STAMFORD – Jamie D’Agostino, an entrepreneur, says his plan for the Glenbrook Community Center “has been pretty much dismissed.”
Michael Thomas, a pastor, says he’d like a chance to amplify his vision for the center, and he’ll “be praying about the vote on Oct. 3,” when the Board of Representatives will decide the fate of the city building, which Mayor Caroline Simmons wants to sell to a housing developer.
Residents are fighting hard to save the stately stone building in the heart of Glenbrook, a dense neighborhood of small businesses and apartment complexes, and multi- and single-family homes.
Residents say the neighborhood needs the center, which for 50 years provided after-school and summer camps for kids; day-care and pre-school programs; activities for seniors; dances; sports leagues; music, art and exercise classes; and round-the-clock meeting space for people working to stay sober.
Simmons is fighting equally hard to sell the 35 Crescent St. community center to JHM Group and Viking Construction to build 51 units of much-needed affordable housing, which the mayor says is vital to the well-being of the city.
It’s become a battle of what residents deem “misinformation.”
Simmons says the building is in bad shape and will cost $23 million to fix. Residents say that’s the cost of building 51 housing units, not the cost of repairs – a 2020 assessment itemized $1.3 million in renovation work.
Simmons says the community center has been closed for four years. The former operator says it closed in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Residents say Simmons is not making it clear that the developer cannot reserve affordable units for people who live or work in Stamford, even though an online fact sheet posted by the administration says a method for choosing tenants has not been determined, and the developers in the past used lotteries to decide.
Simmons has written that the last-minute proposals submitted by D’Agostino and Thomas are “not operationally viable or fiscally viable.”
Not so, D’Agostino said.
Simmons, who took office in December, is working according to plans devised by former Mayor David Martin, who put out a Request for Proposals from developers interested in building housing units, not renovating a community center, D’Agostino said.
“I’m calling BS on the RFP written by Martin,” said D’Agostino, a mechanical engineer, real estate investor, and owner of Netology, an IT service company that employs 23 people on Summer Street. “I wanted to submit an RFP but I didn’t want to gut the community center, so I wasn’t considered an audience for the RFP.”
D’Agostino, who grew up attending programs at the Glenbrook Community Center, said he heard last October that the city was selling it and contacted Martin the following month. He said he was looking for a larger office space for his growing company and for a bilingual day-care center his wife, a teacher, is launching.
By then Martin had lost the mayoral election to Simmons.
“Martin told my team to reach out to the new mayor in the new year. We did contact them and were told that the city was not interested in receiving more bids, but would meet with us as a courtesy,” D’Agostino said.
In August he met with Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, and her director of community engagement, Janeene Freeman, D’Agostino said.
“They were very dismissive. They said, ‘You’re not serious because you don’t have affordable housing,’” D’Agostino said. “They weren’t willing to work with me.”
D’Agostino said his plan is to pay the city market value for the building, between $1 million and $1.4 million. JHM and Viking have proposed $700,000.
He would put his business on the top floor, and the bilingual day-care center on the first and second floors, D’Agostino said.
The third floor, including the kitchen, and the bottom-floor gym would be for community center activities, he said.
D’Agostino said he would add affordable housing units if city officials want that. He could build 20 to 30 units at the back of the property, similar to what JHM and Viking have proposed, he said.
“I can get all the tax credits and loans they could get for affordable housing, and I have a developer I can work with. But it takes time to put a proposal together. I didn’t get the time they got to do a proposal,” he said.
JHM and Viking in their proposal say they will fund most of their construction costs by seeking state and federal resources available to builders of affordable housing, including a conventional loan using proceeds from a tax-exempt bond issuance; low-income housing tax credits from the Connecticut Housing Finance Agency; a below-market-rate loan from the state Department of Housing or similar source; and a below-market loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank, which helps finance projects that fill community needs, or similar source.
Thomas, pastor of The ACTS Church on Richmond Hill Avenue on the West Side, said he can get that type of financing, too.
“We’re going about it the same way as the developer. We are using a consulting company out of Manhattan that works with nonprofits to source that funding, which is a complex process,” Thomas said. “They are telling me there is not a lot of funding for community centers, but there’s a lot of funding out there for affordable housing and senior housing.”
His proposal is to keep the existing community center space, renovate it and “add affordable housing around it to make it profitable and feed that into programs so they are self-sustained,” Thomas said.
Like D’Agostino, Thomas said he did not reply to Martin’s RFP because it requested plans only to construct housing. After residents began to challenge the sale of the center this summer, he brought out a plan he and his wife, Teena Thomas, had been working on.
“This business plan is three or four years old. We pulled it off the back burner and made minor modifications, but we need a chance to update it,” Thomas said. “I believe the concept is viable, and it can satisfy both worlds. The only thing is will the administration give me the same exceptions as they are giving this developer – how high I can go, how much parking I have to provide.”
He has met with members of the administration, including Simmons, and they liked his idea, but “there have been no further conversations,” Thomas said.
His church rented space in the Glenbrook Community Center for four years, Thomas said. It was a sanctuary, he said.
“COVID brought a level of isolation we’ve never seen before, and community centers are a place for fellowship,” Thomas said. “Creating a place where people can gather, a place of safety, is very important.”
The plan by JHM and Viking includes 3,000 square feet of community space, far less than what D’Agostino and Thomas propose.
JHM and Viking have offered to buy the 16,400-square-foot community center on nearly an acre of land for $700,000 in cash plus a “cash equivalency of $5,261,240 as credit for the 51 units of affordable housing.”
The developers would build seven studio apartments, 30 one-bedroom apartments, and 14 two-bedroom apartments for a total of 51. Twelve of the units will be constructed in the community center building, and 39 units will be constructed behind it in a new building.
According to their proposal, all the apartments will be offered to individuals or families with incomes below the area median income for the Stamford area, which the federal government says is $180,900 for a family of four.
For tenants who earn 40 percent of the area median income, the developers will offer nine units – one studio for $1,080 a month; six one-bedroom apartments at $1,121 a month; and two two-bedroom apartments at $1,331.
For tenants who earn 50 percent of the area median income, nine units will be offered at higher rents – $1,374 for a studio; $1,436 for a one-bedroom; and $1,709 for a two-bedroom.
The largest number of units, 26, will be available for tenants who earn 65 percent of the area median income, which would be $117,585 a year for a family of four. At that income limit, four studios will be available at $1,673 a month; 14 one-bedroom units at $1,756; and eight two-bedrooms at $2,092.
The highest of the income limits is 80 percent of the area median income, or $144,720 a year for a family of four. At that level, one studio will be available for $1,729 a month; four one-bedrooms will cost $1,815; and two two-bedroom units will rent for $2,164.
Critics of the JHM-Viking proposal say those rental prices aren’t much different from Glenbrook market-rate prices.
Thomas and D’Agostino said they will be watching the Board of Representatives’ virtual meeting at 8 p.m. Oct. 3, available here.
“I’m just hoping the project goes back to RFP,” Thomas said. “That will give us a chance.”
D’Agostino said the same.
“Nobody in the city cared to realize that there might be people out here who would be interested in keeping a community center,” D’Agostino said. “They didn’t even try.”