The Politics of Urban Development in Stamford from 1960 to 1980

In 1986, the former director of the Stamford Urban Redevelopment Commission Jack Condlin claimed that in “a hundred years from now, some urban planner will do a doctorate on the Stamford Experience”.[1] The so-called “Stamford Experience” has been a 60-year experiment in urban development that has transformed the small New England town into a corporate powerhouse. To accommodate this growth, Stamford’s zoning laws have been changed and centuries-old neighborhoods have given way to skyscrapers. This paper will analyze the untold story of the politics behind these radical changes in urban planning, with close attention to the conflict between developers and Stamford’s local residents.

The story of urban planning in Stamford begins in 1960 at the dawn of the Urban Renewal era, when Stamford officials granted the F.D. Rich Company sole rights to redevelop 130 acres of its downtown[2]. This was one of the largest urban renewal efforts in the United States, resulting in millions of square feet of new office space that attracted Fortune 500 companies relocating from New York City[3]. Hundreds of families were displaced during this process as their homes were replaced by office towers and a new shopping mall. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more apartment and office towers continued to reshape Stamford’s skyline.

Urban Renewal sites in 1973.

In 1994, the City of Stamford sold two large properties downtown to Swiss banking giant UBS for $1. In turn, UBS built its headquarters and the largest trading floor in the world on the site[4]. This development established Stamford as one of the most prominent financial centers in the country. In the 2000s, Antares Investment Partners acquired 82 properties in the city’s South End at a cost of over $400 million and planned to turn the formerly industrial neighborhood into a residential waterfront community called “Harbor Point”. The project was approved by Stamford’s Zoning Board in 2007 and it soon evolved into a $3.5 billion venture under a new developer, Building and Land Technology (BLT), that has redefined Stamford’s waterfront[5].

The infamous St. Johns Towers under construction. Dislocated families from the Urban Renewal sites were relocated here.

In the 2010s, Stamford entered an unprecedented construction boom of apartments and office space totaling over $6 billion in 2020, likely an extension of New York’s City’s growth.[6] During this period, Stamford became a digital media hub with the construction of Charter Communications’ $400 million world headquarters and the headquarters of ITV America and NBC Sports.[7] While these major developments drew few controversies from local residents, other developments drew large crowds of opposition. The tension between local residents and developers reached a tipping point in 2011 when BLT demolished the City’s only boatyard to make way for hedge fund giant Bridgewater Associates’ $750 million headquarters.[8] Local residents accused BLT of illegally demolishing the site and the conflict turned into a 2-year legal battle that eventually reached Connecticut’s Supreme Court. The Court sided with BLT but Bridgewater’s headquarters were never built, leaving the future of the 14-acre site uncertain.[9] More importantly, relations between BLT and local residents were never salvaged and many residents in Zoning Board public hearings continue citing the incident as evidence of the developer’s growing influence in the City. In 2011, a $750 million plan to build two 400-foot towers Downtown and redevelop a Post Office on the site drew opposition even as it was downsized. Preservationists embarked on a legal battle to save the site but the courts sided with the developer.[10] This prompted residents in the South End to adopt a preservationist attitude and call for the expansion of historic districts, which is a method of slowing down what they perceived as the encroachment of large developers into their neighborhood.[11]

House in one of the Urban Renewal sites under demolition.

The history of development in Stamford shows that the city has followed a particular pattern to handle development. Namely, private developers are granted large parcels of land and empowered by the Zoning Board to carry out large developments. While these developments have undoubtedly contributed to the economic well-being of the city, many residents have raised concerns about gentrification and displacement[12].

During the Urban Renewal Era, “1,200 mostly poor families and 400 “mom and pop” stores [were] evicted from the downtown site”.[13] In fact, “the [Stamford] Government paid more than $50 million to clear sites for General Telephone and Electronics, Champion International, the Singer Corporation, Macy’s, J.C. Penney’s and 100 other stores”.[14] Moreover, these developments have not always taken the voices of local residents into account. For example, the federal funding given to Stamford during its Urban Renewal era included provisions that called for institutionalized community involvement. These often took the form of “an agency that derived its authority from the state at a time when the city did not have an economic development program to uplift depressed urban neighborhoods.”[15] In 1954, the Stamford Urban Redevelopment Commission was created to serve this purpose. However, it is not entirely clear whether the Commission incorporated members from communities under redevelopment. Even today, the Commission is largely unknown to the public and its members do not necessarily represent neighborhoods affected by redevelopment.[16] Moreover, the power of the Commission has shifted largely to the Economic Development Department in Stamford’s city hall, further isolating grassroot-level involvement in redevelopment efforts.

