Side-by-side lots on Remington Street illustrate opposing approaches to development in Stamford’s fast-changing South End.
They also spotlight an effort to preserve what little is left of a historic working-class neighborhood that helped fuel American industry and spawn a bustling city.
The house at 16 Remington St., built in 1915, was one of 449 South End structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But now, like more than half of the structures on the register, it’s gone.
It appears to have been demolished illegally, though details are sketchy.
According to a June 28, 2022 email from Stamford Zoning Enforcement Officer James Lunney, the developer, Dariusz Lesniewski of Darien, had a permit to demolish the detached garage, not the house.
Lunney was emailing former Chief Building Official Bharat Gami, whose office issues demolition permits.
Gami wrote back that the problem was that Lesniewski proposed removing the historic two-family house and replacing it with a three-story structure, and zoning officials signed off on it “without raising any objections about historic preservation.”
Lesniewski told the members of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission Tuesday that he obtained a construction permit from the building department in April 2022 to add a third apartment to the house.
“My problem starts because they said I had to raise the building 18 inches,” Lesniewski told the commission.
According to his reading of the permit, he had three options for raising it, and one included demolition, Lesniewski said.
“I figured if I remove all the structure, I raise my foundation and build on top,” Lesniewski said. “I chose the easy (option) for me and that turned out to be the wrong one.”
Lesniewski went before the commission after appearing the previous evening before the Zoning Board. Between the two, he is seeking a “critical reconstruction” designation under the city’s historic preservation regulations.
Lesniewski wants the designation so he can add the third unit in exchange for designing the new structure with historic details.
Besides adding a third unit to the rebuilt house, Lesniewski is seeking permission to build two new townhouses at the rear.
So, if zoning officials accept his proposals, the small .11-acre lot at 16 Remington St., once home to a historic two-family, will hold a five-family building.
Build it biggest
“His attitude is, ‘Let me get out of it the most I can; let me build as big and as close together as I can, and make the most profit,’” said Dillon Zaro, owner of 20 Remington St. “He’s not only not considering the neighbors, he’s setting a bad precedent for developers to come.”
Zaro has close family ties to the South End; his aunt lived for most of her life in the house Lesniewski tore down. Zaro said he took a different approach when he bought the house next door.
“We painted; we sanded the floors; we put new tile in the bathrooms, new siding with a wood look. We kept the top porch and the big windows, and put on a nice roof with a slate look,” said Zaro, who owns a roofing company and occasionally renovates homes. “The house is near the water so I wanted it to have a beachy feel.”
He’s not the only one to take a caring approach , Zaro said.
“My neighbor did a complete remodel and it’s a beautiful house. He has an extra unit in there but it doesn’t look like a unit house – you could mistake it for a single-family home,” Zaro said. “This street has a bunch of beautiful homes on it, and I wanted to add to that.”
He is acting on an attachment to the neighborhood, he said.
“This is not an investment property; it’s my home I’m going to live in,” Zaro said. “I make enough from it to help with my mortgage. It has a yard for my dogs, and for when I have kids.”
‘No one is paying attention’
Development such as what Zaro and his neighbors did on Remington Street is what Sue Halpern and Elizabeth McCauley hope to support by creating a Local Historic District, a state program designed to protect significant buildings in Connecticut. It allows municipalities to establish districts where exterior architectural changes are reviewed by a Local Historic District Commission.
It requires property owners to obtain an approval when they want to make changes visible from the street, according to the state handbook. It affects only exteriors and does not include routine maintenance such as paint.
“Most houses in the South End have been renovated to some extent, so the historic value has little to do with the look of a property. It has more to do with character and scale, and with what was there — a working-class neighborhood of two- and three-family homes connected by jobs, with people of many nationalities working together,” said Halpern, who has lived in the South End for 40 years. “We want to have a voice in what is being done in the neighborhood because it is being over-developed and no one is paying attention to us.”
McCauley said a Local Historic District is one of the few tools residents have for countering developers.
“It’s not about being picky about renovations. With a little bit of restriction, it will get us protections,” said McCauley, who owns a home on Walter Wheeler Drive. “It’s to provide some protection from overdevelopment – not stop development, just protect some of what’s here.”
Under state rules for a Local Historic District, the property owner files an application and goes through a public hearing before making changes visible from the street. Then the commission, typically made up of volunteers who live in the neighborhood or have preservation backgrounds, approves the application or guides the property owner to make adjustments so the changes fit with the character of the district.
