It wasn’t what residents were expecting.
The last time they met with Mayor Caroline Simmons about selling a historic city building to a housing developer, there were signs, chants over a bullhorn, a contentious discussion and a sense that Simmons’ plan would go forward regardless of neighborhood objections.
Thursday night, residents who gathered to meet with Simmons sat in the library at Springdale Elementary School at tables set with paper and markers so they could write down their ideas for what to do with the vacant Depression-era building on Haig Avenue, once a police headquarters.
“Our goal is to hear from you,” Simmons told the packed room. “We want to make sure all voices in the city are heard … government works best when it’s participatory.”
After residents listed their ideas, Simmons’ staff called on each table to read them aloud.
There were plenty: a community center; a police substation; a day-care center; an after-school center; a park; a welcome center for new residents; senior housing; housing for teachers or teachers’ assistants; a nature preserve; a public library branch; and, because the building now is used to store historic city records, an annex to the Stamford History Center.
The ideas were diverse, but they had a theme.
Keep the neighborhood, Springdale, what it is – a single-family neighborhood.
“The biggest problem is that the city wants to change that,” said Tim Craig, who lives on Klondike Avenue behind the old police building. “Everybody has invested a lot to live here. Young people have moved in and started families and now they’re being told, ‘Ha. ha. It’s multi-family zoning.’ It’s not fair. This is where we live. It’s just not right.”
The room cheered and applauded.
There appeared to be no support for the proposal recommended by the Planning Board and approved by the Board of Finance – to sell the Haig Avenue structure to a developer to build four housing units with the proviso that the historic stone façade be preserved.
Craig, and others, said they don’t care if the 1931 building comes down. They would rather that single-family zoning holds up.
“Knock it down and build two single-family homes,” Craig said. “Do the right thing. Preserve the neighborhood.”
He and others said they think creating a multi-family building on Haig Avenue will open the door to doing it elsewhere in Springdale, even though Simmons’ office has said the zoning change that would allow four units in the old police headquarters would apply only to historic structures.
“It will start with four, and then it will be more. No! It’s a single-family neighborhood,” a woman said. “No offense, mayor, but would you want four apartments next door to you down in Shippan? I don’t think so.”
Residents said they are concerned about not just the old police headquarters site but two city properties nearby – a deteriorating basketball court at Haig and Crestview avenues, and the town yard on Haig Avenue.
“It’s all going to be developed at some point,” a man called out. “We all know that.”
Residents pay a high price for living in single-family zones, and the city must respect that, a woman said.
“We have an 1,800-square-foot house with no basement and an unfinished walk-up attic. We have an acre and a third, but the acre is not usable,” said the woman, who lives near the police building. “We pay $11,000 a year in taxes. That’s a lot of money for land we can’t use.”
Springdale resident Mark Dolan said he strived to achieve his dream of a single-family home.
“I come from Connecticut Avenue – the projects. I worked hard and got an education and raised myself up,” Dolan said. “I love my neighborhood. I want it to be single-family.”
Larry Davidoff, a Stamford builder and real estate broker, said single-family homes are a better fit for the 1.63-acre Haig Avenue site. The land should be divided into six or seven single-family lots, Davidoff said.
“It’s the only thing that makes economic sense,” he said.
It’s because converting the long-vacant police building will be difficult and expensive, Davidoff said.
“I know the building. I’ve been through it. It would work better as a duplex – two larger side-by-side units that are 2,300 or 2,400 square feet each,” instead of four small units, Davidoff said.
A developer allowed to build the single-family homes could expect enough profits to also build the duplex, he said.
Simmons said the city engineer gave her a rough estimate of $400 to $500 per square foot to renovate the 5,568-square-foot police building. That would bring the total to between $2.2 million and $2.8 million.
Residents had several questions about the “historic” status of the cut-stone building, constructed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal – a federal program designed to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.
It is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though local historians have said it’s likely eligible for that and a state register. Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing told residents Thursday that the building also is not included in the city’s Cultural Resources Inventory.
That raised a question for Pierluigi Vitti, who lives behind the old police building. If it’s not officially historic – the designation that would allow it to be developed as a multi-family structure – doesn’t it have to comply with the neighborhood’s single-family zoning?
Vitti said he is a native of Rome, “where we have some historic buildings.”
“You, the city, are the owner, and you are also the one who makes the rules about what is historic and how many apartments there are?” Vitti said. “I see a conflict here.”
“Welcome to America!” a man called out.
Residents said Thursday’s meeting answered some of their questions and that it was a huge improvement over an October meeting in which Simmons’ staff and city Rep. Mary Fedeli invited a handful of Springdale residents who live near the old police headquarters to discuss plans for the structure.
Residents who arrived at the October meeting early said 12 chairs were set up in a room at the public library branch in Springdale, but word got out and 10 times that number showed up.
The crowd violated the fire code, so the meeting had to be postponed.
That happened after a September meeting of the Glenbrook Neighborhood Association at which Simmons addressed an organized crowd rallying against her plans for another historic city-owned building, the Glenbrook Community Center on Crescent Street.
Simmons wanted to sell the center to developer JHM Group to build 51 affordable-housing units. Residents called for reopening the center, which closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of adding more housing to the congested center of Glenbrook.
Simmons withdrew her plan for Crescent Street after it appeared that the Board of Representatives had the votes to reject it.
Simmons said Thursday the proposal for the Haig Avenue building is “on pause.”
“It sounds like there is no support for the plan that went through the Planning Board,” Simmons said. “This is your neighborhood and you deserve a say in what happens here.”
Her staff will reconvene another meeting in the new year, Simmons said, after they “aggregate the feedback” from residents. All of that will happen before her administration requests proposals from developers, Simmons said.