STAMFORD – An Instagram video is fueling a months-long fight over Mayor Caroline Simmons’ plan to sell a city-owned community center to an affordable housing developer.
The video shows Simmons speaking last week at a StriveTogether Cradle to Career convention in Chicago to discuss racial equity.
For the first time since the mayor began pushing the sale through the Board of Representatives in July, she said members of the community have used “abhorrent” and “despicable” language in opposing the 51-unit housing project she is seeking for the Glenbrook Community Center on Crescent Street.
Simmons told the Chicago group that some members of the Stamford community want the city to do background checks on the people who will live in the affordable apartments.
“So my job as mayor is to try to bring people together with unifying language and trying to mobilize around hope and where we have common ground, rather than divisiveness, which unfortunately is still too common,” Simmons says in the video. “Just one example of that is we’re working to get an affordable housing project passed through the equivalent of our city council, and there’s a lot of NIMBYism and signage going up around our city against this proposal, and just really abhorrent language from some of the community members around, ‘Are there going to be background checks for the people living in this facility?’ And just, you know, really despicable language.”
The video, which is circulating among city representatives and others, ramps up the battle for Simmons, who has been in office for 10 months and is pushing hard for the project proposed by developers JHM Group and Viking Construction.
The Planning Board and Board of Finance approved the community center sale in the spring. But a Board of Representatives committee held it in July, a committee rejected it in August, the sale agreement was amended and then held by the full board in early September, and rejected in committee Thursday. It goes before the full board again at 8 p.m. Monday.
City representatives from the Glenbrook area have been knocking on doors to gauge support for reopening the community center, which closed two years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The representatives said they did not encounter despicable language.
City Rep. Sean Boeger confronted Simmons about her remarks during Thursday’s meeting of the board’s Legislative & Rules Committee. Boeger said Simmons did not tell the Chicago group that residents oppose the housing project “because you are taking away a community center.”
The lawn signs Simmons described in her remarks read, “Save Our Center, Glenbrook Community Center.”
CT Examiner asked Simmons to supply copies of emails, texts, transcripts or other messages containing abhorrent or despicable language related to the Glenbrook project, and to explain more about requests for tenant background checks.
The mayor did not answer those questions, or others seeking her views on the nature of the opposition to the project.
In place of answers to specific questions, Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, emailed this response:
“The simple truth is that this project meets all of the objectives that were sought out for resuscitating a building that is no longer functional, and it has now been reviewed and vetted by two mayoral administrations, the Board of Finance, and the relevant body within the Board of Representatives,” Meyer wrote. “Mayor Simmons believes this project is grounded in responsible budgeting and responsive to clear city needs. It will provide new workforce housing which will meet the demands of our economy, and create usable space for the community. The mayor has been readily available and participated in countless private and public discussions with advocates and elected officials on this topic, and she joins the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association and many others across the city who see this as the best solution for our economy, the pursuit of equity, and our ongoing work to make Stamford more affordable.”
Boeger said Simmons is trying to make the issue about affordable housing, Connecticut’s hottest topic. Housing advocates in Hartford – where Simmons served as a state representative before becoming mayor last year – have said the state needs 85,000 affordable units to meet demand.
That is not the issue, Boeger said.
“What’s infuriating is to have zero acknowledgement of the people who are disheartened by the prospect of permanently losing the community center,” said Boeger, who represents the Glenbrook district. “The people that I have spoken to – I knocked on well over 200 doors in the last three weeks – have been from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Glenbrook is probably the most diverse area of the city. Nobody brought race into the conversation.”
According to city-data.com, a website that uses information from the Census and other public agencies to profile communities, Glenbrook in 2019 was 36.9 percent white, 33.7 percent Latino, 15.4 percent Black, 11.5 percent Asian, and 2.6 percent mixed race or other – significantly more diverse than Stamford overall.
“The overriding concern is the loss of the services that were provided in that community center,” Boeger said. “The people who need a community center the most are typically not affluent people. They live a short walk or a short drive away.”
The 2019 data shows that the median household income in Glenbrook was $10,000 less than the city overall. The community center offered services for about 50 years, providing day care, pre-school, after-school, summer and sports programs for kids; dance, music, art and exercise classes; activities for seniors; and meeting space for recovering alcoholics, civic and church groups, and more.
Boeger said he met a good number of Glenbrook residents who are concerned about congestion – excessive traffic, streets overparked with cars and commercial vehicles, illegal apartments and illegal conversions of one-family houses into two- and three-family houses.
Data shows that Glenbrook has 14,408 people per square mile, making it four times more dense than Stamford overall.
“A lot of people are concerned about the congestion that more population in that immediate area will bring,” Boeger said. “The concern is about congestion, not affordable housing.”
City Rep. Anabel Figueroa, who also represents the area, said the concerns are valid and cannot be dismissed as “not in my back yard.”
“The mayor should be more careful. What she said in Chicago is not true,” Figueroa said. “I’m afraid the mayor doesn’t get it. She should be sympathizing and listening to those who want a community center. Glenbrook has more than its fair share of affordable housing. What is it going to take for the administration to understand, yes, we are being overdeveloped? More buildings are going up, but at what price?”
Figueroa said she has another reason for opposing the plan. The city agreed to accept $700,000 from the developer, about half what the Crescent Street property is worth, Figueroa said.
“I welcome more affordable housing, but I’m opposed to selling the property for such a little amount of money,” Figueroa said. “We as elected officials have to be the gatekeepers.”
City Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell said she opposes the project because the affordable units as presented are not truly affordable. The people most in need of housing will not qualify for an apartment in the complex, she said.
“Don’t talk about affordable housing to me as black person and tell me it will help the people with economic disadvantages who I serve on the West Side,” Campbell said. “We need deeply affordable housing, but not in lieu of this community center.”
Campbell said her concern is that the administration isn’t listening.
“They have an agenda, they want to do this, they want it to look a certain way, and that is all they are interested in,” Campbell said. “Are there racists in Stamford? There are. Could there be some people in the neighborhood who don’t want people who are different from them moving into their neighborhood? There could be. But this particular movement is about people from all over Stamford who benefited from the Glenbrook Community Center. The lawn signs are love offerings – people pooling their money together to bring back this center.”
City Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, another Board of Representatives member from the Glenbrook area, voted to approve the sale of the community center during Thursday’s committee meeting.
He did not hear any comments saying “we don’t want people of a certain race or ethnic background in Glenbrook,” Jacobson said. “But I have received two or three emails and spoken to people where there were overtones of, we’re afraid if we were to have a low-income housing complex it would change the character of the neighborhood. But they said housing for seniors would be OK.”
A number of his constituents want the affordable units to be offered only to Stamford residents, Jacobson said.
“I didn’t take that to mean, ‘I hate black and brown people.’ I think it could come from altruistic motives, as in, ‘I want to help my neighbors,’” he said. “But, as much as we might want to do that, it’s against the law and it’s just wrong.”
City Rep. Monica DiCostanzo from the Glenbrook area, who supports the sale of the community center, did not respond to a request for comment. Another supporter, city Rep. Eric Morson, contacted Friday, said he would respond and then did not.