STAMFORD – Five hours before what would have been another contentious vote to sell a city-owned community center to an affordable housing developer, Mayor Caroline Simmons Monday withdrew her proposal.
The mayor’s move followed three months of battling with city representatives who claimed she has failed to recognize the community need for the services provided at the center; undervalued the price of the Crescent Street property; agreed to rental charges from the developer that weren’t truly affordable; misrepresented the cost of reopening the community center; and unfairly characterized opposition to the sale as prejudiced against tenants who might live in the project.
Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday the legislative officer for the Board of Representatives sent a note saying that a resolution on the agenda for the 8 p.m. meeting had been withdrawn.
Several questions sent to Simmons’ special assistant, Lauren Meyer, resulted in an emailed reply, attributed to Simmons:
“Today, I notified the Board of Representatives that I am withdrawing item LR31.024. My administration has said consistently that the 35 Crescent Street project is about affordability, inclusion, and building a stronger workforce in support of our local economy. It is clear that a vote on this project will not be successful based on those merits and the proposed contract as written will not be successfully approved. While disappointed, I remain focused and intent on working with partners throughout our city to make Stamford more affordable for all its residents. The administration does not have any immediate plans for the 35 Crescent Street property.”
So Simmons has, for now, backed off her first hard-fought proposal during her 10 months in office.
Though there was no discussion Monday, members of the board’s Legislative & Rules Committee debated the Glenbrook Community Center proposal during a four-hour meeting Thursday night. At the end, members voted Simmons’ proposal down.
Simmons opened the Thursday discussion by reiterating the need for housing people can afford in Stamford, one of the most expensive markets in the United States.
“I think we have to meet the affordability crisis with urgency” and devise “thoughtful solutions,” Simmons told the committee. “One of the biggest barriers is the high cost of land and construction,” she said, and one of the best solutions “is to look at city-owned properties to develop for affordable housing.”
Opponents said Simmons has refused to accept that the issue is not about affordable housing; it’s about the services the community center provided for diverse, densely populated Glenbrook and surrounding neighborhoods – 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 social organizations, and more.
Representatives have repeatedly questioned why the developers, JHM Group and Viking Construction, are paying the city $700,000 in cash for a 16,400-square-foot building on nearly an acre, which city records value at nearly $1.8 million.
“It’s a slap on the face of the taxpayers to sell it for this price,” city Rep. Anabel Figueroa said during the committee meeting.
Simmons said that, besides the cash, the city will get a $5.2 million “cash equivalency” because the developers will build 51 affordable housing units and provide public community space.
Representatives said the 3,000 square feet of public space offered by the developer will not come close to the 16,400 square feet of a fully functioning community center.
And some said the city is being generous with the cash equivalency amount, since JHM and Viking plan to use low-cost state and federal loans and tax credits available to affordable housing developers, and other public funding sources.
A CT Examiner analysis found that, at the rental rates proposed by the developers, they would collect more than $1 million a year in rental income for the small apartments, which would range from 660 to 830 square feet.
Representatives Thursday said the proposed rents are too high for an “affordable” building.
Rents for a studio apartment would range from $1,080 to $1,729 a month, depending on income. Rents for a one-bedroom would be $1,121 to 1,815; and for a two-bedroom, $1,331 to $2,164.
A total of 18 units would be offered at two lower income levels. But most of the units, 33, would be offered at two higher income levels.
The highest tenant income limits for the project are $94,320 for an individual, $107,760 for a family of two, $121,200 for a family of three, and $134,640 for a family of four, according to the developers’ proposal.
The project would serve people earning 40 percent to 80 percent of the area median income, which for Stamford is $180,900 a year for a family of four.
But Stamford needs housing for people earning 20 percent to 40 percent of the area median income, city Rep. Rob Roqueta said during the Thursday committee meeting.
“A lot of people who work in this city do not have the income to be eligible for this housing. We’re looking for deeply affordable housing. I wish the city would work harder on that,” said Roqueta, who questioned whether the Crescent Street units, because of the amount of the rents, would be worth the loss of a community center that provided lower-priced day care and other services.
One topic that likely would have taken up a significant amount of the discussion Monday was Simmons’ assertion that the city could not afford to spend $23 million on the community center, which is what the developers would spend.
A resident questioned the number during a Sept. 21 meeting hosted by the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association. It became clear that $23 million is the cost of building 51 apartments.
The resident asked the mayor what it would cost to refurbish the building as a community center. Simmons said she didn’t know and referred the question to her community engagement director, Janeene Freeman. The cost would be $5 million to $6 million, Freeman said, without explanation.
But during Thursday’s committee meeting representatives demanded that Freeman explain the source of that estimate, particularly since a detailed March 6, 2020 building assessment found that the cost of fixing the community center would be less than $1.3 million.
“For something as contentious as this, something we’re looking at as closely as this, we can’t afford to say things we have no documentation for,” city Rep. Nina Sherwood told Freeman.
Freeman said things “have deteriorated further” since the assessment was done two years ago, even though the building was mostly closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And construction costs have risen, Freeman said.
“So are you saying that, in two years of light use, the damage to the building has increased so dramatically and prices have gone up so much that the cost now is almost five times the cost of two years ago?” city Rep. Phil Berns asked.
“Yes, that is what we are saying,” Freeman said.
City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz said he wanted Freeman to bring the board estimates that are “documented, and not based on casual conversations.” Berns asked Freeman to “have the numbers signed off by licensed engineers.”
It’s unclear whether representatives will get those numbers now that the proposal has been withdrawn.
Finally, some representatives Thursday took issue with remarks Simmons made at a conference on racial equity she attended in Chicago late last month.
Simmons described her administration’s efforts to pass the Glenbrook project through the Board of Representatives, saying “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.”
Simmons did not respond to specific questions from the CT Examiner about her remarks, but walked them back in a statement she provided to another news outlet.
She was “reacting to some of the rhetoric that has been in the housing debate across the state and nationally,” Simmons said. Language she’s heard “has included discriminatory statements about renters and questions on background checks of the potential residents in units,” Simmons was quoted as saying.