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Stamford residents ‘fighting like hell’ to stop development in South End

December 7, 2018

STAMFORD — A line has been drawn on Walter Wheeler Drive in the old South End.

No high rises north of this point, some residents said.

But the machinery that puts those high rises up, and the puzzle pieces needed to create a new picture, a new neighborhood, are already there.

Two nearly-whole blocks have been acquired by the city’s largest developer, Building and Land Technology, and early plans for the lots have been discussed. A crane was recently erected to build the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company. A second building for the company, Charter Communications, has already earned general approvals and could be on the way.

Can a petition holding a handful of longtime residents stop a crane? They hope so. Or at least they aspire to shrink what goes up.

On one side of the issue stand residents, the most outspoken of them from their 50s to their 90s, staked out in 100-year-old homes now surrounded by new gleaming towers.

Sue Halpern, vice chairwoman of the South End’s Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, said the group was fine with development re-shaping old industrial land within a cordoned off district, Harbor Point, but now the main developer of the South End, BLT, has “overstepped their bounds.”

“We’re starting to panic, we’re getting closed in on,” she said. “We’re desperate between the parking and the traffic. ... We’re fighting like hell.”

On the other side is BLT, which has built some 3,000 apartments where polluted skeletons of the industrial era once stood. BLT’s attorneys contend the city would be smart to remember that when the firm arrived, the neighborhood included a “cyanide wasteland,” a garbage trucking facility and gas plants.

Most city officials and some residents call BLT’s work, Harbor Point, a success story that has re-invigorated a long dormant waterfront neighborhood with apartment buildings that will add millions to the tax rolls.

“I think the numbers of the district speak for themselves,” BLT Chief Operating Officer Ted Ferrarone said. “It’s been wildly successful.”

In the middle of the two factions is a small band of volunteers, members of the city Planning and Zoning boards, advised by the advisory staff of the Land Use Bureau.

Ultimately, what they say goes, including on a series of land-use code changes BLT proposed last week that would pave the way for an apartment complex that would take up half of one of the developer’s new blocks, the first in a historic neighborhood just outside of Harbor Point.

The neighborhood’s rapid growth is wearing on some who complain of rampant congestion on tired roads and sparse parking spots. But others laud BLT as the rare developer that comes to meetings and occasionally listens.

That group hopes future building can coincide with needed improvements to long-neglected neighborhood infrastructure.

Who speaks for the South End?

Complicating the fight is the fact that the sides are starting to blur.

Fissures among longtime residents have recently appeared, and some land use officials and volunteers privately say they don’t know who to listen to.

At the center of the discord is a growing split in the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone group that was created to speak for the neighborhood, showcased by the opinions of the neighborhood’s two city representatives. City Rep. Terry Adams, D-3, who is also president of the NRZ, stands in staunch opposition to BLT’s continued growth. He has pressed the developer to halt its slow march north in meetings and hearings for two years.

He has said he doesn’t trust the earth-moving company, and worries what it will do if given planning and zoning approvals.

But city Rep. Elise Coleman, D-3, who is an NRZ member, vouches for BLT, and spoke on the developer’s behalf at the most recent Planning Board meeting.

“I’ve worked with developers for 30 or 40 years, I’ve seen what developers have done to other cities, how they have just destroyed communities and moved people out and I agree BLT has done some of that, but they have done more good than bad,” Coleman said. “They do keep in touch with, and talk to, the community and the NRZ and they have done a lot of things that we asked for in the community. ... We have a French restaurant, we have a coffee shop. We didn’t have those before.”

When Coleman spoke for BLT at a recent meeting, “we were shocked,” Halpern said.

“We’re all devastated by that,” said another longtime NRZ member, Sheila Barney. “The ones who are working with the community are the president and the vice president of the NRZ,” meaning Adams and Halpern, she said.

In the future, getting leadership in line might not be their only problem. The definition of South End “community” is changing. The only qualification for membership in the NRZ is living in the neighborhood.

That opens the door for further upheaval: Most people who live in the South End likely have a common landlord, BLT.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the neighborhood’s population has grown by 53 percent between 2009 — roughly when BLT started building — and 2016, an addition of 1,550 residents.

And BLT is far from done building. Roughly 1,000 more units are slated to come on line in the next two years.

BLT likes to say these community members deserve a voice, too.

Some of the developer’s neighbors, including owners of South End buildings it has sold in recent years, sent written testimony to the Planning Board this week vouching for its recent proposal — the apartment complex, which would comprise some 670 apartments on Woodland Avenue and Pacific Street, where B&S Carting, a garbage facility, once stood.

“I have been a business owner in the South End for eight years now and have watched as new development has brought new life and vitality to the neighborhood,” wrote Michael Goreman, owner of Revel Catering and Remedy Bodyworks. “Please approve the pending applications.”

Ferrarrone was tight-lipped during a recent interview about his company’s plans beyond the B&S Carting property.

He did say the company would like a similar “transit-oriented development” on Henry and Garden streets two blocks north, but would not go into much detail.

If designed as a high rise, that proposal could spark backlash from neighbors and preservationists. An old brick typewriter factory, one that turned out Blickensderfers for a generation of American greats including Robert Frost, now sits in the middle of the block.

Ferrarone said the developer has no plans for building more within the South End’s historical district, aside from something on B&S and the Blickensderfer block.

He declined to say whether it has plans for Waterside across Stamford Harbor, where BLT opened its first apartment building outside of Harbor Point this year.

“We have no plans to redevelop, to move into the residential neighborhood,” Ferrarone said.

The pledge rings hollow to Halpern.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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