First tenant brings new focus on Bridgeport’s Steelpointe Harbor

Bridgeport — Nearly 30 years after city officials in Bridgeport started talking about developing a little peninsula on the water next to I-95, the first tenant has finally committed to moving in. The outdoor goods store Bass Pro Shops will open a retail outlet at Bridgeport’s Steelpointe Harbor as early as next year, officials have announced.

The news will help jump-start a development crippled by litigation, corruption scandals and a financial crisis.

Once it is built at an expected cost of $1 billion, Steelpointe is meant to be a modern mixed-use development with 1,000 to 1,500 housing units; a million square feet of retail and office space; a hotel and a 250-slip marina. Officials say it will redefine a city once known for its rich industrial heritage, which is now largely lost.

But decades of empty promises and a sputtering economic recovery mean many are still skeptical about Steelpointe’s future.

“Is this going to be about jobs for the people that live in Bridgeport? Is this going to be a friendly business to the residents of Bridgeport?” asked Lydia Martinez, a Bridgeport councilwoman who represents the district where Steelpointe is located. “Are we going to try to avoid not killing the businesses that we have in Bridgeport?

“Those are the questions that I have, and we need to work on them.”

Decades ago, a steel mill lay on this 50-or-so-acre property. After that a power plant was built, then demolished. About 100 families used to live here, but their houses were torn down in the 1990s to make way for a redevelopment that has yet to happen.

“Nothing was moving. Nothing was moving,” Martinez said, recalling the work she did on Steelpointe decades ago. “Then we started questioning, and I started questioning. The hope was not there.” The new announcement, she said, has revived her hope.

Now, the area meant to be Steelpointe Harbor consists mostly of an empty stretch of grass and weeds. A variety of contaminants, including hydrocarbons, coal residue and factory metals, are scattered throughout the site. Bass Pro Shops will move into the northeast corner of the property, and businesses and residential developers are expected to follow.

Steelpointe Harbor now

This is a view of Steelpointe Harbor today as seen from the west. The Bass Pro Shop retail store will be built on the property’s northeast corner. (Photo by Neena Satija)

“You’ve got to get [residents] to the water, you’ve got to get them to see the fish in the water and know their food comes from there,” said Mayor Bill Finch. “And then a lot of the public policy comes a lot easier because people see the benefits of being closer to nature and appreciating it and valuing it.”

But that vision of sustainability is up against a lot of challenges.

Steelpointe juts up against I-95, cutting it off from its adjacent neighborhoods in downtown and the East End. The divisive nature of the highway is a theme in Connecticut cities, and in Bridgeport, it could stifle the ability of Steelpointe to spur development on hundreds of acres of brownfields sites nearby, known as the city’s “East Side Corridor.”

“The interstate highway system and various other factors have completely changed the landscape of America,” said Eric Lehman, a University of Bridgeport professor, adding that the university campus has the same problem.

“We’re cut off from the downtown by I-95 and the Metro North corridor there, so even though the university’s booming and the students are taking over a lot of the South End, we’re still separated from the revitalization downtown.”

Steelpointe is just a half a mile from Bridgeport’s train station, but a walk on Stratford Avenue goes beneath a noisy highway overpass. Miami-based developer Bob Christoph, the private developer for the project, says the streets that go beneath the highway and into the property will be widened and sidewalks will be enhanced.

Still, most people are expected to drive to Steelpointe, especially since it is so easily accessible to the highway.

The East End, adjacent to Steelpointe and just north of I-95, is one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in Bridgeport. Convincing those constituents of the new development’s promise will be a challenge, the councilwoman Martinez said.

“That was a tax base for us,” Martinez said of the houses on Steelpointe that were razed in the 1990s. “It was not a huge tax base, but it was a tax base. And that’s one of the things that the people resent, that the city took over and we knocked the houses down, and we have not been able to create another tax base over there to help us with the economy.”

In the many public hearings over the years regarding the development, housing advocates often protested the lack of attention paid to affordable options. The high-rise apartments planned for Steelpointe are expected to be luxury-style, high-priced units. But the developer has promised the city it will build an additional 150 housing units that will be designated as affordable. Those units, likely to be in the East End, will either be provided by renovating existing housing or by building new units.

Martinez and others are also worried that the slow economic recovery will mean stagnant growth after Bass Pro is up and running, in spite of expectations for housing, restaurants, retail and a hotel to follow. (The developer expects to begin dredging for a marina next year).

But officials and developers say they think Bridgeport is undergoing a renewal. Bass Pro Shops’ founder Johnny Morris said he thinks the site is an “incredible opportunity” for the company, right on Long Island Sound and with more than 12 million people within a 50-mile radius.

Kim Morque of Spinnaker Real Estate, which has operated in Fairfield County for over 50 years, said the firm started to see the city in a different light a few years ago, buying several commercial office buildings there. New restaurants and renovations are visible downtown as well.

“We saw Bridgeport as an emerging market,” Morque said, adding that the firm is considering investing in residential development downtown as well, given its proximity to the train station.

The principle of mixed-use development that Steelpointe embodies — housing, retail, restaurants and offices all in one space — is also gaining popularity as gas prices rise and people seek out more walkable living arrangements, Morque said.

“I think we’re seeing a very interesting shift right now amongst the Gen Y people that are 28 and younger. People are comfortable with smaller units but want more amenities and more connections to the community with community amenities.”

In that light, the vision for Steelpointe could actually be a throwback to an earlier time, when factory workers used to live within walking distance of their jobs in Bridgeport — except now, new types of development will cap the old factory materials that now contaminate the soil.

As the site of Bass Pro’s first urban location, Steelpointe could also represent a new way of thinking about Connecticut cities: Fishing, recreation and economic activity can happen on the waterfront in urban as well as suburban and rural areas. Officials say reorienting Bridgeport toward its waterfront is a main part of Bridgeport’s strategy to move forward.

“It’s really indicative of the new way of thinking,” said David Kooris, the city’s director of economic development. “The river goes from being the back door where you dump things and you load stuff onto the boat … to the centerpiece of a new neighborhood.”

But Martinez is just waiting for a shop to open on the property, and to see what follows.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and The Mirror. Click here for the radio version of this story.