According to the state handbook, a group wishing to establish a district must form a study committee; produce a report that inventories historic properties and sets district boundaries; deliver the report to city planning and zoning officials, the mayor, and the state, and solicit their comments; send notices to property owners and hold a public hearing; and direct the town clerk to send ballots to property owners.
A district is created when two-thirds of property owners vote for it, and the Board of Representatives approves an ordinance establishing it.
A letter-writing developer?
It’s a long process, said Halpern, a member of the study committee. The report was completed in September and sent to the boards for review, but pulled back before the formal submission, she said.
“Letters were out in the community containing a lot of misinformation, so we withdrew the report,” Halpern said. “Letters went out even before we were approved to form the study committee in February 2020. People were being approached to oppose this before we did any community outreach.”
According to Halpern, the letters were generated by the city’s largest developer, Building & Land Technology, which has been remaking the South End for more than a decade, putting up multiple luxury apartment high-rises with thousands of rentals. BLT doesn’t want its plans hampered by a historic district, she said.
“BLT sent a letter three times trying to put a negative spin on it,” Halpern said.
“They did it,” McCauley said. “We have copies of it.”
The February 2020 letter to South End residents from then-BLT attorney Rachael Cain said a historic district “will severely impact what you can do with your property. These changes will affect the value of your property” and “may render you unable to renovate, alter, or redevelop structures on your property,” Cain wrote.
She directed property owners to write to city hall, providing them with an opening paragraph.
BLT Co-President Ted Ferrarone Thursday did not answer a question about whether the developer was behind the letters, sending instead a reply similar to one sent for an earlier CT Examiner story about the Local Historic District.
“We oppose the local historic designation because we cannot see a single benefit for the affected property owners, while it does bring a tremendous amount of restriction,” Ferrarone said.
40 percent or 50 percent
Nearly 50 percent of affected South End property owners “have asked to be removed from the district boundaries to date,” Ferrarone said.
The leaders of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone also oppose a historic district, Ferrarone said, and the study committee “has missed every deadline that they have previously committed to.”
He said BLT looks forward to the study committee’s presentation to property owners, “should they ever make one.”
“Oh, so now it’s 50 percent of property owners who oppose this?” Halpern said. “The BLT attorney said it was 40 percent. When I went through the letters and the actual properties included in the map, I found at least 20 letters from owners who aren’t even included in the map. I got 26 percent opposing.”
Halpern said the group’s efforts were delayed because they overlapped the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down government offices. It was the South End NRZ that “initiated the proposal to do this in the first place in May 2019, when we approached the Board of Representatives to request a study,” Halpern said.
She and McCauley said they are having meetings and going door-to-door talking to South End residents before they submit the report.
“We just want to lay on the table for people – this is what it is; we want you to understand the truth about the initiative,” McCauley said.
South End a ‘moneymaker’
South End property owners who spoke to the CT Examiner last month said they oppose a Local Historic District because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do with their property.
But Marlene Rhome, who owns a home on Elmcroft Road, said she’s all for a historic district.
“These developers are building an enormous amount of high-rises and I don’t see it stopping any time soon,” Rhome said. “They have no record of building anything affordable, or homes people can own. They are only interested in building high-rises and charging high rents. We have to protect ourselves from that.”
Roman Ozimek owns a three-family home on Elmcroft Road that he bought in 1991. He renovated it and lived on the second floor until he got married. His daughter, a student at UConn-Stamford, now lives on the third floor, Ozimek said.
“My son might go to UConn and move in next,” he said.
Like Zaro, his family has roots in the South End, Ozimek said. When he renovated the three-family, “I kept the old wood frames, I just painted them white. I have the original 1925 asphalt shingles, to keep the aesthetics,” Ozimek said. “These are unique homes, solid structures. But they want to knock them down and put in condos, sideways.”
He welcomes a historic district, Ozimek said.
“They’re not going to force us to have a gravel driveway, a certain type of fence, a certain color of paint,” he said. “I think they want to stop people like this guy on Remington who is just trying to maximize his profits. There’s no aesthetic charm to a lot of the development here. The South End is just a money maker. There has to be some kind of historic commission.”
“As a builder I don’t like people telling me, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But I like the idea of a historic district. It keeps property values safer for everyone,” Zaro said. “I feel like this is the last little bit that’s preserved. It’s kind of nice having it preserved. But I see the big buildings coming closer and closer every day.”
Lesniewski’s application has been bouncing between the Zoning Board and the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission. Zoning Board Chairman David Stein said at the last meeting that there will be a public hearing on the application at the June 26 meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m.