STAMFORD – This week’s public hearing on a developer’s plan to build multi-family housing in a largely vacant office park got testy all around.
Residents said the developer’s representatives “browbeat” them with false information about the effects of the 508-apartment complex proposed for 900 Long Ridge Road, and fudged a study to make it look like the added traffic won’t be bad.
The developer’s representatives said residents have no facts, only opinions, and charged that the residents’ stated aim to protect the “character” of their neighborhood may mask an ulterior intent.
Residents told Zoning Board members they should represent the people of Stamford, not the developers. The Zoning Board chair chastised residents for referring to apartment renters as “transients.”
And so the three-hour public hearing went. About 40 residents spoke, all of them opposed, with more watching on Zoom.
Joanne Mangione of Loughran Avenue said a complex with 508 apartments is “highly incompatible” with the neighborhood on the edge of woodsy North Stamford.
“I moved here seven years ago with three children to live in a quiet single-family home neighborhood where children could ride their bikes and play ball with their friends,” Mangione said. “Please do not ruin my family’s neighborhood. Are we only concerned about the developer making money, and not the residents who live here?”
Miten Marvania of Maltbie Avenue addressed Rick Redniss of Redniss & Mead, the land-use consulting company representing the developer, Monday Properties, which wants to replace two four-story office buildings with four buildings of similar height.
The new buildings, which will house 56 studios, 235 one-bedroom apartments, 202 two-bedrooms and 15 three-bedrooms, will be set on 36 acres just south of the Merritt Parkway. The site once was home to Combustion Engineering and Nestle Waters, now BlueTriton Brands. Today BlueTriton occupies one building and the other is vacant.
“I live right across the street from this project,” Marvania said. “It takes me 30 minutes to get to the train station. … This is not about making money. This is about people’s lives. You are not understanding what you are doing to people’s lives.”
Looks like L.A.
In Stamford, where several thousand apartments have been built in the last dozen years, traffic is becoming unbearable, residents said.
It’s not safe, said Martin Munitz, who lives on River Oaks Drive, a mile from the development site. Long Ridge is a big state road, but the neighborhood streets are the opposite, Munitz said.
The developer’s traffic study is “self-serving” because it looks only at the volume expected to be generated by the project, Munitz said. “We’re not talking about where else these cars are coming from and where they’re going. We’re not talking about all the FedEx and DHL and Amazon delivery trucks coming through these small intersections and going on these narrow streets.”
The neighborhood “roads are becoming cut-throughs for people trying to get where they are going,” said Human Khan of Shadow Ridge Road. “It’s because Long Ridge is so congested. I lived in L.A. for a few years, and this is starting to look like L.A.”
Long Ridge Road is a raceway, said Madge Kellick of Hunting Lane, a cut-through to Wire Mill Road.
“Nobody does the speed limit on Long Ridge Road. From there, we get tons of traffic flying through the residential streets,” Kellick said. “I can’t get out of my driveway … what are these 508 apartments going to do to help me get out of my house?”
Sarah Thalheim lives on Vineyard Lane, which motorists use to avoid traffic backed up at the Merritt Parkway entrance.
“The aggressive driving reminds me of the Long Island Expressway,” said Thalheim, a former New Yorker.
Counting car trips
Residents had many questions about the traffic study Monday Properties commissioned from Kimley Horn, a design consulting firm. Redniss said the firm’s report shows that the proposed development will generate about the same number of trips as the office complex.
Residents on the Zoom meeting balked.
Patrick Kazley of Vineyard Lane said he read through the study and found a footnote that says it is in the developer’s “vested interest” to compare the number of trips that would be generated by the apartment complex to what was generated when the office park was fully occupied – not the number of trips since the offices are mostly vacant.
“Based on that, they are coming up with a number and saying it will be the exact same traffic load,” Kazley said. “They disclosed that the client’s commercial interest, not accuracy, drove the results of the study.”
His neighbors didn’t accept the results, either.
“I find it very challenging to think that a half-empty office building has the same traffic as a 500-unit apartment building,” said Julie Vasile of Vineyard Lane. “We need a completely independent company to look at the actual traffic. I just don’t believe data from a company hired by the developer.”
Redniss said the data is accurate and verified by the city’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking division. It is based on an analysis by the highly reliable Institute of Transportation Engineers, Redniss said.
