Landmark Tower was more than a building when it was completed in 1973, curving 21 stories into the sky.
Its architect, Victor Bisharat, said then that he hated straight lines, and designed the swooping form so that someone standing at the foot and looking up would think of wings.
The office tower was a symbol of Stamford taking flight – from its manufacturing past and downtown blight toward urban renewal.
It was the city’s first skyscraper, and the tallest building between New York and Boston. It had a large ice skating rink, a penthouse restaurant, and a branch of the Whitney Museum of Art.
In the decade after the tower was built, five smaller structures were added to form a 646,000-square-foot office complex called Landmark Square, with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and a 1,025-space garage on 5 acres in the heart of downtown.
But demand now is not for office space – it’s for housing. So the owner of Landmark Square and a partnering developer went before the Stamford Planning Board recently with a proposal.
The developers will keep the iconic tower, but they want to knock down a six-story Landmark Square building, known as No. 3, and replace it with a luxury apartment high-rise. If the project is approved, the new building will stand 31 stories – 10 stories taller than Landmark Tower – with 400 rental units facing Atlantic Street.
Members of the Planning Board unanimously approved the proposal.
It once again places Landmark Square at the center of the story of Stamford. Fifty years ago, the plot was how to attract corporations. Now it’s how to provide housing people can afford.
During the Planning Board meeting, members had lots of questions about affordable housing.
Member Stephen Perry wanted to know what rents will cost in the proposed high-rise. Land-use consultants Rick Redniss and Bill Hennessey, who represent the owner, Reckson/SL Green, and the developer, the Cappelli Organization, said they didn’t know.
“Whatever the market will bear at the time,” Redniss said.
“It’s a high-end building,” said Hennessey.
Board member Bill Levin asked about a city mandate that at least 10 percent of units in a new development be offered at below market rate rents.
“Will you consider building (below market rate) units on site, or is that not consistent with luxury buildings?” Levin said.
Redniss and Hennessey said their clients are requesting a special exception that would allow them, instead, to pay the value of the below market rate units into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The value is about $10.7 million, Hennessey said.
“What seems to be needed by our community is larger units – two- and three-bedrooms – and deeply affordable. That can’t be achieved on a project like this,” Hennessey said.
In lieu of that, the project can produce “significant dollars” for Stamford’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, he said. Affordable housing developers, including the housing authority, could leverage the funding to create what the city needs, Hennessey said.
“It can be used to finance many more than the 40” affordable units the developer would be required to create under the mandate, he said.
Lindsey Cohen, an associate planner for the city, told the Planning Board that the Affordable Housing Trust Fund “is severely underfunded right now” and the $10.7 million could kickstart affordable housing projects.
Planning Board Chair Theresa Dell said she would like to see some of the $10.7 million used to fund the renovation of St. John’s Towers, built about the same time as Landmark Square.
St. John’s originally had three buildings at Washington and Tresser boulevards, each with 120 apartments, all serving low-income residents.
But a developer was allowed to knock down one of the St. John’s towers about three years ago to make way for The Smyth, a 17-story luxury building with 414 apartments where rents range from $2,310 to $4,680 a month.
The developer of The Smyth, Lennar Corp., built no affordable units on site, opting instead to put money into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
But, Dell said, renovations have yet to begin at the remaining two St. John’s Towers.
Levin said that when the Planning Board approved the Smyth project he thought the money for St. John’s Towers would be available quickly, and that the amount would mostly cover the renovations.
“Now we’re hearing it needs a lot more money and it could be years before we see any progress,” Levin said. “We have the need now. I would rather have these units downtown where the jobs are than some possible things that could take 20 years. I’m thinking it could be many years before we see these units.”
Cohen said the special exception allows for flexibility, so Reckson and Cappelli could still build some below market rate units on site.
It’s a possibility, Redniss said.
The developers “are not opposed” to it, Redniss said, and “we’re happy to have that discussion.”
According to information the land use consultants gave the Planning Board, Landmark Square is part of a 30-acre “superblock” bound by Atlantic Street, Broad Street, Greyrock Place and Tresser Boulevard. The area has about 2 million square feet of commercial space but very little housing, Redniss wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to the board.
The proposal is to demolish Landmark Square’s building No. 3, which has 134,000 square feet of office space, and replace it with 400 apartments, accompanying amenities, 420 parking spaces, and 5,200 square feet of retail and restaurant space on the ground floor.
Commercial tenants of building No. 3 will move to other space in Landmark Square with a goal to raise the overall occupancy rate to 85 percent, according to the consultants.
Occupancy in the complex now is 75 percent “which is reflective of Stamford’s decades-long struggle with office vacancy,” Redniss wrote. Building No. 3 is only 38 percent occupied, he wrote.
The developers are proposing 20 studio apartments, 180 one-bedroom units, 180 two-bedroom units and 20 three-bedroom units. The average unit size is 930 square feet but that “may change slightly depending on market conditions” that may arise, Redniss wrote.
A renovated Landmark 3 would connect the ground-level retail and restaurant space to the newly renovated Veterans Memorial Park on Atlantic Street. It would have a sixth-floor, indoor-outdoor amenity deck with a gym, gaming area, grills, lounges and pool.
If the Zoning Board approves the plans, the developers hope to begin construction by the end of the year and complete it by 2026.
Redniss said the project meets goals that zoning officials have set for the city, including converting vacant office space into housing and building housing close to public transit.