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Saturday, January 20 Local

Stamford’s Harbor Point: City seeks to discern South End changes

STAMFORD — In the city’s fastest-changing neighborhood, residents last week sat around a table in a community center to take stock.

Natives and newcomers, house dwellers and high-rise dwellers, owners and renters, they explored common ground.

The South End, they agreed, is better off for Harbor Point, reportedly one of the largest redevelopment projects in the nation. The neighborhood is cleaner, safer, more vibrant, with a nice park and a walkway along Stamford Harbor, residents said.

Once the city’s industrial heart, where people living in rows of multifamily Victorians walked to their jobs in manufacturing plants, the South End is becoming a place of luxury apartment towers with views of Long Island Sound and trendy restaurants.

But the growth seems unchecked, longtime residents said. They feel hemmed in by high-rises, and the neighborhood, now full of renters, has become transient. Not only is Harbor Point developer BLT continuing to build, they said, but smaller companies are trying to buy up properties and assemble them into larger lots that can fit even more high-rises.

Newcomers said transience doesn’t hurt the neighborhood — as long as people keep moving in — and the more, the better. But they think the South End needs retail stores, better street lighting and better-connected blocks.

All of that is the reason residents were asked to the meeting Tuesday at the Lathon Wider Community Center, organized by a consultant hired by the city’s Land Use Bureau to study the effects of the massive transformation.

“The purpose is to give us information we need to devise strategies to address the issues that come with rapid development,” said Ralph Blessing, chief of the Land Use Bureau. “We also want to learn about the opportunities it might bring, and how we can use them to benefit everyone.”

The study by the consultant, Collective for Community, Culture and Environment, began in September and is expected to take a year, Blessing said.

“We don’t want them to come up with something just to please us. We want the facts, because only with the facts can we plan well,” he said. “If there is an inconvenient truth, we want to hear it.”

Residents at the meeting were not shy about sharing their truths.

‘Nobody stays’

Sue Halpern, who bought a condo on Elmcroft Road 35 years ago, said that, at the time, “the city was talking about renovating the South End, but on a smaller scale. Now all these high-rises have taken over and it’s not what I expected. It’s not as much of a neighborhood.”

Bob Katchko, owner of Katchko Construction, which has been on the South End for three decades, said the neighborhood needs to be stabilized.

“Nobody stays. They rent for a year and leave,” Katchko said. “We want to see more business-friendly activity here. Businesses create jobs. Rental apartments don’t create jobs. But a lot of businesses have had to move because they didn’t own the property, and the person who owned it sold it to the developer.”

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Longtime South End homeowner Sheila Barney said there’s a lot of people movement.

“We are happy more people are coming in; we’ve met some nice people. But they come and go,” she said. “They get an apartment in one of these buildings, find they can’t afford the rent, so they move to another one down the street.”

Rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Harbor Point vary, but average out to roughly $2,000 a month.

“There’s our historic community, and then there’s the BLT community. And it’s like night and day — high-rise to low-rise,” Barney said. “But’s it’s still a nice community.”

She and fellow South End resident Terry Adams, a city representative from District 3, said they rent apartments to tenants who stay for years because they charge affordable rents. Adams said his tenants are “people who cut the lawns in Stamford, and work in the hotels and restaurant kitchens.”

But the high-rent high-rises have developers on the prowl, Adams said.

“For the last two or three years, they’ve been knocking on doors, sometimes twice a week, sometimes every day,” Adams said. “They want to buy your property.”

They don’t just knock, Barney said.

“We get phone calls, things in the mail, all the time,” she said.

“BLT did all this developing and now other people are coming in and trying to capitalize,” Adams said.

Opportunity to own

Many people don’t want to sell, said John Wooten, who lives in a house on Stone Street that his wife bought from her mother.

“Before the housing market crashed, people were selling left and right because the prices were good. But BLT is not paying much now, so why would you sell your house?” Wooten said. “It’s a good area, so you stay and work toward a better quality of life.”

Quality of life is a concern, Barney said.

“We don’t want to be overcrowded, with a big apartment building in every parking lot,” she said.

Stamford is more lax than other towns in allowing developers to tear down historic buildings, Adams said.

“We just don’t want the developer to overpower the rest of the community,” he said.

And there’s nothing to buy - you can only rent in Harbor Point, Wooten said.

“It’s time to get into some ownership,” he said.

Elisa Gorman said she and her husband have lived in one of the high-rises for four years, and she runs her business, New View PR, from home.

“Just because I live in an apartment building doesn’t mean I’m not part of the community. This is our home,” said Gorman, who formerly lived in Manhattan. “A lot of the people in my building are in their 30s, but there hasn’t been a lot of turnover. I think all the growth has been great - I make my living from the businesses BLT has brought in.”

What’s the center?

Gorman said, though, that she doesn’t feel safe walking to the nearby Fairway grocery store.

“There are a lot of dark areas, so I drive,” she said.

Other residents said they think people are fearful because of stories about the South End’s past, after the manufacturing plants closed and the solid working-class neighborhood deteriorated. Crime rose.

“I used to carry a gun down here. One morning I found a dead guy in front of the gate to my business,” Katchko said. “It’s a lot better now.”

A woman said all of the development is “a blessing” because BLT sells the high-rises for millions of dollars and all South End buildings benefit. A man who operates a restaurant in Harbor Point said he employs about 120 people and 90 percent of them are from Stamford. His customers come from within 45 miles, an area from Westport to Westchester, he said, and all of that is good for the city.

The problem is that business slows considerably in the winter, forcing him to lay off about 60 employees, he said.

Consultant Jocelyne Chait asked residents to identify the center of their neighborhood. Adams immediately said the community center, which offers a library and education, health, family support and other services.

Gorman disagreed.

“I’ve never been in this building in my life. This isn’t the center for me,” Gorman said. “I think the center it’s where the Beacon (apartment building) meets the dock area. That’s where I do most of my business.”

Other places are the walkway along the harbor and Kosciuszko Park, where she might go for a picnic beside the water, she said.

The two centers can’t be compared, Adams said, “but we are saying we can co-exist.”

Defining affordable

Wooten said the study should take a good look at what is considered affordable housing. In Harbor Point lower rents are offered on 10 percent of the units built, and offered to people earning 50 percent or less of the area median income, which the federal government says is $142,800 for a family of four in Stamford.

Rent for an affordable one-bedroom apartment is almost $1,200 a month, according to information from BLT. It’s about $800 less than the usual rate, but still out of range for many, Wooten said.

To date BLT has built 275 affordable units, said Ted Ferrarone, chief operating officer for Harbor Point, and another 66 will be included in buildings now under construction.

Of the 4,000 housing units BLT plans for Harbor Point, about 2,750 are complete, Ferrarone said.

“All units developed to date are for rent,” he said. “We have developed a wide range of units … including historic loft units, townhomes, midrise and high-rise.”

Most of the development “replaces vacant industrial buildings, not homes,” Ferrarone said. In the newest building, NV@Harbor Point, 40 percent of the affordable units will be occupied by South End residents, he said.

“We believe that many of these renters will be moving into better housing than they had before, and we’re excited to continue building Harbor Point in the spirit of inclusivity that was contemplated under the master plan,” Ferrarone said.

The study results will help the city solve the problems residents described, Blessing said.

“Usually retail follows residential development, because businesses need customers. But maybe the consultant will see a way to close that time lag,” he said. “We can actively guide the development process, but we need to know what we want to get out of it.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com

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