But residents weren’t the only ones with questions. Morris of the Zoning Board asked whether the data is based on actual number of trips counted or an ITE projection. Redniss said the ITE numbers held up when they were compared to traffic at a nearby development.
“The problem we have on the Zoning Board is that the number can be wrong … but nobody ever wants to address that issue,’ Morris said.
“There are predictives,” Redniss said.
“I understand what you’re saying – we’re supposed to accept that as reality. We hear, ‘Oh, we talked to [the city] and we talked to traffic engineers and this is what it is,’” Morris said. “And then we hear from residents.”
The ‘runaway train’
Vicki Wray of Hunting Ridge Road said residents have little recourse other than the three minutes they are allowed to speak during the limited public participation portions of Zoning Board meetings.
“I feel like I’ve spent this time being browbeat by Mr. Redniss, in favor of any kind of development anywhere in Stamford,” Wray said.
Development is “a runaway train,” said Paula Waldman of Old North Stamford Road.
“The boards don’t listen to residents. Many can no longer afford to live here. Condos don’t work for developers so they don’t build them. Young people will never be able to own a home because they’re always paying high rents,” Waldman said. “It’s baked in the cake … much of Long Ridge is owned by a big developer, so this is just the beginning.”
The scene for the tense meeting was set two years ago, when the Zoning Board changed the regulations to allow multi-family housing in the city’s five office parks. They are largely vacant, so city officials have been seeking ways to allow developers to repurpose them. The problem is that most of them are situated along High Ridge and Long Ridge roads, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods.
The distrust exhibited during the zoning meeting didn’t just come from residents.
Redniss said residents “just make stuff up.” Some residents said, for example, that 2,000 people would live in the apartment complex. In fact, the project would have 748 bedrooms, so if 2,000 people live there, there will be 2.7 people per bedroom, which makes no sense, Redniss said.
“It’s just amazing that we can be criticized for presenting data verified by the city, but people can make blanket statements without backup,” he said during the meeting. “If there’s an independent study, will they say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is correct?’ No. They’ll think of other reasons not to do it. … Facts don’t matter; people’s opinions matter.”
People, he said, “are not always right. That’s why this board has listened and why most of the time housing gets approved.”
A call for decorum
Resident Maria Perez of Pepperidge Road said developers or their representatives should not address taxpayers that way.
“It’s jarring to hear how they speak to the people of the city,” Perez said. “We should have a say. We are educated about what we need. We should not be spoken to like we have to be told that two plus two equals four.”
Board member Gerry Bosak Jr. agreed.
“I really find it a little bit offensive, the sarcasm,” Bosak said. “Members of the public are nervous, they fumble around to get their points across in the three minutes they get to speak. It takes courage to get on a call and talk about this. We need to encourage that. We need to be mindful of how we represent ourselves on this board.”
The Zoning Board typically approves the large projects that come before them. But when Chair David Stein asked board members to share their thoughts about the Monday Properties plan, they showed they are leaning against it.
“This is the type of building I expect to see downtown,” Morris said. “To put it on this site is like a travesty.”
Member Rosanne McManus said she liked that the project would use only 30 percent of the land, but “it’s not exactly what I had imagined in a beautiful parklike setting.”
“I can’t imagine why anyone would want a studio out here,” McManus said. “Maybe townhouses or single family homes.”
Board member Racquel Smith-Anderson agreed.
“I would like to see if the applicant could give us options outside just apartments – if there is a pathway for home ownership,” Smith-Anderson said.
But land-use attorney Bill Hennessey admonished the board for thinking of their role in that way.
“It’s not appropriate for the Zoning Board to dictate the form of ownership, condo or townhouse or co-op,” Hennessey said. “You have to deal with the structures and the use, not the user. That’s important to remember.”
The board also should not consider “character,” Hennessey said. A state statute says projects cannot be rejected for incompatibility with neighborhood character, since it has been used to discriminate against certain populations, he said.
“The policy of the state is to create more housing, period,” Hennessey said. “The reason housing is so expensive is because there’s such a limitation on it and competition for it. The only solution is to provide more product, and that’s what the statute addresses. We ask you to think long and hard about everything you’ve heard.”
The Zoning Board did not vote on the project during the meeting. They tabled it until after Thanksgiving. To see the schedule, click here.