STAMFORD – Just before the start of Tuesday night’s Board of Representatives meeting, Bridget Fox, chief of staff to Mayor Caroline Simmons, sent the members a note.
Simmons did not want them to hold an item on that night’s agenda – sale of the Glenbrook Community Center to a developer to build affordable housing, Fox wrote.
“We have been made aware of some last-minute confusion on this, and wanted the administration’s stance to be explicitly clear,” Fox wrote.
Then the board met and voted 21-18 to hold the sale.
That vote sets up a showdown between Simmons, who has been in office for nine months, and Stamford’s 40-member lawmaking body. It’s no surprise that the issue is affordable housing – the hottest topic in Connecticut.
What’s notable, however, is that the battle is about Glenbrook, a dense neighborhood of modest single- and multi-family homes, small businesses, and busy streets, with Metro-North Railroad running through it.
Residents say rents in the small apartment buildings around the community center are less than the rents proposed for the project.
Noteworthy, too, is that the clash is happening in Stamford, which in the last decade has created most of the affordable units in the region. The city has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a Below Market Rate program, a Section 8 program, and a mandate that 10 percent of units in new housing projects be designated affordable.
Because of that, Stamford is not subject to the state’s 8-30g law, which allows developers to skirt zoning regulations if they build affordable units in towns that have too few. The law is sparking heated disputes statewide.
Still, there is a housing flap in Glenbrook.
In an email to city representatives shortly before their meeting, Simmons wrote: “This vote is about affordable housing. As elected leaders in this city, we have an obligation to ensure that residents and those who work in our community have access to high-quality affordable housing.”
Letters to the board show Glenbrook residents don’t accept her premise.
The vote is not about affordable housing, Katherine Zeman wrote. It’s about a community center.
The Glenbrook center operated in an aging school building at 35 Crescent St. for decades. It housed after-school programs, sports and dance programs, child care, senior-citizen meetings and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, social services, and social events. It closed in 2019 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I get that affordable housing is something that we need, but we need a community center more,” Zeman wrote.
Simmons made another point in her email that some residents and representatives don’t accept. She said selling the building to the developing team of JHM Group and Viking Construction is the only choice.
“It will cost the buyer approximately $23 million” to renovate it, and “no other proposal has demonstrated the level of funding needed to revitalize this building,” Simmons wrote.
That’s because other ideas were not given a chance, according to a letter from three members of the board of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association – Lori Constantine, Laurie Doig and Zdenka Zeman.
“The city has entertained only developers who were interested in providing housing at this site. They did not request formal proposals from organizations who would be open to operating … a community center,” they wrote. “If all you ask for is housing, that’s all you’ll get. The city has created a self-fulfilling prophecy and tells us that’s all there is. This is disingenuous at best, dishonesty at worst.”
The neighborhood association board “initially unanimously supported the mayor’s proposal for housing because we were told that that was the only option,” the members wrote. “However, as soon as there was a glimmer of hope to actually save our community center, eight out of ten board members revoked their support for the mayor’s proposal.”
The “glimmer of hope” was the revelation of two proposals to keep the community center open. Simmons said neither proposal is “financially viable.”
Not true, said James D’Agostino of Stamford, a business owner, engineer and real estate investor who proposed renovating the center, moving his 23-employee IT company to the fourth floor and a community day-care center on the first two floors.
D’Agostino wrote in a letter to city representatives that he would keep the gymnasium and the third floor for community use, which is more than the 3,000 square feet of public space plus 1,300 square feet of tenant space that the developer proposed after pushback from representatives and residents.
“I want to be on the record that I am open to adding affordable housing to our vision should I be allowed to submit a formal bid,” wrote D’Agostino, who attended Glenbrook Community Center programs as a boy.
He said he can fund his proposal.
“I want to make it clear that interested buyers such as myself have not been given a chance to put forth formal proposals,” D’Agostino wrote.
JHM Group and Viking Construction proposed paying the city $700,000 for the building, valued at $1.8 million. The partners say the city will get the benefit of 51 affordable units that will be worth $5.3 million.
A calculation by CT Examiner shows the developer would earn more than $1 million a year from rents.
According to the city’s purchase and sale agreement, the deal is contingent on the developer obtaining below-market-rate loans and/or grants from public sources, including the Connecticut Department of Housing, and by obtaining low-income housing tax credits from the Connecticut Housing Finance Agency.
Simmons, and residents who wrote in support of the affordable housing proposal, emphasized the pressing need for “workforce housing.”
But in a Frequently Asked Questions note to representatives, Simmons’ staff acknowledged that residency in the project cannot be limited to those who live or work in Stamford.
“Eligibility will be determined by income and household size,” the fact sheet states. “The developers have used a lottery system for other properties they own to ensure that the process is fair.”
Simmons’ email to city representatives made one other point that stirred contention.
“Due to the capital investment this property would require, including the ongoing operating costs, the leadership of the Board of Finance has confirmed to my office that they would not approve a plan to reestablish this site as a community center,” the mayor wrote.
But the Board of Finance did not discuss the costs, member J.R. McMullen said.
“There was no discussion on the board about anything but this being affordable housing,” McMullen said. “I think it’s unfair to say there’s no way the board would support a community center when there is a 20-year history of us supporting one in Glenbrook.”
The city supports multiple community groups, McMullen said. SoundWaters, an environmental education organization, recently received several million dollars to reconfigure Boccuzzi Park, he said.
The 2022-23 city budget shows a $225,000 allocation to the Boys & Girls Club; $144,450 for the Mary C. Rich Clubhouse Teen Center; and $1.3 million for the Stamford Museum and Nature Center.
The reason for Simmons’ determination to sell the community center, and not build affordable units elsewhere, is unclear. A request for comment from Simmons spokeswoman Lauren Meyer was not returned.
McMullen, a Republican, said Simmons, a Democrat, is sticking to her playbook.
“This is part of the mayor’s legacy in Stamford. She voted to blow up local control of zoning,” he said of Simmons, who as a state representative supported a law that allows accessory apartments in all single-family homes.
Simmons will need to maintain a profile as a housing advocate “if she wants to go beyond being mayor of Stamford,” McMullen said. “She needs some success on a social issue, and this is a hot social issue in Connecticut. … If she doesn’t do it, she is not going to be the one to be tapped to replace Blumenthal or Himes or Murphy, which I think is her next step.”