Reporters in New York and New Jersey have plenty to write about coastal real estate development these days: buyouts for waterfront property owners, fights over rebuilding subway stations, existential crises over the future of the Jersey Shore. There’s much less to discuss here in Connecticut, where shoreline cities and towns saw far less damage during Superstorm Sandy. Still, as even Governor Dannel P. Malloy has acknowledged, the next one could just as easily be coming straight for us.
"We dodged a bullet," Malloy said in a news conference shortly after Sandy. Had Sandy moved slightly slower across New Jersey, he noted ominously, "[we] would have, in all probability … had the kinds of issues that Staten Island, Long Island, and many of the waterfront communities in New Jersey had."
Sounds like tough talk. But is it being followed by action? Connecticut in recent years has staked much of its economic development strategy on reclaiming the state’s historically industrial waterfront. There may be no bigger champion of that than Malloy himself, who, on a trip to Switzerland last year, brokered a largely secret deal with the CEO of Bridgewater that offered the giant hedge fund as much as $115 million if it relocated its headquarters to the waterfront of Stamford, a mid-sized city on the New York border that is also home to financial firms UBS and RBS. (Malloy was mayor of Stamford for 14 years before he was elected governor in 2010).
The plan has unleashed a predictable firestorm of criticism for giving one of the world’s richest hedge funds taxpayer dollars. But there’s a darker wrinkle — the land in question is a slim, 14-acre peninsula surrounded on all three sides by Long Island Sound. In other words, it’s smack in the middle of a high-risk flood zone, an area that’s currently zoned for “water-dependent” uses, not the planned $750 million office megaplex.
That was enough to raise the hackles of even the state’s economic development director, Catherine Smith.
"We looked at that and said, ‘you know, you’re going to put a building basically into Long Island Sound. If you don’t do it right, it could be a disaster," she says.
Smith now says she’s since been persuaded otherwise, after seeing actual plans for the eight-story, nearly million-square foot building. They are certainly elaborate. Parking for 3,000 cars will be underground. The office complex itself consists of two linear buildings, joined by bridges and paths across exterior courtyards. A helipad, recreational barge, and public access walkway along the water are all planned. And, the land will be raised as much as 15 feet higher above the flood zone.
That’s all well and good, say critics, but it’s still bad policy. A growing chorus of Stamford residents is calling for the parcel to stay zoned the way it is.
"They would be taking away a water-dependent use for a non-dependent use that could go anywhere upland. Anywhere," says Randy Dinter, a lifelong boater who grew up on Connecticut’s coastline and co-founded the group "Save Our Boatyard" to lobby for its return.
Sandy’s memory may help his cause. Opposition to the Bridgewater plan isn’t just about a bunch of angry boaters anymore; it’s being recast as about keeping a flood-prone area safe. Sure, a boatyard is subject to flooding, too. But the kind of damage it would sustain – and the cost to build, maintain, and insure it – isn’t anywhere near what could happen to an office park with more than 1,000 employees.
Barry Hersh would know – he’s long-time Stamford resident and a clinical associate professor of real estate at New York University. During hurricanes, tropical storms, and superstorms past, he says, “there was some flooding” in the small peninsula, “but it was a boatyard. And nobody lived there. And there were boats.”
That will obviously not be the case should Bridgewater move in. The plan isn’t a done deal yet – it needs the approval of numerous local Stamford boards, and residents are gearing up for a fight. Still, it won’t be easy to defy the governor, a giant hedge fund, and the promise of as many as 1,000 new high-level jobs and more tax revenue in this booming city.
Faced with the prospect of future storms affecting its downtown – which is also located in a floodplain – Stamford, like many other shoreline cities in Connecticut, will have to rethink its future.
The city is getting ready to rewrite its master plan. When I asked Mayor Michael Pavia if such a plan might preclude a development like Bridgewater from going forward, he declined to give me an answer.
But what he did say was telling: “I’ve seen a lot of large and controversial developments that came forward. But this one is by far the most interesting, the most complicated, most dynamic that I have ever seen."