Demolition in Downtown Stamford during the Urban Renewal Era.

While the Urban Redevelopment Commission and the Economic Development Department play key roles in redevelopment projects, they are not the only government agencies involved. The city’s Zoning Board plays a powerful role in development because it has jurisdiction to approve or reject development projects, and officially it “regulates the height, bulk and uses of property”.[17] For residents, this provides another opportunity to express their support or opposition for a development project in their neighborhood and beyond. It is in Zoning Board public hearings where the voices of Stamford residents can be found and where the politics of urban development often begin.

Towers under construction in Downtown Stamford.

One of the most contested (and documented) urban developments in Stamford is the ongoing $3.5 billion Harbor Point development, which has already transformed a formerly industrial neighborhood into one of the most attractive communities on Connecticut’s so-called “Gold Coast”. According to a report by the Stamford Advocate, Harbor Point properties “contribute more than $1.2 billion to the city’s Grand List value” and “twenty-seven restaurants, and retailers and office tenants including Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, exist where overgrown industrial brownfields once ruled.” [18]

Developments along Tresser Boulevard under construction in the 1970s.

Additionally, the development has expanded beyond its original site, creating a widening gap between residents who wish to preserve the character of the neighborhood and new residents who support the expansion of Harbor Point. This has prompted community leaders to join grassroot organizations such as the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone (NRZ), which was formed in 1997, to push against what they perceive as overdevelopment.[19]According to the NRZ Vicechairwoman Sue Halpern, “We’re fighting like hell.”[20] The NRZ has found support among concerned residents and politicians such as municipal Representative Terry Adams and State Representative David Michel. This network has been able to rally residents against BLT[21] and even halted a 22-story development in its tracks through a petition to the Board of Representatives.[22] The future of this development is being decided in court.

The site of Stamford’s current mall under construction; houses were demolished to make way for it.

The Harbor Point development provides a framework to understand how the politics of urban development have unfolded in Stamford since 1960. Namely, residents living in communities affected by development in Stamford participate by joining grass root organizations, conducting rallies, signing petitions, suing developers, pushing for historic preservation, and attending Zoning Board meetings. These often-heated interactions have uplifted the voices of residents that are otherwise not included in the decision-making process of large urban developments. For example, South End residents were invited to a community meeting in 2018 that produced a neighborhood study that addressed concerns about housing density, affordability, traffic, and preservation.[23]

The “Summer House” under construction.

Since 1960, the politics of urban development in Stamford have gone from insulated City Hall conversations to grassroots efforts that aim to halt the rapid pace of development. Even as residents affected by development are underrepresented in the City Boards that make decisions on development, they have found other avenues to influence the decision-making process. As Stamford’s urban development reaches new heights[24], the politics of urban development will continue to develop parallel to the growing conflict between the interests of large developers and local residents.

The 34-story “Trump Parc” building under construction in 2007.
Apartments under construction in the 2010s in the Harbor Point development.
Downtown Stamford prior to the Urban Renewal Era.
The “Marriott Hotel” under construction.
Proposal for the Southeast Quadrant of the Urban Renewal site.
The Rich family posing in their largest project, Landmark Square.
F.D. Rich and his son in Downtown Stamford.
Rendering of “Atlantic Station”, a project currently under construction.
Rendering of the “Smyth”, which replaced one of the St. Johns towers and is currently under construction.
The Harbor Point Marina in 2019 where abandoned brownfields once stood.
Proposed 22-story building in the South End blocked by residents and the Board of Representatives.
Rendering of apartment buildings under construction in the Harbor Point development.
Rendering of Charter Communication’s $400 million headquarters currently under construction.
A rendering of ITV America’s headquarters currently under construction.
Luxury apartment buildings under construction in the Harbor Point development.
Apartment building under construction in the Harbor Point development.
Apartment building under construction in the Downtown neighborhood.

