Stamford Zoning revamp seeks to save city’s history
STAMFORD — In the ambitious Zoning Regulation overhaul aimed in part at positioning the city for a greener future, the city also seeks to rectify the mistakes of its past, namely the sweeping demolition of older buildings in this once two-story town.
Part of the so-called “omnibus text change” drafted by the city Land Use Bureau is a five-page addition that would strengthen the city’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and throw rounds of oversight in front of property owners intent on demolishing buildings deemed historic by the city, state or nation.
Scattered throughout more than 60 pages of amendments and edits to city Zoning Regulations unveiled recently by Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing, other changes could save old buildings by giving additional incentives for preserving structures by linking their preservation to financial gain. The city already — and would continue to — let builders build more space if they keep historic buildings intact. This change would let owners sell unused buildable space to neighbors.
The push to firm up the city’s code on historic preservation comes at a time when one of the city’s historic neighborhoods is under threat as the building boom continues with limited space to grow. This time last year, researchers hired by the city warned of “wholesale erasure” in Stamford’s South End.
The South End has become arguably the hottest land in the city. Run-down Victorians can fetch more than $1 million after developer Building and Land Technology turned some 80 acres of old industrial land into high-rises, parks and restaurants it calls Harbor Point.
BLT now wishes to grow beyond its original bounds while other, smaller builders seek to capitalize off Harbor Point’s success.
The changes “are really important for areas that see a lot of development pressure,” Blessing said.
The city isn’t known for an interest in historic preservation. It’s better known, in fact, for Urban Renewal and the 130-acre downtown clear cutting of the late 1960s that paved over much of its history, even putting an office building atop Boston Post Road.
But Stamford has made changes in recent decades to better protect historic buildings and has invested in saving important features, such as spending more than $1 million to move its oldest home, 1699’s Hoyt-Barnum House, to North Stamford from downtown.
One feature saving old buildings is a section in the zoning code that gives builders a space bonus if they keep a historic structure intact.
The provision has saved dozens of buildings and was used as recently as earlier this year by a husband and wife team who plan to use their bonus space to add a downstairs apartment in the warehouse space of their 1920’s Pulaski Street home.
Preservationist Renee Kahn, who helped craft the zoning code section, said it is a success due to its simplicity.
“My theory is that it has got to be simple,” she said. “It’s used by small builders so when they need expensive lawyers, they walk away.”
Another protection comes from the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission, a group formed in 2012 after 65 percent of Stamford citizens voted to add the commission to the city Charter.
The commission, which weighs in on projects calling for demolition or impact to any home or building over 50 years old, reports to the Zoning Board but doesn’t have much power beyond advising — and has complained of being bypassed.
The city also has a rule that delays an objectionable historic demolition if residents request such a pause within 15 days of the demolition permit being filed.
The law, which makes a developer wait six months and work with preservationists before renting bulldozers, has saved some homes, including two homes by Henry and Garden streets in the city’s South End.
The city also has nearly three dozen places on the National Register of Historic Places, including Henry Street, but a trip down to the city’s South End Historic District reveals the apparent futility of the designation.
In 1986, 177 acres of the South End were placed on the National Register with some 400 homes and factories noted as “contributing” buildings. Since, roughly a third of those structures have ceased contributing by ceasing to exist altogether.
The designation was nice, but proved toothless against an onslaught of activity, neighbors say.
“We need to make the laws really strong, not just say it’s on the historical register with nothing behind it,” said Shelia Barney, a longtime South Ender and member of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone.
In the intervening years, preservationists have leaned on the designation in attempts to save homes and factories, and that helped but the demolition delay and bartering with big builders have often proved to be the only successful mechanisms neighbors have.
The South End NRZ stands at ready to file a demolition delay on some four homes on Henry Street, all under threat of the bulldozer, and last year lobbied the Zoning Board to force builder BLT to maintain two others in a buyout of city-mandated affordable housing.
Of the five Henry Street blocks between the East and West branches of Stamford Harbor, only one remains as it stood in 1986. At its westernmost point, nearly a whole square block was demolished.
There, only two homes, one a 1910 Victorian, remain. A parking ramp dominates the space.
The Victorian is for sale, listed as a $1.5 million “investment” on real estate site Loopnet. Some 100 feet to its north, a 15-story glass-sheathed tower now rises.
New teeth and new ideas
The Zoning Board and Historic Preservation Advisory Commission would get a much bigger say when it comes to historic preservation if code changes go into effect as drafted.
First, any tear-down plans would get a look. In the past, the look would only come after a delay.
“No permit for demolition of a building or site shall be issued without an administrative review and approval by the Zoning Board and any permit issued without such approval shall be invalid,” according to the draft.
And the code casts a historic wide net, creating a layer of review for any plans that include changes to “all historic buildings and historic sites, and buildings and sites adjacent to a historic building or historic site, and all buildings within a historic district, whether or not they are contributing or non-contributing,” according to draft language.
Blessing said plans for the creation of an “overlay district” atop historic areas can even “freeze development.”
For any plans beyond a “minor modification” such as exterior touch ups, owners of historic buildings would need a Zoning Board go-ahead if the building is more than 10,000 square feet. For smaller buildings, property owners would need the Land Use Bureau Chief to approve.
If one is truly intent on taking down a historic building, defined by being “listed on the National or State Registers of Historic Places or listed on the Stamford Cultural Resource Inventory,” they must prove the tear-down need with a four pronged application.
The application, for example, would mandate builders document that “all means for preserving or restoring (historic buildings) such as historic tax credits or grants, have been explored, and an explanation as to why such means of preservation or restoration are not available.”
In the air
Elsewhere in the new code, a little definition could make a big difference.
By creating “zoning lots” the new code would make unused development rights — think the air above a small, old building — salable, giving owners the ability to make money on property without tearing down what’s there.
If the definition goes into city code, the owner of a property could potentially make money off their home without selling to a big builder who would take it down, which could save many homes in sought-after areas such as the South End.
Moreover, the big builder could build big without cobbling together large plots and petitioning for zoning changes, a practice that has prompted fights between builders and neighbors who fear surges in density. The block-building method has long been operating style of Stamford developers.
With the new code, owners within one “lot” could agree on transferring their floor area or density, explained the Land Use Bureau chief.
“It would allow the moving of unused development rights from one lot to other,” Blessing said. “So if you have two lots next to each other and one lot is currently empty and the next lot you have a two story building, but zoning would allow you to build a four story building, you would be able to move the two unbuilt stories to (vacant) property next door.”
The idea, also known as selling “air-rights,” might be most famous for causing consternation in New York City pastrami circles after a 2016 deal had fans of Katz’s Deli fearing the venerable deli would close.
Instead, the 130-year-old New York institution, sold its “air-rights” that year for $17 million, which allowed a developer next door to build an 11-story condo building, according to The New York Times.
The deal highlights what the little definition can do, allowing preservationists a cash infusion and builders more building — a potential win-win.
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