A century ago in Stamford’s South End, workers walked from their apartments in two-family houses to their jobs at neighborhood factories that produced locks, typewriters, postal meters, shavers, and more.
Now the South End is being redeveloped into a neighborhood of luxury apartment high-rises.
Some residents want to preserve the few remnants of the once-vibrant working-class neighborhood by creating a historic district.
Others want to preserve something they say is more important than historic buildings – the sovereignty of homeowners.
Homeowners say they are more troubled by the prospect of government limiting what they can do with their property than they are of losing century-old structures to a developer’s wrecking ball.
Their concerns stem from a preservation effort that began two years ago, when the Board of Representatives created a study committee to update the inventory of historic buildings and set boundaries for what would be a historic district.
But the South End Historic District Study Committee was unable to make much progress. Its report to the Board of Representatives, Planning Board, Zoning Board and State Historic Preservation Office, due Aug. 1, 2021, was delayed by the COVID-19 epidemic, said Sue Halpern, the committee chair.
The Board of Representatives granted two more extensions until its monthly meeting Monday night, when members passed a resolution saying the study committee no longer has a deadline – it can take as long as it needs to complete the state-required steps for forming a Local Historic District.
Don’t tell us what to do
If one is created, property owners wishing to make exterior changes that are visible from a public right-of-way would have to obtain approval from a local Historic District Commission, according to the state handbook. The owner making the changes would have to file an application with the commission and go through a public hearing. The commission then would determine whether the changes are appropriate to the character of the district.
Interior changes would not need commission approval; neither would changes to exterior paint color or any work considered routine maintenance. An owner who disagrees with a commission decision could appeal it in state Superior Court, according to the handbook.
None of that works, said Sheila Barney, a South End homeowner and former member of the study committee.
“Historic preservation is important, but people should be able to do what they want with their houses,” Barney said. “This commission would be like a condominium association. If we wanted to be told what to do, we would have bought condos.”
Barney said she could not continue to support the preservation effort.
“When somebody knocks on your door and says, ‘This is good for you,’ you have to be sure you know what it’s about,” Barney said. “I quit because I didn’t think good information was getting out to people.”
Members of the Board of Representatives who voted to give the study committee more time said the process, as outlined by the state, will ultimately give South End residents the chance to vote on whether they want a historic district.
According to the state handbook, a historic district is created after the committee’s report is reviewed by the Stamford Planning Board, Zoning Board, the mayor, and the state Department of Economic and Community Development; a public hearing is held; two-thirds of property owners vote to create a district; and the Board of Representatives approves an ordinance establishing it.
Some representatives said Monday they are concerned that Building & Land Technology, developer of the Harbor Point project in the South End, was writing letters urging property owners to fight creation of a historic district, which would impose requirements that can restrict development.
‘Dear Property Owner’
Shortly after the study committee was created in February 2021, BLT attorney Rachael Cain sent a letter that read, “Dear Property Owner: You may not be aware that a small group of individuals are proposing a new historic district in the South End that will severely impact what you can do with your property. These changes will affect the value of your property and restrict the repair and improvement of buildings in the South End. If passed, this local historic district may render you unable to renovate, alter, or redevelop structures on your property; and will strictly regulate the type and appearance of additional structures you may place on your property.”
The letter directs property owners to write to certain city departments and provides them with an opening paragraph.
The letter is misleading, said Halpern, a longtime South End condominium owner.
“One of the things BLT said, for instance, was that you would have to pay a $1,000 public hearing fee. But it doesn’t cost anything,” Halpern said. “They wanted to put a negative spin on the whole effort.”
Barney said South End homeowners can think for themselves.
“BLT wrote a letter. We read it and we came to our own conclusion – the city wants to create a commission that will tell us what we can and can’t do with our property,” Barney said. “BLT is not the bogeyman. They can only build things if people sell their property, and if people want to sell and get out of Dodge, that’s up to them.”
Homeowners say ‘believe us’
City land-use officials were sent letters from the owners of 88 properties saying they oppose a historic district, said homeowner John Wooten, a member of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone.
“It sounds like the Board of Representatives doesn’t believe us,” Wooten said. “They’re acting as though we don’t have minds of our own, like we’re being led around by some developer. It’s not true.”
Representatives need a better understanding of the situations facing homeowners, Wooten said.
“The folks who want this district regard these houses as historic, when most of them are just old,” Wooten said. “We are a Neighborhood Revitalization Zone with an element of historic preservation, but our main job is to get landlords and the (limited liability companies) that own many of these homes to be responsible for their property, and to get the city to clean the streets and improve the infrastructure.”
Wooten said he understands that city representatives distrust BLT for its track record – improperly tearing down Stamford’s last boatyard; failing to notify the city about a partial terrace collapse at its Allure building; and for the closure of its first Harbor Point building, The Lofts, where the wooden pilings are collapsing.
But creating a historic district is not the solution, Wooten said.
“The smaller developers and independent homeowners are going to suffer,” he said. “Some developers have good small projects that fit into the neighborhood and are providing the housing people need. And we want our homes to maintain value. They are our legacy to our families. We don’t want to have to jump through hoops and spend more money to modernize them because somebody decided, for whatever reason, that they’re historic.”
South End homeowners are “stuck in the middle,” said one of them, Dawn Snell.
“We’re not trusting BLT. And we’re not trusting our Board of Representatives because, where are they?” Snell said. “We’ve been fighting to stay here in the middle of all this construction mess, when we’re losing our street parking and our foundations may be damaged when everything gets dug up. We’re the ones who live here and no one has called a town hall meeting with us. They are making decisions without talking to us face to face.”
A cry: Save Our Structures
BLT spokeswoman Megan Szuchman said the developer opposes “the local historic designation because we cannot see a single benefit for the affected property owners, but it does bring a tremendous amount of restrictions.”
Szuchman said owners of 40 percent of the parcels in the proposed historic district have asked to opt out, and the two city representatives for the area are opposed, as are leaders of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone.
There are many issues, Halpern said, but something must be done to preserve the little South End history that remains. The neighborhood has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, but that has not saved structures, Halpern said.
The national register listed 449 historic properties 37 years ago, she said, but the South End study committee’s report from September found only 217.
“The national register doesn’t do much to protect anything,” Halpern said. “Stamford has a requirement that demolition has to be delayed for 180 days to try to save a building, but if you can’t reach a compromise with the developer, they can go ahead and tear it down. The city has taken things by eminent domain. So we’ve lost a lot of homes.”
The South End holds the history of Stamford’s Industrial Age, which made the city what it is, Halpern said.
“It’s hurtful that we don’t preserve things in Stamford,” she said. “We just let them go.”