STAMFORD – Zoning Board members were nearing the end of a discussion about a proposal to build 471 luxury apartments in a prime downtown location when something unexpected happened.
The developer called off the discussion.
At the time, board members were discussing whether to allow the developer, Carmel Partners of New York, to contribute money to Stamford’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund rather than include reduced-rent apartments in its project on Clinton Avenue along Mill River.
Under the city’s Below Market Rate program, developers must offer at least 10 percent of units in a project at reduced rents. In lieu of that, they may seek approval to contribute the value of those units to the affordable housing fund instead.
Carmel Partners was asking the board to approve the cash offset which would have added nearly $13 million to the fund.
But this time board members instead wanted a portion of the required 49 reduced-rent units to be included in the Clinton Avenue project, because board members felt it was the ideal location for below market rate apartments and would allow low- and moderate-income residents to live within walking distance of transportation, jobs, shopping and Mill River Park.
So board members suggested a hybrid arrangement – build some BMR units on site and generate a contribution to the fund, which provides grants to nonprofit agencies that create affordable housing.
“A project like Clinton Avenue provides affordable units, and sooner than the trust fund. Land is getting so expensive in Stamford that it takes nonprofits longer to get projects done,” said the chair, David Stein. “I’m open to splitting it. I think it’s a good way to handle this.”
As other members were agreeing, the city’s principal planner, Vineeta Mathur, interrupted. She’d received an email from the developer, whose team was watching the meeting Monday night on Zoom, Mathur said.
“The email says that if the board is considering a hybrid approach, they would like to withdraw their application,” Mathur said.
Board members were taken aback.
“I don’t get that,” Rosanne McManus said. “I don’t get that at all.”
“I don’t, either,” Stein said.
Board member Gerry Bosak Jr. asked whether a developer is allowed to email a message into a live meeting to withdraw an application under discussion.
“I mean, is this protocol? We’re trying to meet them halfway, and to fulfill the needs of the community,” Bosak said.
“This has been known to happen,” Stein said.
The city’s Land Use Bureau chief, Ralph Blessing, reminded the board that the project is already approved with on-site BMR units, so it can move forward with zero contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
“We’re going around and around,” Bosak said. “It really comes down to the applicant.”
“I agree,” Stein said. “Is the application being withdrawn, or is it still filed? Because, if we vote, it will be too late to withdraw it.”
Stein appeared ready to call for a vote; Blessing stepped in to reiterate that, if the board decided to require both on-site BMR units and a contribution to the housing fund, “you might end up with all units on site.”
“OK,” Stein said. “I would regret that if it happens, but I don’t like to be threatened. And I feel like that’s a threat at this point.”
Mathur interrupted again.
“They withdrew,” she said of the developer.
“They did withdraw,” Stein said. “OK.”
He then took up a brief final item on the agenda and ended the meeting.
It was weird, Bosak said Tuesday. Developers usually work with the Zoning Board in such instances, he said. In this instance, he said, the board was seeking a compromise with the developer.
“I was absolutely surprised by the withdrawal,” Bosak said. “I wanted to get some units on site because the city has such a need for affordable housing. I recognize the nonprofits do this type of development very well, but I didn’t want to wait for that.”
Nonprofit agencies that build affordable housing units have to amass funding and find land they can afford, which is becoming increasingly difficult in Stamford. That usually takes more time than it takes a private developer to build a project, and the BMR units that go with it.
The previous owner of the Clinton Avenue parcels brought the boards a plan to build 456 apartments with all 46 reduced-rent units on site. The proposal languished from 2016 until 2022, when Carmel Partners bought the parcels.
The Carmel Partners proposal is 471 apartments and a request for a special permit to build no BMR units on site, putting the $13 million into the housing fund instead.
It’s unclear what will come of the large project, which as proposed would construct two seven-story apartment buildings on 4.4 acres along the river on either side of Clinton Avenue.
Jason Klein, an attorney with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey who represents Carmel Partners, did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Klein told the Planning Board last month that it’s “a challenging time” to get financing for developments, and that obtaining financing for a project that builds some reduced-rate units on site and makes some contribution to the affordable housing fund “may not be feasible.”
But Planning Board members last month voted unanimously to recommend that the Zoning Board do just that.
Bosak said he agreed with the Planning Board recommendation, which was why he made the motion that the Zoning Board follow it. But Carmel Partners dropped out before the Zoning Board could vote.
“I thought my motion was a measured response to the developer taking back the original proposal to put all BMR units on site, proposing instead to put none on site,” Bosak said.