STAMFORD – Glenbrook residents waving signs and chanting through bullhorns outside a meeting hall – and those who spoke passionately inside – did not appear to change Mayor Caroline Simmons’ mind about selling their community center to build housing.
And Simmons did not appear to convince any Glenbrook residents that their neighborhood needs added housing more than it needs a community center.
The rally Wednesday evening at Union Memorial Church set up a battle for the Board of Representatives, scheduled to vote Oct. 3 on Simmons’ plan to sell the Glenbrook Community Center to a developer to build affordable units.
Consensus Wednesday was in short supply, beginning with the gathering itself.
It was the quarterly meeting of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association, which has 199 members. Glenbrook is a dense, diverse, mixed-use neighborhood of 18,000 people, with small businesses, small condominium and apartment buildings, and multi- and single-family homes. As with other Stamford neighborhoods, Glenbrook has its share of illegal apartments and illegally parked commercial vehicles, creating congestion on many residential streets.
The neighborhood association president, Marie Metz, supports the sale of the community center and a majority of board members have agreed, though there are deep divisions.
As residents poured into the church for the meeting, Metz told a News12 cable television crew that the meeting was private and they had to leave. The News12 reporter asked how a meeting at which the mayor would address affordable housing, a topic affecting the whole city, could be private, but Metz ordered them out.
The meeting began at 7:30 p.m. with updates about a development project on Glenbrook Road, a meet-the-candidates night ahead of the Nov. 8 election, a planting project, and decorating traffic signal boxes.
Simmons arrived at 7:45 p.m., which was significant because Metz told people the meeting had to end by 8:45 p.m. to give board members time to clean up before the church would close at 9 p.m.
That would leave an hour for residents to discuss the community center sale with Simmons. The mayor began by outlining her plans for the city – road paving, intersection improvements, bridge and park projects – and introducing the members of her staff and the developers, Darien resident John McClutchy and his son, Todd McClutchy, of JHM Group.
Simmons then explained the “affordability crisis” in Stamford. College graduates can’t afford to return to Stamford to live, senior citizens can’t afford to stay, parents have to work multiple jobs, and employers have trouble filling openings because housing is so expensive, she said.
Inflation has made things worse, Simmons said – rents are up 12 percent this year and groceries are up 20 percent.
“So people are really getting priced out,” she said.
She explained how, after the operator of the Glenbrook Community Center retired, former Mayor David Martin tried to find a new operator, but nonprofit agencies he took through the building said they didn’t have money to fix it.
“The building is in disrepair,” Simmons said. “It’s deteriorating … falling apart.”
JHM Group will build 51 affordable units, maintain the historic stone facade of the center, and provide 3,000 square feet of free community space – an increase over the 1,000 to 2,000 square feet originally proposed, Simmons said.
“We got it in writing,” she said. “We amended the contract.”
Then the audience responded.
“That was an eloquent presentation on affordable housing, but this is about a community center,” resident Joe Avalos said. “You have to let the public speak and include the public before you make these plans.”
Simmons said her administration will propose an expenditure of $2 million for services that had been provided at the Glenbrook Community Center.
No, Avalos said.
“You’re not listening to the people,” he said.
The center of Glenbrook already has seven apartment buildings, resident Laura Battinelli said.
“We don’t need more apartments. We can’t handle what we have,” she said. “We are in dire need of a preschool, which is what the community center provided. Don’t give the building away.”
Residents have criticized the administration for the proposal to sell the 35 Crescent St. community center to JHM Group for $700,000, when city property records value it at $1.8 million.
During the rally, a woman prompted motorists to honk their horns by shouting into a bullhorn, “Fire sale in Glenbrook! Community center for cheap!”
Inside the church, resident Jim Cruz told Simmons, “I don’t understand your valuation” of the 16,400-square-foot community center on nearly an acre. It’s too low, Cruz said.
“A single home near me just sold for $630,000,” said Cruz, who lives near the center. “The Mason’s Lodge down the street is under contract for more than $1 million.”
“The gas station at the corner sold for more than a million,” Avalos said.
Simmons said it would cost $23 million to fix the building, an amount the Board of Finance will not approve because it would be half of the city’s yearly capital budget.
Glenbrook resident Robert Blakeslee challenged the number.
“What is the cost to refurbish it as a community center?” he asked. “Not with the 51 housing units.”
Simmons referred the question to her director of community engagement, Janeene Freeman.
“For all the repairs, it would be between $5 million and $6 million,” Freeman said. “It might be more to bring everything up to code.”
“That’s way less than $23 million,” a man in the crowd said as murmuring grew louder. “Why didn’t you say that before?”
People who’d had their hands raised for some time began saying they’d never get called because time was running out.
Herlene Streeter, a pastor in Glenbrook, questioned Simmons’ definition of “affordable.” The proposed housing development would offer studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units at varying income levels.
The income limit for an individual ranges from $47,160 to $94,320, according to the developer’s proposal. The income limit for a family of two is between $53,880 and $107,760, and for a family of three it’s between $60,600 and $121,200.
“What is ‘affordable’ has to be affordable to everyone,” Streeter said to Simmons. “I want you to do something about that.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger said he knocked on doors in Glenbrook and the surrounding neighborhoods of Belltown and Springdale for two weeks, asking for input on a possible sale of the community center.
“Nobody is against affordable housing. They don’t want to lose the community center,” Boeger said.
When community centers on the South End and West Side were struggling or needed repairs, the city spent money or won grants or partnered with other agencies to keep them going, he said.
“Some of them were revived multiple times,” Boeger said. “The Glenbrook Community Center is the only one on the east side of town.”
He pointed out that New Haven officials announced last month that they have dedicated $18 million to renovate eight unused city buildings into community centers, citing demand for youth and senior services.
Simmons said she wanted to talk about what services people would like to see in the community space provided by JHM, and asked residents if they wanted to hear from John and Todd McClutchy.
“Nooo,” they called back. “No!”
After the meeting Avalos said residents were not heard.
“This was a railroad job,” he said.
Resident Marc Moorash said “kids need a haven, a place to go after school,” but “the voices of the community don’t matter when it comes to development.”
Residents wanted to know why Simmons wasn’t considering the city-owned site of the recently demolished downtown police headquarters for affordable housing.
“It seems like city government doesn’t want to hear us,” Cruz said.
In the parking lot across from the church, someone had put a “Save Our Center” sign under the rear windshield wiper of the black SUV, plate number ST1, that is issued to Stamford mayors. The SUV was seen driving away with the sign still attached.