Post-election, Stamford residents uneasy about ‘runaway growth’
Updated 5:47 pm, Friday, November 10, 2017
STAMFORD — Residents who have spent the year fighting to protect their neighborhoods say they are concerned that congestion will continue now that Mayor David Martin has won a second term.
In the run-up to last week’s election, neighborhood advocates - backed by a number of city representatives - have said that over-development and inadequate enforcement of zoning regulations are “the” issues in Stamford.
The city is moving ahead with development proposals without taking time to analyze the ramifications of recent builds, including housing complexes large and small, residents have said.
Shortly after he was re-elected Tuesday night, Martin, a Democrat, said he has heard the concerns, though he believes some are spurred by “a few loud voices” and others by “nostalgia” for a Stamford that can never return to what it was.
He is putting measures in place to improve zoning enforcement, said Martin, who first took office in 2013.
“We’ve made Stamford a better city,” Martin said. “We’re going to continue on that path.”
That depends on how you define “better,” said Michael Battinelli, president of the Stamford Neighborhood Coalition. Formed two years ago, the coalition brought together individual neighborhood associations, and now has 700 members, Battinelli said.
“I think the mayor has an imperialistic view,” he said. “If he is trying to create the most populated city in the state, he’s succeeding, but it’s at the cost of people’s health and safety and quality of life.”
Battinelli’s concern now, with Martin staying in office, is that development “floodgates are going to open, and we’re going to be fighting every month against some project that will hurt a neighborhood,” he said. “It’s going to be harder now because the mayor is going to believe he has the city behind him.”
Martin on Tuesday won 58 percent of the vote. His Republican challenger, Barry Michelson, a former Zoning Board member who ran on concerns about development, got 34 percent, and the unaffiliated candidate, John Zito, got 7 percent. Democrats now dominate all the elected boards.
Coalition members aren’t “for nostalgia” or “against development,” said Battinelli, who supported Michelson.
“I’ve lived in Glenbrook most of my life. Every night I walk my dog by what used to be Anthony’s Produce and Yale Barber Shop. They’re gone. That’s progress. Things never stay the same. Like most people, I wholly accept that,” he said. “What I don’t accept is the gross negligence with zoning enforcement, the congestion. I think people should expect to improve their quality of life from generation to generation. But it’s reversing itself. Why should people compromise their quality of life just to pack in more people?”
Stamford has seen a steady build-up for decades, he said. It’s the pace that’s changed, he said.
“Seaside Avenue in the Cove used to have all one- and two-family houses. Then the six-unit condo complexes started to show up behind the houses. But it happened slowly, so people didn’t react as much,” Battinelli said. “Now they’re putting up these monster buildings with less than one parking space per unit and pushing parking out onto the streets. There’s very little consideration for quality of life.”
The thinking isn’t confined to Republicans. Democrat Nina Sherwood, who won a District 8 seat on the Board of Representatives, is a founder of Reform Stamford, an inter-party group.
“Reform Stamford is not nativist; it’s not anti-growth,” said Sherwood, whose group won eight of their 11 races Tuesday. “We just say the growth needs to make sense, and to a large extent it hasn’t made sense for residents.
“City Hall has told us that if more people move in, we will have a bigger tax base that will be spread over residential and commercial property, and that will keep our taxes down,” she said. “But taxes go up, and we have a commercial vacancy rate of almost 30 percent. So the promise has failed.”
Democrat Megan Cottrell of District 4, another member of Reform Stamford, said she thinks “nostalgia” is a code word.
“It’s a way for them to defend allowing runaway growth that isn’t done in a smart way,” Cottrell said. “We see all the text changes that have been allowed.”
Developers seek text changes - exceptions to zoning regulations - in order to build the projects they envision, a practice Michelson has long opposed. The rules should not be altered to fit a project, he said - the project should fit the rules.
“The city is changing but people can still play within the rules,” Michelson said. “Instead, the concept of spot zoning is being institutionalized. What people are reacting to is sprawl without planning.”
The city has not policed the illegal apartments that create congestion in nearly every neighborhood, he said.
“The mayor is not listening to what the people are saying. It’s not about anti-development,” Michelson said. “It’s about playing by the rules.”
Democratic state Rep. William Tong, who celebrated with Martin after his win, said his constituents in North Stamford and northern Springdale see the effects of illegal housing.
“It’s real,” Tong said. “I think the mayor understands that.”
Zito said there has been an attitude in City Hall that predates Martin. It says to residents, if you don’t like it, leave, he said.
“I don’t think people expect Stamford to go back to the way it was, but things are happening without much of a plan,” he said. “People look at all these developers and say, ‘All this money is getting made and how does it help me?’ It doesn’t.
“The South End got developed — it’s nice and cleaned up,” Zito said. “But I would have liked to see more of the old structures refurbished the way they do in other towns. What I don’t see is the need for more high-rises.”
Residents get the feeling no one has an eye on the big picture, Battinelli said.
“Putting up a building in one place affects the whole city,” he said. “Who’s thinking about that?”