Critics call Simmons’ plan for Glenbrook community center a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’

STAMFORD — Just before Tuesday night’s Council of Representatives meeting began, Bridget Fox, chief of staff to Mayor Caroline Simmons, sent a memo to members.

Simmons didn’t want them to hold an item on the agenda that night – the sale of the Glenbrook Community Center to a developer to build affordable housing, Fox wrote.

“We have been made aware of some last minute confusion about this and wanted the administration’s position to be explicitly clear,” Fox wrote.

Then the board met and voted 21 to 18 to hold the sale.

The vote sets up a showdown between Simmons, who has been in office for nine months, and Stamford’s 40-member legislature. Not surprisingly, the issue is affordable housing – Connecticut’s hottest topic.

What’s notable, however, is that the battle is about Glenbrook, a dense neighborhood of modest single- and multi-family homes, small businesses, and busy streets, bisected by the Metro-North Railroad.

Residents say rents in the small apartment buildings around the community center are lower than the rents offered for the project.

It’s also worth noting that the shock is happening in Stamford, which over the past decade has created most of the area’s affordable housing. The city has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a Below Market Rate Program, a Section 8 Program, and a mandate that 10% of units in new Housing must be designated as affordable.

For this reason, Stamford is not subject to the state’s 8-30g law, which allows developers to circumvent zoning regulations if they build affordable housing in cities that have too little of it. The law is stirring heated disputes across the state.

Yet there is a housing crisis in Glenbrook.

In an email to city officials shortly before their meeting, Simmons wrote, “This vote is about affordable housing. As elected leaders of this city, we have an obligation to ensure that residents and those who work in our community have access to high quality affordable housing.

Letters to council show that Glenbrook residents do not accept its premise.

The vote is not about affordable housing, wrote Katherine Zeman. It is a community center.

The Glenbrook Center has operated in an aging school building at 35 Crescent Street for decades. It housed after-school programs, sports and dance programs, day care centers, senior citizens and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, social services, and social events. It closed in 2019 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I understand that we need affordable housing, but we need a community center more,” Zeman wrote.

Simmons made another point in his email that some residents and reps disagree with. She said selling the building to the development team at JHM Group and Viking Construction was the only choice.

“It will cost the purchaser approximately $23 million” to renovate it, and “no other proposal has demonstrated the level of funding necessary to revitalize this building,” Simmons wrote.

That’s because other ideas haven’t had a chance, according to a letter from three Glenbrook Neighborhood Association board members – Lori Constantine, Laurie Doig and Zdenka Zeman.

“The city only entertained developers who were interested in providing housing on this site. They did not ask for formal proposals from organizations that would be open to operating…a community center,” they wrote. “If all you want is accommodation, that’s all you’ll get. The city has created a self-fulfilling prophecy and tells us that’s all there is. This is bad faith at best, dishonesty at worst.

The neighborhood association’s board “at first unanimously supported the mayor’s proposal for housing because we were told it was the only option,” the members wrote. “However, as soon as there was a glimmer of hope to save our community center, eight out of ten board members revoked their support for the mayor’s proposal.”

The ‘silver lining’ was the revelation of two proposals to keep the community center open. Simmons said none of the proposals were “financially viable”.

That’s not true, said Stamford’s James D’Agostino, a business owner, engineer and property investor who has offered to renovate the center, move his 23-employee IT company to the fourth floor and a community daycare center to both first floors.

D’Agostino wrote in a letter to city officials that he would keep the gymnasium and third floor for community use, more than the 3,000 square feet of public space plus 1,300 square feet of rental space that the promoter proposed after the representatives refused. and residents.

“I want to say publicly that I am open to adding affordable housing to our vision if I am allowed to submit a formal offer,” wrote D’Agostino, who participated in Glenbrook Community Center programs as a child.

He said he could fund his proposal.

“I want to clarify that interested buyers like me have not had the opportunity to submit formal proposals,” D’Agostino wrote.

JHM Group and Viking Construction offered to pay the city $700,000 for the building, valued at $1.8 million. The partners say the city will benefit from 51 affordable housing units worth $5.3 million.

A CT Examiner calculation shows that the developer would earn more than $1 million a year from rent.

Under the city’s purchase and sale agreement, the deal is conditional on the developer obtaining below-market loans and/or grants from public sources, including the city’s housing department. Connecticut, and obtaining Connecticut low-income housing tax credits. Housing finance agency.

Simmons and residents who wrote in support of the affordable housing proposal highlighted the urgent need for “workforce housing”.

But in a note of frequently asked questions to representatives, Simmons staff acknowledged that residency in the project cannot be limited to those who live or work in Stamford.

“Eligibility will be determined by household income and size,” the fact sheet says. “The developers have used a lottery system for other properties they own to ensure the process is fair.”

Simmons’ email to city officials raised another point that sparked controversy.

“Due to the capital investment this property would require, including ongoing operating costs, Finance Council management has confirmed to my office that they will not approve a plan to reinstate this site as a community center,” the mayor wrote.

But the finance board did not discuss costs, member JR McMullen said.

“There was no discussion at the board level about anything other than affordable housing,” McMullen said. “I think it’s unfair to say there’s no way the council is supporting a community center when we’ve been supporting one in Glenbrook for 20 years.”

The city supports several community groups, McMullen said. SoundWaters, an environmental education organization, recently received several million dollars to reconfigure Boccuzzi Park, he said.

The 2022-23 city budget lists an allocation of $225,000 to the Boys & Girls Club; $144,450 for the Mary C. Rich Clubhouse Teen Center; and $1.3 million for the Stamford Museum and Nature Center.

The reason for Simmons’ determination to sell the community center and not build affordable units elsewhere is unclear. A request for comment from Simmons’ spokeswoman Lauren Meyer was not returned.

McMullen, a Republican, said Simmons, a Democrat, was sticking to her playbook.

“It’s part of the mayor of Stamford’s legacy. She voted to blow up local zoning control,” he said of Simmons, who as a state representative supported a law allowing secondary suites in all single-family homes.

Simmons will need to maintain a housing advocate profile “if she wants to go beyond Stamford mayor,” McMullen said. “She needs success on a social issue, and it’s a hot social issue in Connecticut. … If she doesn’t, she won’t be the one to be tapped to replace Blumenthal or Himes or Murphy, which I think is her next step.

Jill E. Washington