Deal to bring Bridgewater to Stamford from Westport gets panned
Updated 9:01 pm, Thursday, August 15, 2013
The deal to bring the headquarters of the Westport-based hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, to Stamford is being criticized by that city's residents.
Stamford residents overwhelmingly urged city planning officials Tuesday night to scuttle a proposed land swap and public improvements agreement with the developer for the project, saying it would saddle them with higher property taxes and other problems.
They objected to almost every aspect of the proposed agreement, which involves a hotly contested scheme to build Bridgewater's headquarters on Stamford harbor's west branch.
"What kind of business deal is this?" Cynthia Reeder told the board. "A crazy, irresponsible one if you're the city of Stamford."
More than 200 people packed into the hearing, which ran until nearly 11:30 p.m., and more than 100 residents signed up to testify. The hearing will continue at 7 p.m. next Tuesday in Westover School, 412 Stillwater Ave in Stamford.
Under the agreement, the city would receive $5 million in public improvements starting with a new animal shelter, in return for giving the developer, Building and Land Technology, the right to use 2.4 acres of city land, including a swath of park land Stamford acquired to preserve as open space, to build a boatyard at 205 Magee Ave.
The deal must be approved by the city's planning board, Board of Finance and Board of Representatives before a separate request by BLT seeking permission for an additional 850,000 square feet of commercial space to build the Bridgewater headquarters is considered.
The Bridgewater project has been on hold for more than a year after the city imposed cease-and-desist order in response to BLT's unauthorized demolition of the city's last working boatyard, Brewer Yacht Haven.
Maureen Boylan, president of Save Our Boatyard, said the developer and the city have used economic, environmental and other arguments to keep focus shifting from the basic inadequacy of Magee Avenue to replace the Brewer Yacht Haven yard and the unlawful decision to demolish Brewer.
"Do not let this administration or BLT strong arm you, or buy into their so called misrepresentation of what this agreement will provide for the city and the taxpayers," Boylan said. "BLT needs to rebuild the boatyard on the 14-acre peninsula where it belongs."
George Stadel, a boat designer, said that the proposal for a boatyard at 205 Magee Ave. will be unable to operate an efficient "valet rack service" because of limitations of the east channel of the harbor and space constraints on the 6-acre site.
"The plan to `valet' launch 184 boats -- launching them when you want and hauling them when you come back in -- is ludicrous," Stadel said. "... I could go on, but the point is that someone building a viable boatyard business wouldn't come up with this plan, or in this place, and valuable city land should not be leased to an enterprise destined to fail."
Architect explains reasoning
During the presentation from the city and then by the developer, John Freeman, BLT's general counsel and spokesman, showed slides of Brewer Yacht Haven site to argue that the relocation of the boatyard from Bateman Way to clear the way for Bridgewater's headquarters is a benefit to the city's economy and ecologically sound.
And James Cutler, an architect for Cutler Anderson who works for Bridgewater, pointed out that the project would clean up the toxins that contaminate the land, which he blamed cumulatively on users of the waterfront and the marine industry.
"This is the reason: I told you in the beginning how deeply I care about this living world and our need to co-exist with it," Cutler said. "You have a piece of land here in your city that is going to require an enormous amount of work to heal. It has been damaged by you ... in this city."
Cynthia Reeder, a Stamford resident, said the structure of the agreement was so flawed legally and biased against the city that even just the idea of holding a public hearing to approve it was questionable. Approving the license would blatantly ignore the city's planning regulations and a medley of restrictions that bar the use of the Magee Avenue parkland and seek to keep a balance between waterfront development and other uses. She gave the example of the parkland, which when the city acquired it, was restricted to passive recreation, Not even playground equipment is allowed. The agreement would alter that significantly.
"The city insisted that recreational activities on the parkland be so passive that they exclude playground equipment," Reeder said of the parkland at 205 Magee Ave. "Why would the Planning Board endorse boatyard equipment on the site?"
Use of parkland contested
Boylan said that the city planners have a clear-cut responsibility to enforce restrictions on development of the Bateman Way parcel. She cited the 2007 zoning agreement between the city and Building and Land Technology for Harbor Point, which ensured that the developer retain a boatyard on the west branch of Stamford harbor.
"It cannot come near to meeting the level of services -- or, more important, the potential -- of the 14-acre site, a site uniquely suited for a true water-dependent use such as a boatyard and marina," Boylan said comparing the two sites. "The Magee Avenue site is a mud flat."
In the 2007 zoning agreement, BLT received permission to build 700 additional units and 122,000 feet of commercial space elsewhere in the South End based of a calculated density that included the Brewer Yacht Haven site's 14 acres in the formula.
Freeman maintains that the zoning agreement doesn't preclude the type of redevelopment proposal that BLT is making and regulations enable them to request additional buildable feet at Bateman Way with an alternate site plan.
Those in favor
Two speakers at the hearing spoke in favor of the economic and community benefits of the deal.
One was Ally Girardi, the executive director of the Outreach to Pets nonprofit that supports Stamford's animal shelter, which is currently located on the site of the proposed Magee Avenue boatyard. The proposed new animal shelter would be constructed nearby.
"When you remove emotion and noise from an issue it is so much easier to view the facts and find a solution," Girardi said. "In a perfect world we would have preferred a new location in a rural setting with more space. But reality is about compromise, and our existing shelter and resident pets cannot wait for a perfect world."
The other was Jay Forgotson, speaking on behalf of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce. He said the licensing agreement should be approved quickly to ensure Bridgewater comes to Stamford, and pointed out the public amenities such as the shelter and upgrades to Czescik Marina that the deal would bring.
"It should be confirmed by the board and as quickly as possible," Forgotson said. "Approval will result in the building of a state of the art boatyard on an environmentally clean property with good bulkheads and a green marina."
After the hearing, Bridgewater Associates issued a statement confirming the firm's commitment to moving to Stamford and the view that its new headquarters would help restore the waterfront site.
"Although as we clearly stated at the time of the announcement, there are a number of hurdles that we would need to overcome before we could bring this project to fruition," the statement said. "The outstanding issues which we continue to evaluate include zoning and community-related issues as well as the overall feasibility, cost, and complexity of the project."