What is the ‘highest and best use’?
STAMFORD — In the South End — a 177-acre neighborhood so sought by developers it draws comparisons to a real-life Monopoly board — recent moves appear to have put the “Boardwalk” property in play.
The cash-strapped state Department of Transportation recently explained its plan to replace the crumbling parking garage across from the Stamford Train Station with a new $100 million elevated structure located a few blocks away — the bulk of the money borrowed.
That leaves the old garage site, appraised last year at $28.8 million for the land alone, available. The nearly 4-acre plot is among the most desired locations in Stamford, according to DOT Commissioner James Redeker. It is directly adjacent to the busiest train station in the state. But a parking garage is not the “highest and best use” of the parcel, he said, adding it has to produce more revenue to help cover the cost of the rail line.
Some are now wondering why the state is moving ahead with such a costly new structure, devoting funds that are needed elsewhere, before it knows what will become of the old-garage site.
What its “highest and best use” is, no one seems able or willing to say.
“That’s a really good question,” said Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for The Business Council of Fairfield County.
Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said there is no answer from his office.
“All we know now is that we need to take care of parking in the near term,” Nursick said. “We don’t have any answers at this point.”
That makes many uneasy: Rodney Chabot, former chairman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, is among them.
“(The DOT) seems to be leaning very heavily to a developer’s point of view,” Chabot said. “They’re turning into a real estate firm.”
But developers appear to be sitting back. The city’s largest, Building and Land Technology, which owns most of the properties surrounding the old garage — and most of the South End — is not in talks with the DOT about any plans for the site, according to the department. Neither is Empire State Realty Trust, which owns the Thompson Reuters Building, at 1 Station Place next door to the garage.
The lack of action could be a sign that developers are waiting to see the outcome of chaos coming to the neighborhood. Not only did the city move students and staff from Westover Elementary School to a BLT office building this month, the state will soon close one of the main roads leading in and out of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, and more important, a group of residents is plying pressure on the city to push back against BLT’s growth, while the developer is pining for more control through forming a new taxing district.
The state, also, likely isn’t keen on making new plans ahead of administration changes.
Then there is the fact that the last time a plan for the site was floated, it proved a mess that current players might not want to evoke.
New garage is part of old plan
There were big plans for the prized old-garage parcel just a few years ago.
The state in 2013 announced it had linked with developer John McClutchy and others to build a half-billion-dollar monolith with housing, office space and hotel rooms where the garage, built in the mid-1980s, now sits.
It would have replaced the oldest portion of the garage, keeping surrounding levels that were later installed.
The same replacement garage on South State Street that the state will soon start building was part of the deal — although it was then in the neighborhood of $35 million, paid for by the DOT.
The plan, with 1 million square feet of building, was for a New York City-style addition to a city already playing itself up as a commuter’s dream. The rough outlines came as the South End began its transformation from abandoned factories and brownfields to BLT’s “live-work-play” community called Harbor Point.
Harbor Point now houses thousands, many of whom take the train.
The garage-site plan had naysayers, and prompted widespread criticism in Stamford because the city felt its input wasn’t sought or considered. Still, it was lauded by those at the state level as a needed transit-oriented development that would precede a desired revamp of a train station that looks plucked from the Eastern Bloc.
Three years later, after scores of closed-door negotiations and no contract, the plan died.
State officials nixed the development in part because the designated real estate and construction team failed a vetting process. The year before it came to light that McClutchy, his wife and their son gave a combined $30,000 to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee 10 days before the DOT picked them for the development.
The state said it would go ahead solely with the new garage, and, in the meantime, put up $1.5 million to fix the old one after falling chunks of concrete marked mounting safety concerns.
Then this fall came the awaited presentation of the new garage, which revealed a new price tag of $100 million for about 1,000 spots. That’s $100,000 a spot. Nobody denies the need for new and better parking at the train station. But the new plan raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I was really struck by the cost of that new garage,” McGee said. It has been estimated that the entirety of the New Haven line could be brought to good working condition for around that sum, $100-150 million, he said.
Instead the state is plunking the money down, and seemingly has no plans for the station or the high-valued plot it is leaving behind, he said.
“This is almost ass-backwards the way this is being done,” he said. “There is a need for a comprehensive plan of development for the train station area ... just building a garage is not the solution.”
State officials have said building in the tight and complicated landscape near the station has driven up the cost of the new garage.
There were problems with the original plan, but at least there was more thought behind it, McGee said.
“Redeker and the DOT had a very good instinct when this started six to eight years ago,” McGee said. “(The garage) is almost out of shear frustration. If this is Malloy’s final gift to Stamford, it’s one I’m not sure I would accept.”
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