STAMFORD – Officials must have expected about two dozen people at a meeting about the planned sale of a historic city building on Haig Avenue, because that’s roughly the capacity of a room they reserved at a public library branch nearby.
But so many people showed up Tuesday night that the library supervisor had to call the meeting off – the crowd had exceeded the size allowed under the fire code.
People, some with children and babies, filled the chairs in the upstairs meeting room of the Ferguson Library’s Weed Memorial & Hollander Branch, which occupies a renovated 1810 farmhouse. They stood along the walls, lined the hallway outside, and gathered on the stairs leading to the second floor.
For the second time in a month, citizens were gathered to question Mayor Caroline Simmons about her plans to sell a Depression-era stone building to a developer to convert to housing.
In September it was the Glenbrook Community Center building on Crescent Street in Glenbrook. Simmons withdrew that proposal earlier this month.
Now it’s the former police headquarters building on Haig Avenue on the edge of Springdale.
Residents were upset that the city invited only those who live close to the old stone building, saying the neighborhood – and the entire city – are affected by Simmons’ policies for handling landmark buildings, sales of public property, and allowing multifamily housing in single-family neighborhoods where development, unchecked illegal apartments, and illegally parked commercial vehicles are creating congestion.
Inside the cramped, noisy meeting room, residents called out questions to Simmons and city Rep. Mary Fedeli even after it became clear that the meeting could not continue because of the size of the crowd.
At first residents wanted to know why they had to learn about the meeting on their own. Flyers were placed on a few doors but most residents were left out, they said.
“It was not meant to leave anyone out,” Fedeli shouted over the crowd, saying the flyers were “meant to go to the immediate vicinity … to a core group that we met with … it was not intentional to not have people involved.”
Simmons tried to reassure people. During a neighborhood meeting in Glenbrook last month, residents charged that some of the information Simmons and her staff presented was misleading.
“We are in the very early stages of the project and we want to hear from you,” Simmons told the Springdale crowd. “No decision has been made … we want to have that dialogue with you.”
Residents wanted specifics.
“If you reschedule this meeting, what is your plan for communicating the date and time?” someone called out.
Fedeli said it will be posted on the city website and on social media in the next two weeks.
“I want to thank you for raising your concerns,” Simmons said. “So far all that’s happened is that the Planning Board made a recommendation to the Board of Finance [to sell the building], so we’re at the beginning stages.”
In fact, two boards have already approved the sale, a man pointed out.
He’s right. On the Planning Board’s recommendation, the Board of Finance also approved the sale. It got hung up last month in the final approval, the Board of Representatives, when Simmons asked that consideration of the sale be held.
The city has not yet issued a request for proposals from developers who might be interested in the project, Fedeli and Simmons said.
“People don’t understand the vernacular you are using,” a woman called out. “Just tell me this, has the property been sold?”
No, Simmons said.
“Are you entertaining proposals from developers?” the woman asked.
No, Simmons said.
There were other pointed questions from the crowd.
“Before the meeting will you tell us the square footage of the building and the property size so when we come we’re informed?” someone called out.
According to city property records, the 5,568-square-foot Haig Avenue structure, built in 1931, sits on 1.63 acres and was appraised last year at nearly $4.7 million. It has been vacant for many years.
“The crowd was suspicious,” said city Rep. Bobby Pavia, who represents Springdale along with Fedeli. “They were coming off the Glenbrook situation and they thought a developer was already involved and the building was already sold. And that’s what they were mad about. ”
He was just as suspicious, Pavia said.
“I knew nothing about what was going to happen at that meeting. I went there to listen,” he said. “I was asked several times by several people, ‘Do you know who was responsible for the flyer?’ The answer is no, I don’t.”
Fedeli said Wednesday the mayor’s office distributed the flyers. Fedeli said she invited Simmons to the meeting “at the request of the residents that I met with” who had concerns about the sale of the building.
Barry Michelson, a member of the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition, said the grassroots group emailed a copy of the flyer to people on its contact list, which has 1,800 names. Notes often are forwarded and posted to social media, Michelson said.
“The coalition has become an outlet,” he said. “Folks call our home to find things out. People are starved for news about their neighborhood, and starved to be able to participate in local government, to have a role. They resent the fact that government makes decisions that affect them and they have no idea what is going on.”
Springdale resident Marie DeVito-Sinclair said she wanted to attend the meeting but couldn’t get there on such late notice.
“I only knew about it because of a conversation with my neighbor. She asked, ‘Are you going to the meeting?’ And I said, ‘What meeting?’ My other neighbors didn’t know about it, either. After I found out, I put it on social media, NextDoor and FaceBook.”
DeVito-Sinclair said this mayoral administration isn’t listening to citizens any more than the last one did.
“There is enough traffic. There are enough apartment buildings and condos on Hope Street and the surrounding area,” she said. “Turn the Haig Avenue building into something useful, like a police substation with an ambulance. We can use that.”
As it stands now, the plan for the building is to create four housing units, preserve the historic structure, sell the buyer .63 of an acre and keep the remaining 1 acre, and prohibit the property from being rezoned.
Pierluigi Vitti, who lives behind the Haig Avenue building, said Wednesday that the issue, for residents, is larger than the fate of the stone structure.
“The city is building condos and apartments wherever it’s possible,” Pierluigi Vitti said. “We moved to this single-family zone because we like it. I was done with condominiums; I did not want to share space with so many people any more. But now the city wants to change the zone. It’s very disappointing. If I tried to build a multifamily house on my property, the city would say no. So how can it be that the city can build a multifamily in this zone? The city is saying they have the property so they do what they want, for their own interest. It’s not right.”
When he said a version of that just before the meeting broke up Tuesday night, people broke into applause.
His wife, Luciana Vitti, who got stuck in the hallway during the meeting, said it bothered her that Fedeli said that only some people will be affected by converting the building to multifamily use.
“I didn’t understand that,” Luciana Vitti said. “In reality, it is a bigger problem for the whole city. Many more people showed up because everybody is affected.”
An unknown person distributed a flyer before the meeting urging residents to attend because a conversion of the Haig Avenue building to multifamily will allow further conversions that will “forever change” the neighborhood. The administration has countered with a fact sheet that says such zoning changes are made to protect historic buildings.
As with the Glenbrook project, the administration needs to improve communications with Springdale residents, Pierluigi Vitti said.
“Neighbors need to be part of the decision,” he said. “I hope this opens the mayor’s eyes to what is going on.”