Works Cited

[1] Eleanor Charles, “Stamford Acts to Humanize Downtown Renewal,” The New York Times, December 14, 1986, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/12/14/realestate/stamford-acts-to-humanize-downtown-renewal.html)

[2] http://fdrich.com/history/

[3] Knight, Michael, “Stamford A Small Hub of Wealth And Power”, The New York Times, June 13, 1976, https://www.nytimes.com/1976/06/13/archives/stamford-a-small-hub-of-wealth-and-power-stamford-a-small-hub-of.html

[4] Vigdor, Neil, “Boomtown under Malloy, Stamford now at crossroads”, CT Post, October 18, 2014, https://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Boomtown-under-Malloy-Stamford-now-at-crossroads-5832407.php

[5] Kim, Elizabeth, “Antares comes to Stamford”, Stamford Advocate, September 1, 2009, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Antares-comes-to-Stamford-6626.php

[6] Zimmerman, Kevin, “Stamford continues to reign supreme with $6 billion in development”, February 1, 2020, Westfair Communications, https://westfaironline.com/120820/stamford-continues-to-reign-supreme-with-6-billion-in-development/

[7] Lytton, Barry, “Charter HQ’s Stamford expansion gets OK, city gets millions”, Stamford Advocate April 9, 2019,https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Charter-HQ-s-Stamford-expansion-gets-OK-city-13754389.php

[8] La Roche, Julia, “Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Plans To Build A New $750 Million Headquarters In Stamford And Is Expected To Add 1,000 More Jobs,” Business Insider, August 15, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/ray-dalios-bridgewater-new-headquarters-2012-8

[9] Carella, Angela, “Judge sides with Zoning Board, developer, in Stamford boatyard case”, Stamford Advocate, January 12, 2019, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Judge-sides-with-Zoning-Board-developer-in-13309189.php

[10] Kim, Elizabeth, “Fight to save Stamford post office suffers another setback”, Stamford Advocate, March 5, 2015, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Fight-to-save-Stamford-post-office-suffers-6117264.php

[11] Naughton, Nora, “Stamford groups fight to stop more South End demolitions”, Stamford Advocate, October 11, 2016, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Stamford-groups-fight-to-stop-more-South-End-9960842.php

[12] Carella, Angela, “Stamford’s Harbor Point: City seeks to discern South End changes”, Stamford Advocate, January 13, 2018, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Stamford-s-Harbor-Point-City-seeks-to-discern-12493895.php#photo-14875884

[13] Tomasson, Robert E., “Definitions Have Changed, and So Have Goals, but There Are Some Successes”, New York Times, February 4, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/02/04/archives/the-ups-and-downs-of-urban-renewal.html

[14] Tomasson, Robert E., “Definitions Have Changed, and So Have Goals, but There Are Some Successes”, New York Times, February 4, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/02/04/archives/the-ups-and-downs-of-urban-renewal.html

[15] Skalka, Liz, “Stamford’s Urban Development Commission faces reduced role”, Greenwich Time, August 24, 2016, https://www.greenwichtime.com/local/article/Stamford-s-Urban-Redevelopment-Commission-faces-9182500.php

[16] https://www.stamfordct.gov/urban-redevelopment-commission

[17] https://www.stamfordct.gov/zoning

[18] Lytton, Barry, “Harbor Point at 10: Where BLT has been, where it’s going”, January 12, 2019, Stamford Advocate, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Harbor-Point-at-10-Where-BLT-has-been-where-13527793.php

[19] https://www.stamfordct.gov/sites/stamfordct/files/file/file/southendwatersidewestside.pdf

[20] Lyttin, Barry, “Stamford residents ‘fighting like hell’ to stop development in South End”, Stamford Advocate, January 12, 2019, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Stamford-residents-fighting-like-hell-to-13449760.php#photo-16613584

[21] Rocha, Humberto, “Stamford residents voice discontent over South End ‘overbuilding”, Stamford Advocate, July 13, 2019, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Stamford-residents-voice-discontent-over-South-14093678.php#photo-17851525

[22] Carella, Angela, “Stamford reps block dense-housing plan for South End lot”, Stamford Advocate, March 5, 2019, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/Stamford-reps-block-dense-housing-plan-for-South-13665824.php

[23] https://www.stamfordct.gov/sites/stamfordct/files/uploads/10-23-18_sens_final_report_rev_2.pdf

[24] Schott, Paul, “Stamford apartment boom shows no signs of slowing”, CT Insider, January 4, 2020, https://www.ctinsider.com/business/stamfordadvocate/article/Stamford-apartment-boom-shows-no-signs-of-slowing-14947839.php

UConn student, polyglot, feminist, proud immigrant, noted coffee addict, and PoliSci/ECON junkie.