Har­bor Point myth vs. re­al­ity

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - OPINION - JOHN BREUNIG John Breunig is ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor of the Stam­ford Ad­vo­cate and Green­wich Time. Jbre­unig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twit­ter.com/john­bre­unig.

Once upon a time (specif­i­cally 2006), Jim Cabr­era sat in our con­fer­ence room spin­ning his fa­vorite fairy tale.

It in­volved mem­o­ries of sum­mer days dur­ing his won­der years rid­ing a bike from his Green­wich home to ex­plore Stam­ford’s South End.

He was a kid, but felt the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the wa­ter­front like the pull of the tide. It was once the heart of man­u­fac­tur­ing in “Lock City,” with a rich di­ver­sity of neigh­bors. Now it was des­o­late.

Twelve years ago, Cabr­era cheer­fully billed him­self as “the dreamer that’s buy­ing up the South End.” As man­ag­ing part­ner and co-founder of Antares In­vest­ment Part­ners, he pitched a plan to trans­form 80 acres of brown­fields into hous­ing and big box stores.

Cabr­era’s fairy tale turned out to be from the Grimm sto­ry­book, as he paid the price for his hubris when the fi­nan­cial bub­ble popped a year later.

Build­ing and Land Tech­nol­ogy saw op­por­tu­nity to trace over Antares’ lines. Antares had cleared the Mo­nop­oly board and BLT quickly filled in the squares with hous­ing more ap­pro­pri­ate for the game’s ver­sion of Pa­cific than of Baltic.

Not ev­ery­one likes this fairy tale, and not just be­cause BLT lev­eled the 14-acre boat­yard that was once the crown of the South End. Ex­te­ri­ors of the build­ings are too sim­i­lar, skep­tics say, like those of plas­tic Mo­nop­oly hous­ing.

But crit­ics also treat the pre­vi­ous ver­sion of the South End like it was Mis­ter Rogers’ neigh­bor­hood. The re­al­ity is that it housed a mere 1,000 res­i­dents (mostly ren­ters). Har­bor Point’s 2,971 apart­ments have lured an­other 4,500.

I’ve met with BLT of­fi­cials ev­ery cou­ple years since Cabr­era spun his fa­ble. This time, Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Ted Fer­rarone hoped to show­case the vi­brant so­cial scene. We in­stead met on one of the raini­est days of the year, which served as a demo that th­ese streets no longer flood.

Fer­rarone pitches harder than he would have to in most mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but Stam­ford still has some re­li­ably feisty watch­dogs. They should re­main on guard duty, but there are suc­cesses that should be cel­e­brated on this 10-year an­niver­sary, no­tably the board­walk on this Mo­nop­oly board.

For all the brouhaha over the loss of the boat­yard, there should have been an out­cry through­out the 20th cen­tury that the shore­line was shut­tered to res­i­dents. Kosciuszko Park’s 20 acres at the tip of the South End is a Stam­ford trea­sure that’s treated like a hid­den one. About as many res­i­dents use it as can spell it.

A decade af­ter BLT started con­struc­tion on the first Har­bor Point build­ing, it’s worth paus­ing to con­sider the things you don’t see, in­clud­ing buried wires.

You also don’t spot many chil­dren, (though there are dogs — lots of them).

Fer­rarone has no­ticed that a steady 30 per­cent of ten­ants who lease the units are from Stam­ford. Many are empty nesters. Though the de­vel­oper is ex­plor­ing build­ing larger units to ac­com­mo­date fam­i­lies, a cy­cle is form­ing.

“They come, they get to know Stam­ford, then they have kids and buy the house so the empty nester can sell it and move back here and stay in the com­mu­nity,” he said.

BLT’s sur­veys of ten­ants guided them to lure re­tail­ers that will ful­fill quick, walk­a­ble er­rands on a Satur­day morn­ing (hence Fair­way Mar­ket, a phar­macy, and wine and cof­fee shops).

Fer­rarone rou­tinely uses the phrase “knit to­gether” to de­scribe vi­sions of uni­fy­ing the neigh­bor­hood, fit­ting be­cause he is a rare com­mon thread in the de­vel­op­ment since the Antares days. The trol­leys (Mis­ter Rogers would be proud) and wa­ter taxi have helped, but Metro-North tracks can seem like a zip­per seal­ing off the South End.

They are mak­ing progress in other ar­eas. The old B & S Cart­ing prop­erty be­hind Com­mons Park has been a hole in the dough­nut.

“B & S Cart­ing has been a blight on the neigh­bor­hood for­ever. It was the No. 1 thing the neigh­bor­hood wanted (re­moved), but we didn’t own it and there was noth­ing we could do,” Fer­rarone said. “Now we own it and will put in for site plan ap­proval this fall.”

As Fer­rarone re­views the last decade, I con­sider what the view will be like in an­other 50 years. Any­one study­ing Har­bor Point’s his­tory in 2068 would likely be sur­prised by the vol­ume of out­cry over a boat­yard that served few res­i­dents and leeched tox­ins into Long Is­land Sound.

The no­tion in­spires me to look back 60 years at an­other sig­na­ture Stam­ford makeover. In 1954, Stam­ford Mayor Thomas Quigley won a show­down with Con­necti­cut Light & Power over 85 acres of wa­ter­front.

Some res­i­dents sided with the util­ity’s plan to build a power plant, anx­ious for the tax dol­lars. Quigley’s com­mon sense pre­vailed, and Cove Is­land be­came Stam­ford’s most pop­u­lar park.

That didn’t stop city plan­ners from propos­ing in sub­se­quent years that schools or fire sta­tions be put in Cove Is­land. There’s no such thing as 20-20 vi­sion when look­ing for­ward. But we need to see the past with un­clouded eyes.

BLT over­hauled a neigh­bor­hood’s in­fra­struc­ture and re­me­di­ated brown­field sites, built a new Water­side School for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, cre­ated jobs dur­ing a re­ces­sion, and has shown re­silience in draw­ing ten­ants de­spite the down­fall of nearby UBS and RBS.

None of this makes Har­bor Point a fairy-tale king­dom. City of­fi­cials and res­i­dents are wise to be wary of them blithely en­croach­ing beyond their bor­ders. They could do more to knit a bond be­tween work­ing class neigh­bors and hip mil­len­ni­als gaz­ing down from high-rises.

It’s not quite “hap­pily ever af­ter,” but this is a far brighter out­come than it might have been if the plot had stalled a decade ago.

Con­trib­uted photo

A re­cent aerial view of the Har­bor Point de­vel­op­ment.

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