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Stamford starts to flex its new eye for design

December 21, 2018

STAMFORD — A developer’s concession and a squabble over cornices have given a brief window into the city’s closed-door fight to beautify its future.

Since the recent proposal to implement so-called urban-design guidelines to build more attractive buildings and create inviting streetscapes, Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing has trotted out some victories at recent Zoning Board meetings.

One win came last week with developer Building and Land Technology saying it will use brick instead of preferred plastic-foam-like EIFS for part of a facade on a proposed building in the South End. Weeks ago, a different builder said a new West Side self-storage facility will be of mixed-materials and add to the streetscape instead of replicating the usual fenced-off appearance of these types of buildings.

The victories highlight how Blessing’s staff has pushed builders to beautify their plans before proposals even reach the public. Blessing estimates he has had more than a dozen meetings with BLT and neighbors, all trying to apply written rules — some new and developed by his staff — into physical form for the builder’s latest proposal.

“The vast majority of developers listen to what we have to say,” Blessing said.

An example of that focus is Blessing’s use of a new ordinance that allows the Zoning Board to force builders to pay for independent consultants on a project. The board has used the law for light and noise concerns, but never design.

That almost changed with BLT’s plan to use EIFS for all of its proposed 670-unit building between Walter Wheeler Drive and Woodland Avenue.

Wielding an architectural review of BLT’s newest complex plan like a cudgel, Blessing got what he wanted. He told the board last week an independent review was not needed. The board will see a brick facade from BLT.

“The issue we had with the initial proposal was that it looked very similar to other developments in the South End,” Blessing told the board. “We’ve been working with BLT to get more variety in that architecture.”

The Land Use Bureau had already successfully pushed BLT to break up the complex into buildings of three heights — the tallest point of 22 stories the farthest from the historic South End — and hide the parking garage behind units.

BLT Chief Operating Officer Ted Ferrarone said the company has “made a tremendous number of changes in terms of the neighborhood residents and city staff feedback.”

Blessing said the bureau “tries not to work with threats ... but does it help to have more tools available? Probably, yes.”

The BLT changes are not the only ones trickling out. On a different housing project, staffers pushed required parking into an out-of-sight garage, wrapped by some 370 units of apartments facing Summer Street.

The hidden parking comes in stark contrast to much of the downtown, where garages can take up the first few floors of a building — sometimes covered in a transparent metal veneer local architect David Woods calls “sheer underwear on the butt of the building.”

Blessing said the new push is already yielding results due in part to inserting design standards in zoning districts the bureau has reviewed and edited. The bureau plans a complete overhaul of the city’s zones.

The self-storage facility on Leon Place, for example, will be built in a district created this year. The zoning code there now prohibits wire fences and requires tree plantings.

At a hearing this fall, the facility’s attorney, Lisa Feinberg, said it may be the “the most attractive self-storage facility in the city, if not the state.”

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

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