about 200 people … the community center was serving about 20,000 people. … We have to stop turning everything over to privatization and letting developers make money on the City of Stamford.”
The apartments cannot be offered to Stamford residents only, according to information provided by Simmons’ office. Stamford has been credited with building most of the affordable units that have come on the market in Fairfield County in the last decade.
Several callers referenced the increasing need for mental health and addiction services, which were offered at the center.
Stamford resident Christopher Twardy said he’s “all for affordable housing.” But creating it by eliminating the services provided by a community center – day care, after-school programs, dances, sports, social services – is “appalling,” Twardy said.
“You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
Stamford resident Alan Shaw called in to say it makes no sense that the Simmons administration wants to sell Glenbrook Community Center, given the recent history of two other centers in Stamford.
Four years ago the administration of former Mayor David Martin threatened to close the Lathon Wider Community Center because the city did not have $87,000 to pay custodians. But residents rallied and the city came up with the money.
Last year the Stamford Police Department’s Police Activities League won a $125,000 federal grant to set up programs at the Chester Addison Community Center, where the city’s public library just opened its first new branch in 20 years.
“We’re clearly realizing that communities need community centers,” Shaw said. “This project will add more people to the community, so more services will be needed, but you want to take away the place that provides the services. I’m pro-business and pro-development in general, but this is a bad move for the neighborhood.”
Simmons called in to the meeting to defend her proposal, which is to sell the center at 35 Crescent St. to developer JHM Group and builder Viking Construction to convert the 80-year-old building into apartments.
The apartments are needed at a time “when rents are skyrocketing,” Simmons said.
“To remain competitive, we need workforce housing,” Simmons said.
Terms of the proposal include preserving the building’s historic stone facade and creating community space, although the amount Tuesday was unclear.
The Planning Board approved the sale of the community center, which was closed during COVID two years ago. But the Board of Finance at first rejected it, saying the price, $700,000, is far too little, given that the building could fetch about $2 million on the market. The finance board approved the sale when it was presented a second time.
Under the proposal, the developer would build $5.3 million worth of affordable units. They would be offered to tenants earning between 40 percent and 80 percent of the area median income for the Stamford area, which is $180,900 for a family of four.
Rents for a studio apartment would range from $1,080 to $1,729 a month, depending on income. Rents for a one-bedroom apartment would range from $1,121 to 1,815; and rents for a two-bedroom apartment would range from $1,331 to $2,164.
Based on the figures set out in the proposal, the developer would collect more than $1 million a year in rent for all 51 units.
Several residents called into the meeting to support selling the community center to the developer.
“The issue of affordable housing is really paramount in Connecticut, particularly Fairfield County and Stamford, which has many above-market rate rental properties,” Scott Hollas said. “I think we have a social responsibility … to offer affordable housing.”
Joan Carty, president and CEO of the Housing Development Fund in Stamford, said it’s important for a city to offer housing choices at different prices. The need in Stamford is “dramatic,” Carty said.
People earning 40 percent of the area median income work at jobs that include child-care providers, and those who earn 50 percent include “state and city government employees, librarians, dental hygienists, and many others who are priced out of the community,” Carty said.
Marie Metz, president of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association, said she supports the sale of the community center because it will provide mixed-income affordable housing, preserve the facade, return the property to the tax rolls, and “provide an economic boost to small businesses.”
But two members of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association board, Laurie Doig and Lori Constantine, said they withdrew their support for the affordable housing project after learning shortly before the meeting that two potential buyers have proposals that would keep the building as a community center.
“The public should be able to review the two new proposals,” Constantine said. “We may end up with the original proposal, and that would be OK if we have a thorough review of all the options.”
City Rep. Nina Sherwood said the potential buyers did not submit proposals because the city put out a request for developers who would convert the building into affordable apartments.
“The administration gave us two choices – affordable housing or leave the building vacant,” city Rep. Megan Cottrell said. “The city did not seriously entertain proposals to keep it as a community center.”
Director of Administration Sandy Dennies said the Martin administration put out a request for community center operators in 2018. A dozen nonprofit organizations walked through the building and concluded they could not afford to make all the renovations, Dennies said.
“We need to make a better effort,” Cottrell said.
City Rep. Sean Boeger agreed.
“All the city did was approach the nonprofits. Of course they don’t have money to fix it,” Boeger said. “We let it fall into disrepair … and now we’re going to say it’s a relic so let’s sell it.”
Simmons reiterated that the project will include community space, and said the developer told her it could be up to 3,600 square feet, though the proposal says 1,000 to 2,000 square feet.
Most of that space will be for the daycare the developer proposed, Cottrell said.
“There is no community space. The space that’s been proposed is the space the developer would rent to a daycare provider to earn money,” Cottrell said. “We need to stop acting like there will be community space.”
Committee members ultimately voted 4-3 to oppose sale of the community center to the developer. It goes before the full Board of Representatives Sept. 6.