Four months after it was defeated, Mayor Caroline Simmons appears ready to resurrect her controversial plan to sell the Glenbrook Community Center to a developer to build affordable housing.
Simmons has met with members of the city’s elected boards “to discuss the future of the 35 Crescent Street property and build consensus,” said Lauren Meyer, special assistant to the mayor.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives, said she attended the meeting.
“It was made clear that the administration still wants housing on that site,” Sherwood said Thursday. “They are open to compromise but the mayor wants housing.”
Meyer said Simmons gathered members of the Board of Representatives, Board of Finance and Planning Board last week “to hear directly from leadership of those boards regarding ideas for the site and their potential feasibility, as any plan would need to go before and be approved by each board. This meeting was the first step in continuing the conversation about this property and the mayor looks forward to working with the boards to come to a viable solution.”
But there are “no definite plans at this time for the Glenbrook Community Center,” Meyer said Thursday.
At a subsequent meeting with the leaders of the Board of Representatives, Simmons did not bring up the Glenbrook project, said city Rep. Megan Cottrell, the board clerk. At the end, Simmons asked representatives whether they had questions, Cottrell said.
“I said I wanted to talk about affordable housing and we started arguing over the community center,” Cottrell said. “I went on about why I feel a community center is important, but I agree with the mayor that there is a huge need for affordable housing. I think we can do something much more impactful, like raise the percentage of units in new developments that have to be below market rate.”
The Zoning Board has set it at 10 percent, but some communities require that developers designate 15 percent or 20 percent of units in a new building as affordable.
“It’s not visionary to focus on one building for affordable housing. You need a larger plan,” Cottrell said. “There seems to be some resistance to talking about other things we can do besides the Glenbrook project. I get the impression the mayor feels we can come to a compromise, but there is a definite need for a community center.”
From the grassroots
That’s the message from Save Our Center, a group of residents who want the city to keep the building and renovate it so the community services can return. The center, which operated on Crescent Street for several decades, closed three years ago, after the operator retired and the pandemic hit.
“We were exhilarated after the Board of Representatives voted not to sell the community center, and I would have hoped the mayor’s administration would have gone with that and looked into ways to restore it,” said Miriam Kliewe, a member of Save Our Center. “But, until we hear from her administration, we don’t know what they are looking into.”
In October Simmons withdrew her plan to sell the center after a Board of Representatives committee voted to reject it, and it became clear that the full board would do the same.
Simmons fully supported the plan proposed by developers JHM Group and Viking Construction to create 51 income-restricted apartments, preserve the facade of the historic building, and set aside community space.
Simmons has said that the housing shortage is at a crisis point, and workers are priced out of the market. Tenants spend too much of their income on rent and too many get evicted, Simmons has said, and using public property for affordable housing is a way to defray the costs of land and construction.
But city representatives said she did not strike a good deal with the developers.
Reps: Deal needed a redo
JHM and Viking were to pay $700,000 for a 16,400-square-foot building on nearly an acre, even though the city lists the value at $1.8 million, representatives said. Simmons countered that the housing units would provide a $5.2 million “cash equivalency.”
But JHM and Viking planned to use low-cost state and federal loans, tax credits and other public funding available to affordable housing developers, representatives said.
They also said the 3,000 square feet of community space offered by the developers was less than one-fifth the space in the original building, and the rents proposed by JHM and Viking – $1,100 to $2,200 a month – were not truly affordable.
Representatives also questioned the mayor’s characterization of construction costs. Simmons said it was $23 million, but under questioning from city representatives, it became clear that that was the cost of creating the apartments, and refurbishing the center would cost $5 million to $6 million. Then that amount, identified by the administration but not documented, was questioned after it was revealed that a 2020 building assessment commissioned by the city concluded that a renovation would cost $1.3 million.
A sticking point for representatives was that tenancy could not be limited to people who live or work in Stamford, and tenants likely would be chosen by lottery.
But all of that is moot, Kliewe said.
“This isn’t about affordable housing,” she said. “This is about a community center.”
‘A big question’
Save Our Center provided an outline of why Glenbrook, a densely populated, highly diverse neighborhood where incomes are less than the citywide average, needs its community center back.
“We need affordable child care and a preschool. We need after-school services – the Glenbrook Community Center is within walking distance to Stark Elementary School, Dolan Middle School and Stamford High,” Kliewe said. “Kids want someplace to be. We need a safe hangout for teens. This building is already set up with a dance studio, a gym, outdoor space, classrooms, offices, and a kitchen.”
The community center could be, once again, “the heart of this neighborhood,” Kliewe said, and serve the surrounding neighborhoods of Belltown, Springdale, downtown, East Side and the Cove.
Save Our Center members envision it as a place where senior citizens meet, teens volunteer to tutor, small businesses rent space at affordable rates, kids learn ballet, young adults play basketball, recovering addicts find support, and new arrivals learn English, Kliewe said.
Usually only the city’s better-off families can afford enrichment activities, but a community center crosses “the rich/poor divide,” according to the group.
“We should have this in every neighborhood,” Kliewe said. “A community center would serve many more people than the 50 units of housing they want to build on the site.”
Members of the group have found that “there are grants … tailor-made for this purpose,” Kliewe said. “We hope the administration is looking for grants.”
She has “a big question,” Kliewe said.
“Why does Glenbrook have to choose between a community center and affordable housing?” she asked. “Why do we have to choose between these two very important things? There are other places to build affordable housing, but the community center is unique.”
Nostalgia or need?
Members of the Simmons administration have said there is not a lot of support for restarting the Glenbrook Community Center. To make an argument for selling it, the administration sent the Board of Representatives a FAQ sheet before the vote. “Many residents were prompted to write letters and sign petitions in support of saving the community center; we don’t believe they represent the general sentiment of the community,” the administration wrote.
It’s a mischaracterization, Cottrell said.
“The administration says the Save Our Center people are ‘nostalgic,’” Cottrell said. “I think the administration doesn’t want to meet with the Save Our Center people because they don’t want to hear from them.”
Kliewe provided a copy of a letter the group sent to Simmons on Nov. 6 asking “to start a dialogue with you and your team about this building and the plans going forward.”
Kliewe said she also has written to the mayor personally and put a letter in the newspaper, but got no response.
Asked about that Thursday, Meyer, Simmons’ special assistant, emailed, “The mayor plans to meet with the members of Save Our Center prior to any next steps being taken.”
Cottrell said she does not support selling the community center, but it’s possible to keep it and build much-needed housing.
“The housing problem is so big, and there are so many other things we can do,” she said. “I don’t know why the Glenbrook Community Center has turned into the focus of this fight.”
This story has been updated.