High price keeps many lots empty
Small vacant parcels costly to develop
STAMFORD — The infamous “hole in the ground” on Greyrock Place was the most blatant empty lot in the city’s downtown for decades, but it was far from the only vacant parcel before a massive housing development began rising there last year.
While the hole’s 4.3 acres are filled with the 11-building Urby housing complex, there sits another 8.8 acres of vacant land downtown, according to figures from the city tax assessor. Many of the parcels hide in plain sight, covered by asphalt or used as parking for nearby buildings. Only three lots, an empty sliver on Bank Street and two tracts on Broad Street, strike the naked eye as the next “holes in the ground.”
The largest parcel, 1.29 acres on the corner of Broad Street and Greyrock Place, has been owned by the same limited liability company for two decades, yet nothing has happened. A neighboring
fenced-off lot, 136 Broad St., which includes some parking for businesses on Bedford Street, has also been held by a limited liability company for years, although the firm has changed names, records show. There, too, nothing has happened.
The reason, experts say, is likely simple — cost.
Jim Fagan, senior managing director of Cushman & Wakefield of Connecticut, a real-estate services company, said there are three booming sectors in city real estate: high-density apartments, medical space and industrial uses.
And to build those apartments, developers need a large tract of space to make the building profitable.
“If your lot is an acre, it’s hard to build high density because of parking,” Fagan said. “When you try to go high density on a smaller piece, it gets expensive fast.”
Nearly all of the two dozen vacant lots downtown are less than an acre, assessor records show. The median size is less than two-tenths of an acre.
Representatives for the LLCs of the largest vacant tracts could not be reached for comment.
For all the parcels, there have been “ideas and concepts kicked around,” said Rick Redniss, a prominent Stamford land-use consultant. But, for a variety of reasons, nothing has happened.
“It’s been a combination of things — the seller, the buyer and the market,” Redniss said.
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing echoed Redniss. He’s heard concepts for some of the long-vacant parcels, but little more.
“Once and a while, people talk to us about those parcels and what they can do with it, but nothing ever materializes,” Blessing said.
Empty land may not be the best bet for a profit-minded developer. More money can likely be made where buildings already stand.
While the large-apartment-building sector resembles a gold rush, the office sector looks more like a ghost town. City office vacancy rates float around 25 percent.
The Bank Street lot has been a recent addition to empty-land, and would have been a small office tear-down and housing build if completed.
Years ago, it was a twostory building torn down by Seaboard Properties to make way for a 14-unit apartment complex. Land records show the empty lot was taken by Patriot Bank in 2016, and re-sold last year to another company.
Tearing down those buildings and replacing them with apartments, or converting the buildings — which is incentivized by the zoning code — into housing is likely where the action is.
Blessing doubts there will be many conversions downtown, where the office-sector is still relatively hot. The high vacancy rates are largely driven by office parks and offices farther from the train station, he said.
“All the ones that are ripe for conversions are already converted,” he said.
Conversions are tricky, Fagan said, and often come down to how costly it is to design floors so each unit has access to windows.
“It’s very hard to convert an office building to a housing unit, and the biggest issue is access to the outside walls,” he said.
Redniss said a “domino effect” will prompt more conversions in the next few years.
A good example, he said, is the old UBS building.
It was once dominated by the bank, and now sits empty. To fill the space, its owner will move in several tenants, meaning smaller companies that could never get that close to the train station will fill the desirable location leaving other downtown offices empty. Those buildings will then be housing, he said.
“You have some interesting dominos that I think will fall within the next year,” he said. “We started, years ago, writing these conversion (regulations) to correct the imbalance that was created with the office boom ... It’s really the fundamentals of supply and demand.”